Welcome to the Hyper-Meritocracy

Francesco Guicciardini

If Charles Darwin came up with the idea of evolution, then Francesco Guicciardini deserves a hat tip.

Considered by many to be one of the major political writers of the Italian Renaissance, Guicciardini distinguished himself in the practice of law.

Guicciardini, like his friend Niccolò Machiavelli, possessed an unusual ability to observe human nature and a rather non-ethical approach to politics. This would later earn Guicciardini the epithet “the first of the Machiavellians.”

Guicciardini documented his observations over 18 years in the Ricordi, which started with his first office appointment and ended with his involuntary retirement. Like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the Ricordi were never intended to be published and represented the innermost thoughts of a profound mind .

In Reflection 31, he draws our attention to an oft-overlooked aspect of human nature. And one that opens the soil for the seed of evolution.

“Even,” Guicciardini writes, “if you attribute everything to prudence and virtue and discount as much as power of fortune, you must at least admit that it is very important to be born or to live in a time that prizes highly the virtues and qualities in which you excel.”

He continues with an example, reminding us that things are neither good nor bad. They just are. Nature rewards and punishes not according to morals or ethics but in terms of response to context.

“Take the example of Fabius Maximus,” Guicciardini offers, “whose great reputation resulted from his being by nature hesitant. He found himself in a way in which impetuosity was ruinous, whereas procrastination was useful. At another time, the opposite could have been true. His times needed his qualities, and that was his fortune.”

Over 300 years later, Guicciardini’s insight would become the subject of scientific inquiry when Charles Darwin outlined the theory of natural selection in his 1859 masterpiece, On the Origin of Species.

Charles Darwin

In Darwin’s own words, “it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

That’s fine for animals, right? But we’re human. We’re different. I don’t need to worry about being adaptable. Not so fast. Remember Guicciardini?

What is rewarded today is not necessarily rewarded tomorrow. A weakness in one context might be an advantage in another one and vice versa. Individuals also have to adapt to their environment.

While animals, including us, have always had to adapt to survive, we’ve rarely been called on to adapt quickly. And while our survival likely isn’t at stake, what is at stake is our livelihood.

The middle class is in for a big change. Having no job or being underemployed is becoming more, not less, common. The inflation adjusted wage gap between top earners and those of us fortunate to have jobs is increasing.

The new wage gap is between computers and humans. Every day it costs technology less and less to do the same task a person is doing. And time is quickly working against us. Rapidly advancing AI creates a huge economic incentive for businesses to replace human labor with computers.

Warren Buffett has a saying I love: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.

Whether we like it or not, the tide is about to go out.

For many of us, the world is about to get a lot harder. While each job will be affected differently and at different paces, machines are coming for intelligent human labour and they are unrelenting.

In his book Average is Over, economist Tyler Cowen offers some thoughts on the winners and losers.

Cowen writes:

In accord with economic reasoning, they will go to that which is scarce.
In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:
1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
3. Quality labor with unique skills
Here is what is not scarce these days:
1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

There you have it: a roadmap for adapting to the changing economy for the foreseeable future. But adaptation is not a one-step process. Just as the changing world isn’t going to stop changing once you’ve caught up, the key to surviving an unpredictable future is not merely adapting, but becoming adaptable.

Like you, I have to compete in a global world. I doubt I’m ever going to own a lot of quality land or natural resources so I’m placing my focus on intellectual property, good ideas, and unique skills. But how?

By focusing on what’s scarce today and tomorrow. That means I have to learn how to do difficult things — things that other people value, things other people can’t do. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What I really need to develop is not so much the specific traits that will be valued as much as a system to constantly reinvent myself and adapt.

This is the hard part and in an odd way, I need to go backwards to go forward. I need to develop skills I once had that I’ve lost: The ability to read better, the ability to make better decisions, the ability to focus, and strategies to make sure I’m not consumed by busywork.

These are the skills that will enable me to have quality ideas that other people don’t have.

More than these skills, however, I need to find a personal operating system that helps me overcome adversity and reduce my ego.

These are the foundational skills that underpin adaptability. I’m never going to be the most intelligent person but I can sure as hell work on my ability to adapt quickly.

This Essay was adapted from a longer version that was sent to the Farnam Street Learning Tribe.

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