A Simple Path to Upgrade Human Skills

Sharon VanderKaay
5 min readJan 16, 2019

Social learning clubs cultivate real wisdom for an age of artificial intelligence

Now that machines excel at extracting knowledge from information, humans need to get better at mining nuggets of wisdom from their experience.

In past generations, thinking and behaving like a well-oiled machine was seen as an efficient way to run a business. The gear head graphic shown above depicts the ideal of an efficient, logical mind. Now we need to cultivate a holistic blend of messy, human sensibilities that include curiosity, empathy, self-awareness, humility and creative thinking. This shift can feel like an overwhelming extra burden on an already time-starved workforce.

A model for lifelong, whole person development is needed.

Tech skills can be easily taught. Human skills must be absorbed and practiced.

A common assumption is that all the technical and human sensibilities we need to outthink a robot will be acquired through top-down, instructor-led, mass re-education programs. But before investing in this approach, let’s consider how people actually develop human skills, how this process differs from gaining technical skills, and how everyone can have equal access to these enhanced sensibilities. Let’s also consider the emotional support required for this lifetime journey.

Workers have a long history of being attracted to self-improvement clubs, including service clubs, public speaking clubs (like Toastmasters), networking and book clubs. Our natural affinity for both social interaction and self-directed, peer learning can inform an updated model: the social learning club (or circle). These small groups would be drawn together to wrestle with real, commonplace business situations. Unlike lectures, debates, or problem-solving, what sets them apart is their question-based approach to learning.

Social learning clubs would be free, inclusive and DIY. They would not rely on institutions or the whims of any political party for support. They would provide us with a sense of agency by offering a simple path forward now, rather than waiting for others to take action on our behalf.

Learning to use our heads again

Whether facing wily robots, political extremes or climate change, society needs bright ideas from anyone and everyone. How will we prepare ourselves to do what we’re truly capable of? For generations, opportunities to exercise judgment at conventional jobs have been limited. Despite talk of valuing innovation, rewards for conformity have shaped habits of thinking and interaction with co-workers. Overwhelmingly, workers have been taught to suppress their ingenuity. Hard-bitten experience has reinforced the expectation that if we care enough to ask questions about root causes we may be labeled a troublemaker.

Changing these self-limiting norms will not happen in a classroom. Mechanistic ideals and patterns of thinking come with deeply embedded emotional attachments and primal fears. Developing the confidence, awareness, humility and creative thinking to ask better questions requires practice and experiment over time.

Moreover, we need to consider how workers will mentally cope with and absorb the shift in demand to think differently. How will we as a society address technology-driven anxiety, alienation and loneliness? Social learning clubs would provide a supportive home base and camaraderie. As with other self-improvement clubs, they offer a sense of belonging that has been known to endure for decades, beyond the ups and downs of any particular employer.

Bridging the say-do gap

Another common assumption about human skills is that they can be deconstructed as distinct, teachable capabilities. In practice, merely knowing more about what to do rarely changes what people actually do. Most of us can call to mind a few co-workers who emerged from extensive leadership training programs as the same self-absorbed bullies they’ve always been. They might have gained more knowledge about leadership and be able to pass a test on leadership. They may know their personality type and leadership style, while continuing to demonstrate a total lack of self-awareness and empathy in their everyday lives.

Participants in a free and open social learning club would gain appreciation for different perspectives and see what others miss. They begin to turn their complaints into questions. They become more adept at extracting wisdom from daily experiences. Their new motto as students of human nature: “Less irritation, more fascination.” Rather than being exposed to training, they learn by doing and see by doing. By practicing self-reliance in a supportive setting, they are better prepared for an unpredictable future.

Learning conversations

For example, one session might delve into the many aspects of a common situation: “You’ve described your new idea. Someone says, “That’ll never work!” Or, someone tells you that they want to pay you less than your requested rate. Instead of jumping to answers or relying on what experts think, the group investigates many ways to look at the situation and diverse ways it could be handled. This investigation and dialogue process strengthens our powers of observation and inquiry. We think more clearly through the options that emerge.

The act of analyzing and wrestling with a single, common work situation per session makes all the difference. Instead of tackling big, overwhelming issues, we put our heads together to better understand micro-events in our daily lives: What questions should we be asking? What’s really going on here? Is there another way forward? What are we missing?

No trainer. No program. No problem.

Today we all need to be students of human nature: observing, questioning, and doing other things that leave the robots scratching their heads. Social learning clubs can span economic and social divisions by attracting a mix of CEOs, janitors, baristas, students, seniors and designers. A shared spirit of inquiry increases our appreciation for what each person brings to the conversation. A “beginner’s mind” approach helps us seek out root causes rather than symptoms. We can learn how to disagree respectfully and explain our ideas. Rather than setting out to merely solve problems, we can see how to prevent problems and discover new possibilities.

Learning from experience vs. experiential learning

The nature of complex thinking and interactive skills development suggests that we will be wasting time and money by not looking at self-sustaining, long-term, social learning models. Rather than merely seek to integrate more “experiential learning” (such as simulations, role playing) into conventional training models, why not learn to extract more learning from our real experience with real people?

The social learning club concept reminds us that we don’t always need gurus, instructors and experts to help us discover fresh possibilities in our everyday encounters. Rather than invest heavily in people skills training, more employer and government initiatives can be directed toward technology training and support.

How will workers find the time to meet face-to-face? Consider the time and energy that could be saved each day through problem prevention, less adversarial ways of working, and more mindful ways of handling recurring, messy situations. Imagine a more peaceful night’s sleep, free of wily robot-chasing dreams.