Will You Avoid Becoming Obsolete?
[Author’s note: This post is a chapter of my forthcoming book
RESET: Building Purpose in the Age of Digital Distraction]
Chapter Two: Old School
Who’s in charge?
“The Times They Are A-Changin’”
Bob Dylan, American Musician and Songwriter
No matter how amazing their education, no one is prepared for the massive disruptions that we all face as the world transitions to digital. We are straddling the past and the future. One foot is in the world of long-distance calls (remember those?) and encyclopedias, while the other foot in an new environment of Facebook Messenger and Wikipedia.
This is a unique moment in history. We’ll see in this and the next few chapters how a combination of forces — educational, social, and economic — are blending together in unexpected ways. The result? A massive opportunity for you and me if we can figure out how to reset our mindset and habits.
And a life of anxiety and mindless consumption if we don’t.
Let’s run through a brief history of the world’s transition from scattered farmers to workers in modern cities. This will help explain how we got here and why we are struggling to adapt to the digital world.
To begin, rewind the clock 1,500 years. Back in 500 A.D. the average person didn’t receive anything like a modern education. She probably wasn’t literate. She probably couldn’t write, except maybe her name. She knew almost nothing about the world outside the village where she were born. And that same village would likely be the place she died, as well.
Of course she would have some informal training, mostly through her parents, maybe the local church, or the extended family. That’s how she learned about her community’s beliefs and values. In terms of a job, folks in 500 A.D. had a tough choice. Either do what their parents did or . . . do what your parents did. Young people would apprentice to their parents, or maybe someone in the village with a better job. In exchange, you do a decade or two of unpaid work, of course.
They’re a farmer? You’re a farmer. They’re a merchant? You’re a merchant. They’re a blacksmith? You’re a blacksmith.
And that’s the men, who had it much better. Women in 500 A.D. were basically forced into a domestic life. Hope you like — and survive — being pregnant, giving birth, and raising lots of children!
Sounds like a fantastic life, doesn’t it?
That system cranked along just fine for a long, long time. There was no compelling reason or opportunity to change it. And so our daily lives looked like the same as our grandparents. And our own grandchildren still would be doing the exact same things a few generations later.
We have read about these type of societies. There are textbooks with all kinds of pictures and stories about infant mortality, rampant disease, and constant violence. The world was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short.
But it’s one thing to flash across this era in a few short paragraphs. Experiencing this kind of world would blow our minds! Until we see it for ourselves, we cannot imagine how different life is for someone in a traditional, pre-industrial society.
I actually came face-to-face with this old world. I met real-life shepherds in Afghanistan when I was deployed there as a Marine between 2010 and 2011. No kidding, real shepherds. As in, their job was to move around sheep without losing any of them. They wore robes and held crooked staffs. I can only describe them as “Biblical”.
The guys I met were shepherds because their fathers were shepherds. And their fathers were shepherds because their grandfathers were shepherds. And they were teaching their sons to do the same thing. What other option did they have?
That Biblical, agrarian world couldn’t exist forever except in places like Afghanistan, which ranks in the bottom 5% of the UN’s Human Development Index. Much of that country — particularly the southern areas — is stuck in the past. Not exactly something to which we should be aspiring.
After leaving Afghanistan, I returned home to Silicon Valley. From the Flintstones to the Jetsons. And in the process I saw just how quickly and violently we are tearing ourselves away from very old, very humble beginnings.
Within three months of coming home from war, I was working at Singularity University. This organization — backed by organizations like Google and NASA — is tackling humanity’s biggest challenges with rapidly advancing technologies. Everyone is an engineer or entrepreneur, or both. They are looking at areas such as artificial intelligence, mining asteroids, and genetically engineering us to be free from disease, environmental disaster, and aging.
Meanwhile, my shepherd friend is still herding his sheep.
Singularity University showed me just how fast the world is changing. I also discovered that this rapid evolution is directed by a tiny group of people. They are the ones driving these changes through a particular breed of entrepreneurship. We’ll learn a lot more about them in Chapter 6.
So here we are, sandwiched between the Flintstones and the Jetsons. How the heck did we get to this point? The current pace of innovation obviously didn’t happen overnight. Technological progress has been building momentum for several thousands years. It is powered by the efforts of millions of people. People discover new things. People turn those discoveries into useful stuff. People take that useful stuff and discover even more new things. The cycle feeds back into itself. The wheel spins faster, and faster, and faster . . .
Let’s Get Together
This cycle of technological innovation works better when we live close to each other. It turns out that population density is the single biggest predictor of innovation and progress. Why? Because people are at their best when they are working together, and it’s much easier to work together when everyone is stuck in one place.
Let’s recap: somehow we moved from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. That progress was driven by people. And people work better when we are packed together. So the history of human progress should also be the history of people gathering together.
And so it is. (Watch the last 5 seconds)
As of 2010, more than half of humans worldwide live in cities now. That’s a huge migration away from traditional farming societies. But this trend started a long time ago.
Let’s take another backward look at human history from the perspective of innovation, rather than lifestyle.
People started clustering in villages as we developed more productive agricultural systems thousands of years ago. More productivity meant more food. More food meant more people. And we like hanging out together, so more and more of us made the switch from nomads to settlers. More people pooling in one place.
Villages slowly grew into towns. Towns slowly grow into cities. And these cities are the environments where new ideas — the seeds of innovation — thrive.
Art, drama, and literature are the most visible parts of urban culture, but they aren’t the real story. Advances in science and technology are the fundamental gamechangers. One invention can be used to create many other inventions. And one theory can be used to explain all kinds of phenomena in the world.
Our lives are defined by this explosive combination of new ways of thinking and practical inventions. These two forces started in the cities and spread outward from there. These islands of innovation were transforming the world.
The first major wave with a lasting global impact was the Industrial Revolution. Starting in the late 18th century, this powerful movement swept country after country into the modern age. In just a few generations, farming economies across the U.K., Europe, and the U.S. awkwardly morphed into industrial economies. That’s lightning quick by the standards of a human civilization.
A Brave New Job
The Industrial Revolution placed an incredible burden on the population. People needed to do new kinds of work. Unlike previous generations, young workers could not rely on their parents. All of the sudden there were new options: do I stay here at the farm or try my luck in a city?
People now had choices that had never existed before. Millions of people still confront this choice every year.
The choice isn’t a good one. Yes, farming is unpredictable and difficult. But industrial work is dirty, dangerous, and boring. Working in factories meant doing repetitive tasks that we don’t naturally enjoy doing. Owners of these new industrial business therefore had a problem. They had to figure out a way to train kids to perform the work that adults were unwilling or unable to do.
In other words, companies needed a way to tap into a pipeline of people who would be able to work in boring, repetitive environments with disciplined taskmasters.
Modern schools are a logical response to the needs of the businesses that fueled the Industrial Revolution. These were the companies who were displacing farming as the primary supplier of jobs. The need for workers provided a clear economic rationale for modern schools. After all, schools were the source of the trained workers.
“Factory schooling” is an important reason why schools were established more quickly in the New England states. These states were industrializing quickly, so they needed the workers. Of course there are other reasons for the spread of public education, but the powerful financial incentives made it certain that state-sponsored, industrial schooling quickly became the standard.
Obviously, we don’t live in an industrial economy anymore. If you look at employment in the United States over the 20th century, you can see a huge shift to the service sector. Over 80% of us now work in fields like nursing, truck driving, consulting, banking, and restaurants.
Even while we were industrializing, the seeds were being sown for the next wave: the service economy. No country had the chance to catch their breath before being destabilized yet again. The cycle of innovation only speeds up, remember?
The Next Big Shift
The service economy was similar enough to the industrial economy to temporarily mask some massive changes going on. As in the industrial economy, people were finding stable long-term employment working for companies. They were locked into a career once they managed to get hired. Hierarchy, repetition, and stability were still the norm in the workplace. Everything revolved around the job.
Progress didn’t stop a few decades ago, though. The economy is still changing rapidly. In fact, it’s speeding up! These changes are obvious when we look at the nature of the work people are doing. Consider the emergence of an entirely new type of worker: the dependent contractor. It’s yet not a legal category, but the government is looking carefully at how on-demand workers — drivers, for example — should be treated by companies that “employ” them.
It’s hard to describe this dynamic new era. But it’s even harder to understand how our individual roles are changing, and predict what to do about it.
John Howkins tried to popularize the phrase “the creative economy”, though it never caught on. That’s a shame because it does a great job of distilling the essence of our new role in the world. You and I will need to be creatively engaged to be successful. We are shifting away from the job you have to the value you create for others.
The creative economy is the financial side of the digital world. It operates by a completely different set of rules than a society dominated by the service sector, the industrial sector, or the agricultural sector. And that is the point of this chapter: we were trained in the old school while the world was changing right under our feet!
Creativity is about purpose, about inspiration, and about people. We need to create value for others in new and exciting ways, then share that value far and wide. This creative mindset is a totally new way of seeing the world. (You’ll learn more about the specifics of this mindset in Chapters 7 — 9.)
We are not prepared to thrive in this environment, though. And why not? Because the incentives and structures in our daily lives are shifting in fundamental ways. You must be able to reset your mindset and daily rituals if you are going to thrive in the creative economy, and in the digital world.
In this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!
This has never been more true for us. We are being freed from the constraints that defined the human condition since we emerged at the top of the food chain. But at the same time, more and more information is popping up all over the place. These distractions are tearing us away from our creative, fulfilling pursuits.
Think back to the shepherd. He had one choice: do what his father did. Then the industrial society opened up a few choices, such as factory worker. The service sector quickly followed, adding opportunities in a variety of other fields. But the digital world took this to the next level with the creative economy. Now anyone can do anything, or so it seems.
These changes are both a gift and a curse. On the one hand, we can basically determine our own life path. It’s impossible to imagine just how different life is for us to have that level of freedom. Yet everything we learn in childhood and adolescence presumes that we should already know the work we’re supposed to be doing.
Identifying and pursuing your goals through purposeful daily work is left as an afterthought. But it’s not an afterthought at all! It’s actually the most critical skill that we need to develop in the digital world.
The old, stable world is gone. We just don’t want to acknowledge it. The temptation is to bury our heads in the sand and our thumbs on our screens. We hope that someone figures out a way for us to have a high-paying job and plenty of time for family and friends.
Maybe there’s an app for that . . .
Deep down, we know that’s not a solution. The problems of our generation require action. Think about what you read in the news every day: Resurgent violent populism. Democracy under attack. Over a trillion dollars in student loan debt. Widening inequality. A shrinking middle class. Increasing debt.
It should be clear to everyone that we need new organization and structures to handle the rapid pace of change that defines the digital world.
But that’s not what is happening. Most of us are being set up to fail based on nothing but societal momentum. We grew up in a system that was based on the scarcity of information and rewards for conformity.
Consider a typical education. The teacher is the gatekeeper. He or she controls the resources, and the students have no other way of getting the information. We receive our homework like little food pellets. One at a time, perfectly packaged, and easy to consume. Just follow the steps and we’ll get our reward.
Where’s the creativity or fulfillment in that?
This ridiculous process is basically the same in college as it is kindergarten. And we follow it because it earns us A’s and smiley face stickers. Study, study, study. Don’t ask why. Just pass the test and then forget everything you just learned because there is another pointless test coming up in a few weeks.
That will not cut it anymore. We can’t just check the boxes.
Research into creativity in schools scares me, especially because I’m one of the products of this educational Play-Doh factory. 95% of second graders think they are creative, but that statistic flips entirely by the time they are seniors in high school, when only 5% identify as creative. And this is what’s happening at a time when creativity is needed more than ever!
Aside from basic literacy and social skills, traditional education is useless — even counterproductive — in the digital world. Our brains are terrible at information storage and retrieval compared to computers. So why bother using your brain like a crappy version of a computer? Computers do these repetitive tasks better than us already, and the gap is growing. The digital world is quickly pulling away from the old human-centered systems. And we need to adapt or risk a life of constant distractions and unfulfilled work.
To Work Or Not To Work
Traditional jobs are still out there, of course. They aren’t going away overnight. The number one job in the state of California, believe it or not, is truck driver. In the United States, more people drive trucks than any other job. In fact, truck driver is the number one job in 31 out of 50 states! But sooner or later that’s going to change because people tend to get tired and make mistakes. We crash our cars, in other words.
Computers will gradually take over driving for us, saving tens of thousands of lives each year in the United States from automotive accidents due to human error. Where does that leave us? What does it mean that we won’t be have to drive ourselves anymore? What the heck will all those millions of people do?
The answer may surprise you. It cuts to the heart of the creative economy, and the challenge we face during these periods of societal transition.
100 years ago when cars were just hitting the mass market, horses were the dominant form of transportation. “Horse pollution” was the main topic of conversation at the world’s first urban planning conference in 1898. A New York City public health official claimed that 20,000 people died each year from the unsanitary conditions resulting from so many horses.
People had a hard time imagining life without horses. But when it turned out that cars were faster and more reliable, everyone made the switch in a relatively short period of time. The percentage of homes owning a car went from under 10% to over 60% in barely fifteen years!
Horses can’t learn new skills, so they weren’t able to adapt. They became sideshows. Now the only time most of us see a horse racing in the Kentucky Derby or pulling a carriage in Central Park.
Ready to be uncomfortable? Let’s return to today, take out the word “horses”, replace it with “humans”, and reconsider the situation. Why won’t we become sideshows, too? Computers are performing more and more tasks. Things we used to think were off-limits. Things only people could do. This leads us to an uncomfortable question: Will humans be necessary in the digital world once it fully matures?
I am optimistic. We — most of us, anyway — will probably be necessary in the digital world, but it won’t happen automatically. If you and I have jobs in twenty years, it won’t be because we’re good at repetitive tasks like driving a truck.
Our advantage over horses is that we are very good at creatively solving important problems in our lives, and the lives of others. We discover new areas to explore and find innovative ways to accomplish meaningful goals within them. We create value and we recognize where value is created by others. We anticipate what people in our society want and need, and then we create products and services to fulfill those needs.
We will need to get good at this type of creative work quickly because the world is changing faster than ever. I’m a product of a public school system when there was still a relatively good fit between what we learned and what was needed in the economy. In 2000 when I graduated high school there was, let’s say, a 75% fit. I was adequately prepared for a variety of work environments.
When someone graduates now, the fit between student abilities and economic needs is more like 25%. But probably less.
Almost none of the information “learned” by a student is retained. More importantly, the habits and mindset being taught to kids will hurt them once they enter the workforce. The helpful stuff is really the social skills: being around different types of kids; sharing with others; group activities; playing sports; and so on.
The idea that kids are being educated in any meaningful way is a complete illusion. The test scores and the report cards and the parent-teacher meetings only prop up the illusion. Being a good student does not mean that you’re smarter than anybody else. It just means that you have a specific set of skills and mindset that let you accomplish certain kinds of tasks. You’re a good fit for that specific system. But that system is an artificial construct with little predictive power once you leave the classroom.
Researchers discovered something counterintuitive when they looked at grades and how they affected professional achievement. Grades have almost no impact on how well you do after school. And here’s another interesting finding that shouldn’t surprise you by now: studies from before 1950 showed a much larger benefit. GPA matters less today, not more! And soon the positive effect will disappear entirely.
The digital world doesn’t want hamsters. It craves passionate creatives.
If you are not — or never were — a good student, that isn’t a bad thing. It means you aren’t naturally interested in a certain set of behaviors: sitting still; doing the same thing over and over; waiting patiently; following instructions without questioning; et cetera. Basically, that means you wouldn’t be a good factory worker.
I hammer home this point because it’s personal to me. I am already thinking about how these changes apply to my children. I don’t want them to be good students in the sense of feeling comfortable sitting in a classroom for over a decade, except for summer breaks full of organized activities. That steady drip-drip-drip education will be completely out of place once they enter real life.
I don’t want them to become shepherds or factory workers. I want them to be creatives with a focus on developing products and services that other people find valuable.
Self-directed passion and focus is the bedrock of the creative economy. Whether you’re an Uber driver, a teacher, or a designer, you need to figure out how to be part of that value-based process in some important way.
That is the task of everyone in the digital world: to figure out creative ways to become valuable to others through meaningful work. If you use your brain as a storage space, you will soon be as useless as horses are today. Instead you want to use your brain to be useful, to progress toward important goals, to improve your behavior, and to have a positive impact on the world.
If you’re not one of the Jetsons, you’re probably one of the Flintstones.
What to remember about “Old School”
- The school system emerged to fill the needs of an industrial society
- Hierarchy and repetition used to be fundamental elements of our work lives
- Computers do most of the repetitive work, so our economy is rewarding independence and creativity
- We need to reprogram ourselves to focus on this type of creative work
Take three minutes to reflect on these questions
- What habits from school do you still use today?
- Which of these may be holding you back?
- What new skills could make you more useful to others?
If you want to spend five minutes learning more about our educational system, read “Gus the Truck: A Metaphor for an Outdated Education System” by Tony Lewis and Ann Anderson.
If you want to spend seven minutes learning more about the changes in the workforce, read “The Automation Revolution and the Rise of the Creative Economy” by Aidan Cunniffe.
If you want to spend twenty minutes learning more about our educational system, watch “Do Schools Kills Creativity?”, a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson.