The way to survive unpredictability is to equip ourselves with the skills to navigate it.
Many people have tried to predict what the future of work will look like. The management writer Charles Handy talks of a future world made up of “creatives” (writers, artists, designers, thinkers), “custodians” (including planners, civil servants and those managing and operating automated services) and “carers” (especially those working in schools, prisons, hospitals and similar organisations).
Silicon Valley likes to imagine a “partnership” between robots and humans. Yuval Harari, author of Homo Deus, worries about a dystopian future in which many of us will be little more than serfs to an all-powerful artificial intelligence (AI).
But, as Handy himself admits, these are little more than guesses.
A more empowering approach, when we consider the years ahead of us, is to assume that the future is unknowable and instead to think of the skills we will need to deal with that very unpredictability. There are three that will be core to this project. And the good news is they are available to us now.
The first is curiosity, a desire to keep on learning, to cross-pollinate our existing knowledge and insights with ideas from other disciplines. Read pretty much any book about great business leaders and you will be struck by how widely many of them read and how much they have committed themselves to continual study and investigation of the world around them.
Curiosity will form the basis of a lifetime of learning. As Lynda Gratton at the London Business School has pointed out, there are babies already born in the rich world who will live to be 100. That will mean a work life of 60 years. No job, no career, no industry will remain unchanged in that time, which means the skills we had when we entered work will become next to useless as we progress through it. Gratton predicts a future ‘career’ as being one built on many “mini retirements”, moments of retraining that will equip us for the next phase of work.
That world, of course, is already upon us. The job for life – or even the career for life – has gone. Employment now is about portfolio work, project-based employment and multiple careers. And curiosity will be the key to thriving in it.
The second essential for success in this unknowable future will be agility. We are used to admiring agility in companies – the swift ‘pivots’ that startups make when their product tests badly or the market changes. And we admire it in the swift response of colleagues when our team faces a sudden crisis. But agility will have to become the norm for most of us as individuals. As the pace of change of work increases, we will have no choice but to make multiple ‘pivots’ of our own.
This will not be easy, especially as our careers advance. It takes humility to go back to square one and retrain into a new area of work. We may even have to be managed by someone younger than us who already has the skills and experience we lack. But humility is easy to achieve once we let go of our love of status. And learning something new can in itself be a hugely enjoyable activity.
We can also increase our agility by widening our network out of the bubble that many of us live and work in. We know now as a fact that diverse teams come up with better ideas, but we often exist in groups that are surprisingly homogenous. Seeking out new contacts and acquaintances and hearing their views gives us a huge opportunity to ‘pivot’ our entrenched ideas and develop them.
Emotional and psychological insurance
The third skill we will need to develop is resilience. Resilience is a kind of emotional and psychological insurance that we can develop to make future shocks survivable. The Stoics, a group of philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome, felt that resilience was one of the most important skills a human can cultivate.
They knew – better perhaps than we do – that life is fragile, changeable and unpredictable. (They would have been saddened but not alarmed by the sudden arrival of Covid-19, for example.)
And they embraced the idea that, rather than pretending setbacks won’t happen, we should assume they will and develop an attitude of calm and fortitude to face them when they do. The coronavirus crisis has taught us resilience in doses. As the future world of work unfolds, we will need to develop more.
Honing our ‘soft skills’
We tend to think of qualities such as curiosity, agility and resilience as traits that a person either has or doesn’t have. But, in fact, they are skills we that we can learn, practise and get better at (see below). And what is noticeable is that each of them is what has traditionally been called a ‘soft’ skill – and this gives us a clue about one way the future of work will be different from how it is now.
The distinction of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills comes from the time when most workers did little more than operate machinery or complete process-oriented tasks such as financial control. These jobs are already starting to be done better, more cheaply and more efficiently by computers, and in the future, they will rarely be done by humans, if at all.
Instead we humans will bring value to our organisations through our proficiency in ‘soft’ skills; curiosity, agility and resilience, for sure, but also things such as listening, communication, empathy and diplomacy. These are the skills that will be in demand when we enter that much heralded working partnership with the robots.
We cannot predict the jobs that will make up the world of work, even in just the next five-to-10 years, but the good news is we don’t need to. Instead, we can focus on developing the human skills that will stand us in good stead when the world evolves around us.
Technology and globalisation will continue to change work radically. But, with the right skills in place, we humans will have a chance to remake work too: into something that is fulfilling, pleasurable and empowering, that truly draws on our human skills. And we can leave the drudgery to the machines.
How to cultivate curiosity, agility and resilience
- Broaden your inputs. Browse different shelves in the bookshop, break out of your Netflix bubble, read a different newspaper, socialise with people who are different from you.
- Set yourself ‘blue-sky thought’ experiments such as “how can the way a beehive works help with a structural problem I have with my team?”
- Treat everything as a potential source of inspiration.
- Challenge your preconceptions. Who sees the world in a different way from you? Could you argue their point of view?
- Look again at your current role. How could you shape it differently?
- Where is the variety in what you do? Could you find new challenges that take you just a little outside your comfort zone?
- Where are you joyfully using your strengths and where is what you do less fulfilling? Can you offload the less fulfilling tasks to make space for something new? (For inspiration, read David Graeber’s relevant and provocative essay On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.)
- Give yourself shorter deadlines and see how faster decision making works.
- Learn a new (non-work) skill to rediscover the incredible human ability to adapt.
- Consider how you are already resilient by reflecting on crises you have already faced and survived. You did it then by drawing on important resources, both internal and external. Make a list of them and consider how you could expand it. Chris Johnstone’s Find Your Power is an excellent source for ideas.
- Start to see the future as unknowable, rather than expending brain power trying to picture it, and try to accept that crises will happen, they may be tough while they last, but they will be survivable.
- Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for some surprisingly modern observations of life and how we can feel more at peace with its unpredictability from a 1st-century Roman emperor.
- Consider finding a coach or mentor to help you develop these skills. It’s easier and more fun that way.
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