Welcome to the Future!
One device defines the current decade more than anything else. It is rectangular, shiny and fits smugly into your pocket. It not only allows you to communicate with other people, but also to access information about anything that you can think of. You might have guessed it: I am talking about the smartphone. This little gadget has become an integral part of your life, an indispensable tool which people never leave the house without. Yet, the iPhone is just barely over 10 years old. In that short spate of time, the smartphone has not only changed society, but even managed to change fundamental human behavior itself.
Astonishingly, little more than a decade ago, people lived just fine without it. If you watch old TV shows like “Friends” or “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, you get the eerie feeling of gazing at something from another world. The people are similar, the cities are similar, yet the interactions are weirdly different, missing the ever-present sight of someone starring at their tiny screen, not paying attention to what is happening around them. Today, it seems as if you are not complete if you don’t have your smartphone on you.
The introduction of the smartphone has transformed society in a huge way, not only by changing the way you keep in touch with other people, but also by giving you access to vast libraries of knowledge available at anytime, anywhere. This is just the latest step in the Internet Revolution that started in the 1980’s, and which has served as a catalyst for profound changes in almost every aspect of people’s lives. In the past thirty years, our society has undergone a huge shift in the way people work in the world. The result of this is that more information has been produced in the last two years than in all of history before that, and all that information is available right under your fingertips.
Yet, not all of this change is positive. While tremendous amounts of information have been created, much of it is junk, polluting the ether, and contributing to the noise around you. People are always connected, but in many ways actually disconnected to real interactions with people around them. You now have the possibility of discovering knowledge from the smartest scientists from around the world, and learning about any subject you can think of, yet most people spend the time posting selfies and random statuses.
And the pace of the transformation is just accelerating with newer and newer trends always appearing over the horizon. The problem is that nobody knows what the future will actually look like. We can make predictions, but most of those will probably turn out wrong. Just look at the ways that people in the past envisaged what the present day would be like. The movie “Back to the Future II” imagined that in 2015 we would have flying cars, but that faxes would also still be around! It is 2019, still no flying cars, and faxes have gone the way of the dodo bird.
Throughout the past 150 years, when the technological revolution was taking off and transforming society, people were constantly imagining what the future would bring. Some of these predictions ranged from the bizarre, for example whale-driven submarines, to way too optimistic like human missions to Jupiter. Many were colored by the culture of the times. This look into the past illustrates how hard it is to predict what will happen in the future. While we can discuss the general trends, we need to keep in mind that whatever predictions we make are greatly affected by the state of technology and the topics of today.
There are some emerging trends and patterns however. Artificial intelligence has the potential to cause another revolution in the way that people work. Most jobs, especially the more manual, routine work, will disappear, to be replaced by a totally new environment on the job market. With the advent of artificial intelligence, many of the more routine jobs that are done by people will be automated. This doesn’t only apply to such things as factory work or crunching numbers in Excel, but also some of the work done by lawyers and other similar professions which normally you think would normally require humans to perform them.
This means that for most of the population, a large number of the tasks that they are doing right now will be done by artificial intelligence and robots in the future. Many governments are fearing massive unemployment due to technological shifts, however the more likely scenario is that the types of jobs that are being done will just be different. There were similar changes in how work is done in society during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, it was also feared that machines were going to replace people, but what happened instead is that the nature of the work that most people were doing changed.
The ability to adapt (adaptability) is crucial
Current trends indicate that there will likely be a shift towards more expert-generalist types of skills. Specialists will still be valuable, and will command high salaries, but the number of specialist types will shrink and the surviving ones will still need to master more generalist skills. This is because the ability to be adaptable in the face of rapidly changing conditions will be required of people, if they want to earn money and be competitive on the job market. Adaptability will be the number one meta-skill that will be key to success. It will require people to master a range of skills and mindsets to help them navigate the complexities of the future.
Most of these have to do with soft skills and the ability to learn. These are meta-skills that are not domain specific, but can be applied across domains in different situations. The ability to learn requires you to have a methodology that would allow you to grasp the fundamentals of any subject quite quickly and then continue to add on to that knowledge if need be.
This is because the rapidly changing world means that you don’t know what skills you will need in the future. What is clear is that a person should have knowledge from different domains, and a wide perspective on things, since you cannot predict what problems you will encounter along your journey.
Getting the gist of any subject quickly will also allow you to think critically about a wide variety of issues that will affect the world. The way you arrive at a conclusion is just like if you were piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, first starting off with a few pieces, the overall picture nowhere in sight, but as you fit more and more pieces onto the puzzle, the picture starts revealing itself. Once the little pieces of the puzzle start coming together, with each jigsaw added you gain more understanding of how things work.
While these things can be done through applying a few methodologies, nothing can overcome the power of intrinsic motivation. That is why mindset will divide those who will be able to adapt and those who will be left behind. And the driving force of mindset in an ever-changing world is curiosity. Curiosity will naturally motivate a person to learn more things, to try to find out about how things work and then transform those findings into workable solutions.
Curiosity can induce states of flow, where learning is no longer seen as a challenge to force yourself into, but instead a reward in itself. When the act of reading a book induces the same type of dopamine effects for you as smoking a cigarette or taking selfies does for others, then you know you will be the one getting ahead.
Curiosity will also allow you to keep an open mind, which is a prerequisite for not falling for cognitive biases. These can hijack your thinking processes and make you blind even if you have your eyes open. In order to lessen the effects of the emotional part of your brain on your decision-making process, you need to engage in meta-cognition. You will never be able to complete rid of mistakes in your thinking, but by taking a step back and being aware of the way your brain thinks, you can keep more of a detached and skeptical perspective on things.
Setting up the right question to ask and the right problem to solve
One crucial, but quite underrated skill is the ability to ask questions. Not any type of questions, but the right ones. For the answer you get usually depends on the question that you ask. Asking questions has been at the core of the creative process since the dawn of time. Thinkers as varied as Socrates in ancient times, and scientists in modern times, focused on asking questions about how the world works. Other guys, visionaries like Elon Musk or the engineers at Google, then took the answers that the previous group found, and applied them by asking further questions. What defines the most creative geniuses of our age and all the ages that preceded it, is that they all spent a lot of time thinking about the types of questions that they wanted to answer.
While knowledge has become more accessible than ever before, it has also become much more clouded. There are many signals, but there is also a lot more useless chatter out there as well. This means that another important skill is the ability to select the right pieces of knowledge from all the noise around you. Fake news, selfies, attention whoring, are out there in full force. All these things can either distract you or lead you on the wrong path. Strong willpower will be required in order to stay focused, and self-knowledge and skepticism will be needed to weed out the fake from the real, and the necessary from the useless. Self-knowledge and skepticism are the building blocks of critical thinking, which is the main pillar of a rational society. Rationality is crucial if we want to prevent the world from going mad.
Monsters are coming for you
Everything that I have described will be done in a world which is starting to be overgrown with different types of threats, some quite new in the history of human existence, while others as old as time itself. One characteristic of the modern age is that there is no more privacy. Whatever you put on the internet stays there, and can be used against you in the future. Just like the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, the data that you have out there can be taken and used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. Hackers can come in and steal your identity, dark individuals can try to manipulate you either to buy something that you don’t need or to vote for a demagogic candidate. All these dangers are real and ever-present.
Other types of dangers are there on a global scale and threaten the very survival of our planet. The Amazon rain-forest is burning, and so are many forests around the world. The oceans are full of plastic, which not only washes up on the beaches of deserted islands, but also ends up in the stomachs of fish and other marine animals and enters our very own food chain.
While these problems are known, most people ignore them, unfortunately to their own peril. What is however even more frightening is that there are also many unknowns, which at the moment are either hidden or don’t exist yet. These so-called “black swans” can come in at any moment and significantly shake up the world. What defines them is that they are hard, sometimes even impossible to predict. They often creep up when no one expects, and cause huge amounts of damage and destruction.
While luck plays a role, the personal damage that they cause can be minimized if you are an adaptable person, and have the ability to learn new skills. In this way, you become anti-fragile for the future. While most people will be drowning in the latest storm, if you apply yourself, you can weather these challenges and even thrive. The future is unknown, but that doesn’t prevent you from preparing for it.
What is positive is that the same types of skills that can make you anti-fragile when it comes to disasters, can also be used in order to solve or even prevent them. Adaptability not only means being able to go wherever the wind blows or duck when the mast is coming for your head, but also the ability to apply knowledge from one domain to the next in order to solve problems and even to come up with new, innovative ways of doing things.
While the world seems to be on the path to self-destruction, a little optimism can go a long way. Humanity has created tools which can destroy the planet many times over, but it also has the ability to overcome these challenges and come out ahead. We don’t know what the world will look like in the future, but we need to adapt. Global threats like climate change, pollution, or terrorism will continue to occupy the smartest minds for the foreseeable future. Other factors like AI are neutral in themselves, but can be used for both good and evil. What will be crucial if we want to tackle these challenges is humility, holistic thinking, and a regard for the common good.
Read More: The future belongs to expert-generalists.
I originally published this story here.