Ten years ago today on the 2nd of September 2002, I arrived in Croatia with a small shoulder bag after leaving Ireland, for what I suspected at the time, might be a permanent move. It proved to be. On the 8th of September this year, on the last week of my first ten years living here, I write my Croatian story in stone as I marry my partner Lena in the beautiful town of Fažana.
At the time of my departure I knew the destination was Croatia, though at the time I wasn’t exactly sure where. With no active contacts, no Croatian language at the time, no place to stay, no job offer in place, this seemed a little insane, especially as I had just resigned from a job as an architect paying me €30,000 only one year after completing my university.
Two years previously, I had had the great fortune to be part of a student exchange to Osijek – a town I completely fell in love with. There was an authenticity to life in there and the warmth of the locals would put even the famous Irish hospitality to shame – not to mention being fed every day with enough to feed a small village. At that time, besides the obvious warm weather, good beer and beautiful women, I still couldn’t put my finger on why I always felt so at home here. I had to go all the way back to my schooling to find that answer and it’s taken the greater part of my ten year Croatian odyssey to figure it all out.
My schooling was very different to my generation who lived here in Croatia but in many ways it was also very similar. I had the good fortune that my parents could afford to send me to a top catholic boys school in Dublin. This school was exceptionally well funded, boasting a sports trophy cabinet that you could walk through, four chapels and a church. It was sort of a cross between Harvard, Hogworth, and the Vatican.
However what I have since discovered, is that although my school was quite different to schools here, almost all kids across the world are educated in a very similar manner. This way has changes little since the days of the industrial revolution, with most kids systematically passed through the schooling machine, producing a range of students that possess encyclopaedic knowledge, that too often has little relation to their natural talents or abilities. Yet we continue to concentrate on what we learn and not how we learn it. Teachers are doing their very best in what is usually an underpaid and under-supported environment. In fact in many ways they are what is holding the system together. When I was fourteen it was one teacher, who cared enough and went the extra mile to rescue my education, rather than a system designed to constantly test if we as kids are right or wrong. This system of constant evaluation equates more to checking whether our children’s thought patterns are compliant with the thinking of those who set policy, rather than creating adaptability for a future we are supposed to be educating them for.
One thing that is for sure is that we have no idea what the future holds for our children. If the way we work presently prevails, my son will retire in 2075. How are we educating for this reality when we don’t have the slightest idea what 2025 will look like. Would it be too much to ask to encourage creativity, the ability to adapt, and entrepreneurial skills as areas that will have an educational value in any time? I’m not for a moment suggesting that we throw out the existing key subjects. In fact we don’t need extra classes or time, just a wider definition of learning. Maybe not everything needs a grade? Why does it seem we are so afraid of things we cannot measure definitively. Nikola Tesla once said: „Life is and will ever remain an equation incapable of solution, but it contains certain known factors“. If a man who solved so many „unsolvable“ things, claimed that there is value and understanding to be found within this human equation, we might do well not to disregard it’s value simply because it may not have an empirical solution.
Imagine less testing and more creative learning for a moment. Every single teacher spending less time under mounds of paper, trying to select the „correct“ grade and more time being inspired and bringing that creative inspiration, which was surely once at the core of teaching, back to their beleaguered students. How many kids would get something more out of Shakespeare or Krleža if were they encouraged to interpret it with some freedom, feel it, act it, develop on it rather than learning grand swaths of it by rote? In the words of Sir Ken Robinson – British educator and leading thinker on educational development: „We must change from an industrial model of schooling to an agricultural one“. He knows that an education system designed to be a place where the seeds of talent are sown, and then nurtured in a more natural and instinctual way, is asking for nothing short of a revolution in how we think and teach to think.
In the business world we are struggling to overcome a lifetime of education. There is little solace for the majority of middle management in businesses without a HR development plan. On their promotion to such a position, most are expected to know how to manage, which requires buckets more creativity than had ever been needed before. The response in the absence of a support structure, is a battlefield of trial and error responses to the more complex personnel challenges they now face. However in the world of high level leaders more firms are better understanding the benefits of training and coaching. Before the concept of professional development at work, most who made it to top levels, did it on their own. In the present day work place, an employee using their intellectual intelligence is a given requirement. Unfortunately too often we are asking our employees to bring only a fraction of their abilities to work, with emotional intelligence undervalued and free thinking sometimes actively discouraged, as it has been since schooling. Managing the human equation requires this emotional intelligence at its core. Half your brain at work doesn’t cut it any more, with ever tightening profit margins in a world where employee performance is even more critical,– we need the whole human at work.
In Ireland, before the economy imploded, many people got caught up in their work, as they blindly followed the consumerist, numbers only work mentality. This, for a time, even spread into the way people lived. Alternatively for Croatia, the absence of any spectacular growth in in the last twenty years may in fact be a saving grace of this country. However it’s time for those of us living here to claim our rights – on how we work and more importantly to protect the ideals by which we live. I believe there is strong reason for optimism here, especially as from my observations, the way people live in their lives in Croatia is more a definition of themselves than how they work. The way they live is generous, instinctual and in most cases more in balance than I ever experienced in Ireland. Croatia is now becoming more „professional“ and I put that in quotes not because I think that Croatian people are not professional, but rather that I don’t quite accept the definition of professionalism as just working until you drop. I think it is more than that. In fact real professionalism for me is being human first and foremost, caring about the people and company you work with and work for and in that order. My deep hope is that Croatia could be a leading light for Europe in how we work.
Bringing improved business skills to a existing humanity is a far better model for success, than the essentially short term and self-defeating goal of erasing humanity to serve business. I believe we can work here in a human way because it is better for our health to do so, but not only that, it is more sustainable, causing a lower staff turnover, less expenditure on retraining and therefore increases profitability.
In the end of the day through my coaching and my experience here in Croatia, I have found my way back to solving the problem that brought me here in the first place: creating better environments in which to live and work, helping people be more instinctual in their business decisions, more effective as leaders and ultimately happier at what they do. As I look back on the ten years I find that it is not the balance sheets that I remember but smiles and laughter shared in this place of great potential.