Eric Weinstein – Right again
Things I Got Wildly Wrong: An Occasional Series. #1 Curators/Curation.
I Used to Think: Curators are intellectual parasites.
What I Think Now: Great curators are rare & essential. You haven’t been fully heard until someone ELSE sees meaning beyond what you saw while creating.
Dan Hanson’s comment over at Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution discussion on sel-driving trucks is spot on. In The New Yeoman’s humble opinion, predictions of wide-scale job losses due to automation show a remarkable lack of understanding of the complexities of most human filled jobs, especially those involving “routine operations” which may be one of the greatest misnomers of all time.
For those of you who are rolling their eyes right now, let me clarify that I am not saying automation and autonomous vehicles will not “eat” (seemingly the preferred IT term) parts of many jobs, maybe even the biggest parts. However, I generally find that automation and software engineers, by necessity, have to carve out the parts they cannot deal with initially. Then, like all projects, the communications and the terminology overtake the actual scope of the project. What was seen as a limited-scope project with a long-term objective of replacement becomes the “replacement” project. Of course, that is even before the Tech Hucksters get involved.
In one of my fields of customer service, the human component has grown considerably while the industry has been simultaneously introducing self-help features at an exponential rate over the last 15 years. Much like Mr Hanson mentions, customer service departments have many of the advantages of factory environments when considering controlled variables, so it is somewhat of an ideal environment for automation. So, why aren’t we done with customer service automation?
What I am about to mention is a touchy subject. I also see in some autonomous tech advocates a dismissal of the intelligence of routine operators such as truck drivers or taxi drivers. (See the Uber boss videos with randomly met Uber drivers) We have a problem of both sides not understanding the other. The routine operators often see the automators as egg-heads with no common sense and the the automators see the operators as simpletons who were not smart enough to be one of them. The difference is that many operators do not write press releases or tech articles that the press seem so fascinated by. A warehouse that ships goods? Boring. An Amazon warehouse? Where do I sign up for the tour!
Note to automators; the fact that you scoped out a particular feature does not make it go away. In some ways, it is a very real acknowledgement that the people doing the current job are critical to the functioning of the modern world.
Note to operators; embrace the history of automation. The automation will probably make your remaining job more interesting as long as you don’t mind lifelong learning to stay relevant.
Until a tech solution can take on the whole operational issue in one gulp, the real issue is not whether there are going to be any human jobs, but will the humans have the skills to fill the (voluminous) jobs that remain. We’ve got a long way to go before Skynet takes over, folks.
Reading this, I thought… is it weird that some of the most socially awkward people on the planet designed “social media?” What does it say about us that we succumbed to it?
In my morning reading, I stumbled upon two very different passages that presented a great connection for me.
Confucius, from The Analects – Book II, Chapter XII
The Master said; “The higher type of man is not a machine.”
and Book II, Chapter XV
The Master said: “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.”
I think these two concepts go to the heart of the modern work world where many fear having their jobs eaten by robots or software. The first is something that all of us need to remember. The higher state of man is not a machine. Let that sink in. We are not machines. We were meant for much more. BUT, we must get over the idea that we can think our way out of the current environment without a true education on the meaning of life and the meaning of work. We must examine where we have been as a people and examine our souls for what is meaningful. Pay, beyond subsistence, is not meaningful. Work that nourishes our soul is meaningful. Work that can be done by robots or software is not meaningful, unless you add something to it that the robot or software can’t do, like empathy or creativity.
Following the post-WWII path to the workplace is high-stakes and increasingly dangerous. What I mean by the “post-WWII path” is doing what everyone else does, because the historical statistics point to it and believing you are a genius for following a formula, i.e. learning without thinking & thinking without learning. However, when everyone tries to follow the formula, it cannot, by definition, lead to higher than average performance in work or happiness. And when the formula requires 5 & 6 figure debt, it is high stakes and dangerous.
Which leads me to this passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance,
If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges and is not installed in an office in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York [or Silicon Valley, Ed.], it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont [or Kansas or Tennessee, Ed.], who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. [Sounds like a New Yeoman, no? Ed.]
My point? Conventional Wisdom says everyone should go to college, get good grades, regardless of what is learned, and then get a “good” job. It worked for the majority from the 1940s to approximately 1999. Things have changed, but our learning has not kept up. Everyone going to university and then saying, “But I did what I was told was the smart thing!” when things don’t go as planned is not a successful strategy now … or in Confucius’ or Emerson’s times.
Consider becoming a New Yeoman instead.
Confucius – By Anonymous Chinese painter of the Western Han period [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Emerson – By Schoff, Stephen Alonzo, 1818-1904, engraver. Rowse, Samuel Worcester, 1822-1901, artist. (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I liked this article from the WSJ on how the e-commerce boom has created better and more jobs. It makes the point that traditional retail jobs’ pay has hardly moved in decades. I think a lot of people still like retail, because you can do little to nothing in many retail jobs while you post on Facebook about something else. It is also generally clean and temperature controlled. However, if you don’t mind doing the physical work of walking around a warehouse and picking goods, you can make a reasonable wage for a starting job. And, with the kind of growth we’ve seen, you can be a supervisor in short order and a shift leader in a year or two.
I know, I can hear people scoffing about this already, but I have done this job and loved it. Also, I was no spring chicken when I did so. I loved walking around picking books for Amazon.com when all they sold was books. I’ll admit I liked it less when we moved into CDS, then DVDS, then everydamnthingelse. It was a good job and I saw lots of young people move up the ranks into other things. I saw them become coders, book review editors, customer service leaders, supply chain professionals, and warehouse managers. These were A-Level graduates (UK), Bachelors and Masters degree holders. They were from many places, including many west African immigrants. Some even wrote and sold books on Amazon. 😉
I think these are the “bridge” jobs of the new economy. We have a severe mismatch of job openings and skills as a nation. This gap has proven hard to fill with our traditional education models. However, jobs like Amazon warehouse jobs introduce people to cutting edge technology in the work place. Robotics, sorting technologies, transportation algorithms, etc. are well known in these fields. Proximity to them in the work place breeds familiarity and a level of understanding that is often hard to teach in a class. One can start by being trained quickly as a user of the technology, then move on to be a “manipulator” of locally run programs, then move to be a “configurer” of programs, then finally someone who knows enough about them to actually program them in some way. That is what a relatively short two year stint will get a switched-on graduate at an e-commerce warehouse. Unlike the retail and fast food industries, the new jobs landscape helps develop real skills that come with competitive wages.
If these are not the types of jobs we want for the masses, what would those jobs look like?
A great quote that definitely applies to me via Tim Ferriss,
“I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.”
– Duke Ellington
User interface maestro, Samuel Hulick, makes a great point that features are not benefits. People want to know how a product will make them better. That can mean feel better, look better, perform better, act better… all kinds of things.
They don’t want to know “what” your product does, they want to know “how” your product will make them better. Good advice for anyone making a product.
People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.
I’m trying to take this idea into account with my products, specifically with Polyhistorious,™ where I propose that a wide-ranging mastery of history makes people better versions of themselves. Knowing the history of your profession, means that you can put situations into context. It is also a spectacular way to improve innovative thought, so to channel Hulick, Mastery of History will make you better at innovation and coherent thought. Below is how I describe it at Polyhistorio.us
The work world is changing fast. Robots, software, and off-shoring are eating jobs at an alarming rate. The robots, software, and people who will work cheaper than you can be taught most routine jobs. The road to continued career relevance is having an “imaginative intellect,” or in other words … to be innovative in your chosen field. Innovation can be learned and there is nothing magical about it. However, innovation skills divorced from knowledge and/or experience are almost useless. Innovation skills have to be paired with a wide ranging background knowledge and erudition across many subjects. Combining wide-ranging information is where the new stuff comes from.
Sounds like a Catch-22 situation for young professionals? How can one build this capability?
At any age from about 15 years old and up, one can learn the innovation skills and master the history of your chosen field (and others) to give one’s imagination a chance to make connections and design new ways of doing things.
Well, that sounds good, but school’s and university’s ideas of preparing young people for the world of work is an accounting or marketing course that is rarely practical about how things work in the real world. History courses can be good, but are too general and theoretical to be of daily use. Where can one learn these critical skills of Innovation and History?
I thought you would never ask.
Right here at Polyhistorious. Polyhistorious will help you start to learn Practical Innovation Techniques with a course named, appropriately, PIT-Start. Once you have completed this course, you can begin a course of study on the history of your chosen field. You can choose one of our History courses to get underway on your life-long commitment to understanding how your field got to where it is today.
Well, I can take a history course anywhere. In fact, I already have in school.
That is great! How much do you remember off the top of your head? When you are in a brain-storming session with your peers and boss and she asks you, “Any ideas?”, are you going to bring in your college text book to look up the facts you need?
At Polyhistorious, we use cutting edge teaching, learning, and studying techniques. We teach the courses in an engaging, often times comical and seemingly ridiculous, fashion to help our students remember better. Think of Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money teaching Innovation and History. We also teach the latest research-driven skills for learning and studying what we teach. Our focus is entirely on retention of information for future use. We believe that information that is well retained forms the basis for being able to take on new and continuing information in a logical and memorable way. When more and more information is taken on organically, it is easier to make connection for disparate fields and come up with new ideas, i.e. being innovative.
In other words, the history course features are not what we are trying to give you. How you can use those features to become a better you in your field is what we are trying to do.
Grit is a hot concept right now, but largely in the self-improvement space. I listened to a good Freakonomics Radio podcast interview of Angela Lee Duckworth by Steven J. Dubner about Duckworth’s book entitled, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance. Duckworth’s basic premise is that people with the most grit have the following characteristics, in order;
By the way, Duckworth reveals a great tool to fight off boredom of a subject. It involves nuance versus novelty, but you should listen to hear her talk about it.
So, that is the personal version of grit in a nutshell (according to Duckworth), but what about organizations?
On my walk yesterday, I came to this question as I pondered an organization that I was talking to recently about their culture and how to ensure they kept it as they grow. It occurred to me that, yes, organizations could have grit, but many organizations have only three of the four characteristics. They have interest in their work, they generally have purpose in their field, and for the most part they are optimistic that their hard work will result in good things. Sometimes, they have deliberate practice in the sexy fields of website and product design (e.g. A/B testing). However, many fail in the deliberate practice characteristic, especially with their sales and customer services work. For certain, they are “practicing” all day, every day at their work. They are answering an increasing number of phone calls, emails, webchats, etc., but are they deliberately trying to improve in a well-chosen and specific area every day in a way that stays true to their mission? Sadly, many are not. This led me to think of grit in another manner. Let’s call it “Strategic Grit.”
First of all, it is entirely reasonable to have this conversation based on Anders Ericsson‘s concept of deliberate practice, instead of grit. However, I like to think of it in terms of grit, because deliberate practice is recursive inside of Duckworth’s concept of grit, so you get a twofer. In other words, to want to practice deliberately, you probably have to have an interest in the subject, feel that it has meaning (purpose) in your work, and be optimistic about the outcome. That’s when I started thinking about how, in order to know what to deliberately practice, an organization needs to analyze its current state and compare it honestly against its desired future state. In other words, finding out about what should interest the organization. This is the first step (Diagnosis) in Richard Rumelt‘s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy (Excellent book, BTW. If you have not read it, the Kindle edition is $1.99 right now). But being clear-headed about strategy requires a little grit too. At this point, I was starting to confuse myself, so I tried to simplify what I thought grit was, in terms of analyzing (diagnosing) what should interest an organization. I decided to use Duckworth’s model of four characteristics, in order, that I had personally seen in organizations that truly faced up to what was causing them problems, especially in dealing with customer service and sales. I created an acronym, because that is what consultants do. Here is my attempt to define Strategic Grit.
G – Guts – Have the guts to face up to the real issues (take interest) that confront your organization based on your core mission and prioritize them for deliberate practice. Not those that everyone else focusses on, but the ones that will most help meet your mission. This is where the nuance versus novelty discussion is often pertinent.
R – Resolve to improve (deliberately practice) on the issues mentioned above, even if it means changing KPIs, bucking industry trends, or challenging the status quo. For the other issues that are not part of your core mission, resolve to be at the market standard and stop fretting about them.
I – Integrity. Know what you want to be remembered for ethically (feel what your doing has purpose). Ensure integrity with your ethics by ensuring your actions are aligned with your values.
T – Tenacity. Keep going, even when it looks bleak and going back to your old ways seems like a safe bet (optimism in the outcome helps with tenacity). If you honestly diagnosed your gaps, aligned your principles to guide you, and used logic to ensure your actions were coherent with your diagnosis and principles, you’ll be on the right track and only tenacity will separate you from success.
Well, that’s it. Any value to anyone?
Photo credit – By zaui/Scott Catron [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons