What Can Vulnerability Teach Us About The Future Of Work?

01/08/2017 12:12
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Fear of Falling

Fun fact: we're only born afraid of two things - loud noises and falling. Sort of strange when you think of it. But in truth, our brains at birth are something of a tabula rasa. A blank slate. Some scientists posit that we aren't even born knowing how to love, that circuitry only being triggered in our limbic system by our mother's first caress. But from those first crying breaths, we know our brains begin to learn. And much of what we learn is what to fear. Fast forward to adulthood and we fear so much. Deepest set amongst those fears is the fear of change.

When futurists pull out their crystal ball and talk about the future of work, I find much of the discussion to be doom and gloom. 'Our world is becoming increasingly chaotic,' they say. It's more volatile. Uncertainty reigns supreme. In fact, we can never really 'know' anything, as increasing ambiguity gives life to everything from fake news to alternative facts. These elements have become known as 'the VUCA world' - a world that is more volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous.

It was the US Army War College who coined the term, and management consultancies were fast to pick it up. Why the US Army may prefer a fear-based world view is perhaps best left to a whiskey fuelled debate, but I imagine it's not a stretch to see why management consultancies are also all too happy to perpetuate it. (No doubt an excellent rationale for needing their services.) And with the development of this innocuous acronym and folks all too willing to socialise it, we're all meant to feel less safe and more overwhelmed by change spiralling out of our control.

Much of the AI and automation debate seems to play into this VUCA mindset. Google headlines about AI and you'll see the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steven Hawking warning us of the impending AI apocalypse. My response? Don't believe the hype. For starters, I think it's an inherently negative world view, but also, I just don't think its accurate. Don't get me wrong. There is no doubt the pace of change is greater, maybe even unprecedented, but the assumption that it will lead to the end of days seems unfounded.

Technology and automation have been drivers for change for centuries. The language being used today to describe the future of automation and AI is strikingly similar to that used 100 years ago. (Socrates even objected to the new-fangled invention of his time, writing, claiming it would damage memory and fail to impart information with sufficient depth.) In fact, 85% of the jobs held in 1900 no longer existed in 2000. And this trend will certainly continue. 65% of kindergarten aged kids will work in jobs that haven't been invented yet, and a kid that age will have 16 jobs in 9 industries. In the OECD, 70% of young people will enter the labour market in jobs that will be lost to automation in the next 10-15 years.

When I hear stats like these I can't help but think 'skills gap.' But if the jobs haven't been invented yet, what skills do we train them for?

Some would say coding. But do they need to code? I don't think so. I'll date myself by saying I did not understand how to programme my VCR ten years ago, and now my TV does it for me. They say computers will be coding themselves in a decade. What I believe is it's not the technical skills we need to be preparing people for, rather, it's the very skills that make us more human. The skill chief among them we need: change-management. And I'm not talking about that burning platform, quick wins, top-down rubbish. I'm talking about change-management that helps us withstand the sort of big, fat, hairy existential change that transforms people, planets, systems. Because just in the same way 'business as usual' working models aren't sufficient to face a world of rapid transformation, neither will the old models of change.

So, I have a different, more positive VUCA world I want us to live in. My VUCA world is a world where we cultivate the change-management skills of vulnerability, unlearning, curiosity and awe.

If kids are going to have 16 jobs in 9 industries, some of those job changes not being voluntary, they're going to need to be resilient. Now, the word resiliency has a few different connotations, several of which mean "tough" or impenetrable. But if you've seen Brene Brown's TED talk, you know from her research the single biggest contributing factor towards resiliency is vulnerability. Regrettably, vulnerability is not a quality particularly honoured in the corporate world. And certainly not in the male world, where suicide is the biggest killer of young men under the age of 35. Cultivating a culture of vulnerability will help us manage intense change.

This one might sound odd, but even Yoda said 'you must unlearn what you have learned.' So, what did he mean by that? He means that some of the knowledge you 'know to be true' may not be true, and could be blocking your vision to new thinking. Galileo helped us unlearn the world was flat. What other flat-earth 'truths' might be obstructing our ability to change our perspective?

Did you know that curiosity actually changes the chemistry of your brain? In a 2014 study out of UC Davis, when participants were showed questions that interested them, parts of their brains associated with dopamine release became active. But what's really interesting is that when people were shown the answers, their hippocampus was triggered, which allowed for the information to be embedded in long-term memory. This means that cultivating a sense of curiosity will help us process and embed greater amounts of information more quickly. Look no further than to Leonard da Vinci, so convinced with the curiosity and dream of flight that he talked of tasting it. Curiosity unlocks not just adaptability and learning, but hope.

Scientists at UC Berkeley say that awe is the most profoundly beneficial emotion from a physical and psychological sense. People who regularly experience awe have greater humility, curiosity, innovation, happiness, and a desire to contribute to the world. And yet, from HATCH Analytics research we know that 71% of people don't even take time out of their workday for fear of being seen as skiving. If people can't take time from their workday to even think, how can they ever cultivate a goose-bump inducing sense of awe?

Look, I'm not as clever as Elon Musk, Bill Gates or Steven Hawking, so I'll choose to selectively follow them. While Hawking did say he believed AI could be the end of humanity, he also said that AI is a magnifier. And that as a tool created by humans to solve human problems, AI could act as a magnifier to all good human intention. I love that image. Rather than give in to the very old-fashioned notion of an apocalyptic technology scenario, let's imagine a world where a quality like vulnerability is revered and cultivated. A world where our sacred cows can be slayed in the name of adaptive thinking. A world where the alter to the cult of overwork crumbles under the weight of curiosity and awe. A world where we trade our fear of falling with our dream of flying. That's my future of work, and I'm sticking with it.

This article first appeared in Silicon Republic in the run up to Inspirefest.