The Challenge Mindset TEDx Talk

JP Michel

Photos by @mivfournier

On March 2020, JP Michel gave a TEDx talk on helping youth find purpose and impact. To view the video version, please visit click on the image below:


Below you will find the original text the TEDx talk is based on. 


Wow. There is so much talent, skill and experience in the room right now. I can feel it!

I wonder, when you were growing up, did you know you would end up here? When I was growing up,  I wanted to be an NBA basketball player. This may surprise you, but it didn’t happen.

Did you ever get that question: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” When we ask teens what they want to be when they grow up, they think they need to pick just one thing. For the ‘rest of their lives’. Isn’t that awful? 

I did a quiz in high school. It told me I was going to be a Forest Park Ranger. I think the salary would have been a bit lower than NBA player.  

Choosing one job title as a teen limits your options. Instead, young people should see their future as full of opportunities. I am so excited to see the new world they are going to create. I’m optimistic. There are so many ways for them to make the world a better place. Don’t you think?

Unfortunately, teens don’t see it that way. Teens today are anxious and worried about their future. So what’s going on? For the last 10 years, I’ve been looking for answers. 

Here’s what I learn: students get stuck when we make them pick a job title. My contention is that to succeed in the new economy, students need to look beyond job titles to find challenges to work on. 

Let me explain with Ana’s story.

Ana is being asked: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

That is a difficult question to answer, because as a teen, she probably knows only about 20 job titles (and there are at least 20,000 out there, and many don’t even exist yet!) So why are we making her pick one? It’s not like she will be just one thing for the rest of her life. Instead of limiting her, I helped Ana take a different approach. She explored challenges, problems and opportunities she can work on. To do this, I gave her a copy of a magazine called The Economist and I said pick your favorite article. Here’s what she chose. 


Do you see green coloured water? Well it turns out that this is specialized algae that is being developed to clean polluted water. Isn’t that an interesting problem to solve? Once Ana chose this challenge, she worked backwards to identify companies working on it, who works there, and what they needed to learn to be able to do that. We quickly discovered that most of the people working on this algae had studied materials science and engineering.  Ana and I had never heard of this before. How embarrassing. I was her career coach. Wasn’t I supposed to be the expert?


To discover it, we used what I call a challenge mindset. The challenge mindset is an approach to career exploration focused on finding challenges to tackle instead of job titles to fit into. This new approach flips the model of career education. And it tackles a big problem. Imagine the millions of students like Ana who are anxious and stressed out, leading to more tuition fees, dropping out, unemployment, and underemployment. 

Maybe this is a good thing. Tell you what, you can convert your basement into an apartment, and your kids can live with you forever! Mom, dad, what’s for dinner tonight?

I loved working with Ana. She laughs at the show The Office, just like I do. She is bright, funny and the sky's the limit for her. She is ready for the future because from now on, she is actively looking for new problems to solve on her journey. What she likes will change over the course of her life, but she now has a mechanism, a mindset to understand and explore the world around her. Imagine the first day she will take on a leadership role. That’s a completely different challenge than being an engineer, but we have to prepare students for transitions like these. Because that’s what is coming.  


Early in my career, I had a unique perspective on these career transitions, like going from engineer to leader. I worked as a consultant for a company that did leadership simulations. In the simulations, some leaders thrived – they made great decisions, motivated employees and were very successful. Others, crashed.  

In an email, one person accused his colleague of being a ‘fool’. I don’t recommend this approach by the way. He didn’t do very well. What I learned from watching hundreds of leaders is that the ones who were most successful weren’t focussed on job titles, they were focused on challenges. That’s when it clicked: We aren’t preparing students for this reality. 

Here’s what we usually do. Picture Stephanie. She walks in to see her guidance counsellor. She’s upset. She says: “I have no idea what I want to do.” And how do we help her? Well we start with her favorite class. 


“Oh you like drama? Oh…...What else?” 

“Math! Awesome, we can work with that.”

“One thing you can study is accounting. And if you studied accounting, you can become an… accountant.

And get hired by a firm of accountants.” Pretty straightforward right? 

Eventually Stephanie turns 30, and she starts figuring out, what are the challenges I am trying to solve as an accountant? Maybe she is making her clients be more fiscally transparent. Maybe she helps them collect better financial data so they make better decisions.


Maybe she loves that, or maybe she hates it. 

Imagine her waking up one day saying: “I’m not happy.” We all know someone who this has happened to. Maybe It’s happened to you.

Today, I am asking you: What if we flipped the model? Kids are smart. Let’s help them explore challenges first. Just like Ana did. Then, they can explore organizations working on this challenge, the people who work there and what they needed to learn and the skills they needed do that. 

Then, they can do small tests.  They can have coffee with someone working on this problem, they can do an internship at a company or maybe take a class on a connected topic. Maybe for the challenge Stephanie cares about, drama classes are exactly what she needs. 

Contrast this to a career system that was built for a different era. 

  • Step 1: Take a test. Why? Because everyone loves tests. Just kidding. 
  • Step 2: Get ‘matched’ to a job title. You like making people laugh: you can be a  clown. You like being tidy: you can be a window cleaner.  

This approach lacks depth. What about student’s values, their experiences, their stories? To prepare youth for a lifetime of growth and change, we need to go deeper. 

If we don’t fix this, we create two types of pain: First, human pain. Stephanie is suffering, because she really thought she needed to have it all figured out. In high school. So when she thinks about the future, she feels pressured, instead of hopeful. The other pain is economic pain: Imagine the cost to our society, of having people not reach their potential. How many billions is this costing our economy? 

We need to stop this pain. Thankfully, the education system can help. I feel lucky; I get to work with some of the most passionate teachers. By the way, Can we show them a little support right now? Let’s give them a hand,  I think they could use it. 

Teachers want their students to make a difference. And they know that starting with challenges sets up youth for meaning and purpose, not commitment to one path forever. John Krumboltz, a pioneer in career theory said: “Asking teens to pick a job title that they have never tried out is like asking them to name a future spouse before allowing them to date.” 

Maybe we should let them explore a bit first. So you might be wondering, what’s a good challenge to solve? Well you probably already know several, but one exciting opportunity is Designing the Future of Transportation.

That’s the challenge that Adam chose. I want to tell you about him because his story shows the impact that career education can have inside the classroom, not just outside of it. 


Here’s a kid who doesn’t even want to be in class. Smart, but ‘doesn’t apply himself’. Do you know the type? He’s not listening, so he’s not performing well. Now he is losing confidence, and he is starting to feel depressed. Imagine what it’s like for Adam’s parents? They are worried, they really want to help but aren’t sure how. They are starting to think about renovating the basement. What we have to remember is Adam doesn’t know why he’s in school. 

Here’s the promising part: when Adam started exploring all the problems and opportunities that exist in the world, he understood a message that changed his life: the world needs you. 

There are so many broken things to fix out there. And we need Adam to fix them. When he chose ‘Design the Future of transportation’ he started to understand WHY he is in school: “I am here to learn something important that will help me work on a challenge I care about.”

Boom: Engagement. 

Imagine the relief his parents felt. They started to drink less, they started going to the gym… 

Now Adam is more engaged in class, and he’s performing better. Then he picks up a skilled trade that can connect his biggest strengths to a meaningful problem. He sees the bigger picture. When education and work challenges are connected, students like Adam show up to class in a completely different way. 

This transformation that Adam experienced is possible for every student. I believe that every student can make a unique contribution.  On different levels, different scope, it doesn’t matter; they’re still gonna be solving a problem for someone at the end of the day. And this belief is why I do what I do. 

Can you tell I’m excited about this stuff?

Well a few years ago I took that excitement and I started asking students… What problem do you want to solve? Unfortunately, they had no idea what to say. We haven’t taught them to think about careers in this way. Yet.

But I thought the hack for this was simple; all we needed to do was show them problems they could work on. So I researched books, blogs, experts, futurists. And I created a simple tool to make this idea come alive, called the Challenge Cards. Would you rather Redesign the Health Care System or Increase Sustainable Energy? The students sort the cards into challenges they are not interested in, interested in or very interested in. 

This is the challenge mindset in action. My mission is for this mindset to be taught in every school. 

For that to happen, I need your help. So let’s look at one: engineer better medicine.

There are advances in genetics research that could help us improve millions of lives. Who works on this? 

Sure, there are scientists with white lab coats. But equally as important is the project manager keeping everyone on track, the human resources person hiring the team, the finance lead creating the budget, the person buying the research equipment, the person who cleans the lab. There’s also the graphic designer who created the new logo. In the real world, it takes an interdisciplinary approach to solve a problem. There are many different skill sets that can contribute. 

This idea of focusing on the challenge, is a message that is just as relevant to adults, as it is to young children. And this is useful for them too, because we’re facing a future….

We’re facing a future that’s unpredictable, with massive changes coming. Technology and artificial intelligence are disrupting the world of work at an unprecedented pace. In this context, career education today is no longer about certainty: choosing an occupation. It’s about exploration, purpose and impact. And that’s what students want; to make a difference. 

Let’s help them find an exciting cause they can contribute to. 

What about those who feel that they haven’t made a contribution yet? Maybe they aren’t fully alive. 

Well, it’s time to make this generation come alive. When students discover the challenge mindset, they learn a message that can change their life: the world needs you. Let’s send youth on a mission of purpose and impact so they can lead incredible lives.


Did this talk resonate with you? If so, then I invite you to share this post with any friends, colleagues or family members that this might resonate with. We need your help to spread the word! 


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