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Skills you will need for the future – a new book

9 Principles and 5 Metaskills

I'm still on a book reading binge. This time it's a book about what kind of skills we will need in the age of roboticization. About 2 years ago, I read Metaskills by Marty Neumeier. Fascinating book. He has so many gems in there. I did a series of posts on the book here. The quick version is narrated down below and is added as illustration of another thought. The latest book is Whiplash by Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab (by the way, that place sounds cool, I wish I could have been brilliant enough to go there) and Jeff Howe. I won't do a full blown write up like I did for Metaskills largely because I lack time. Besides, I just did a lengthy series on another book so I figured once a couple of month is enough.

Whiplash may be a more optimistic book because the author resides in the very industry that is causing such upheavals: the IT industry. He's one of those brilliant boys who may not understand that there are very REAL concerns that most average Americans, or even average person in the world, will not be equipped to deal with the new world, even with education. I get a sense that Marty Neumeier has a better understanding because he came from a world of designers which can include those not mathematically inclined. Joi Ito, on the other hand, probably finds such high level topics easy to understand and thus may be removed from the average person.

Anyway, the left hand column briefly recaps Whiplash and the right hand column summarizes Metaskills.

Whiplash suggest 9 organizing principles in order to make your way through the new world. The principles are not specific skills where you can go to college and develop them. Instead, the suggestions are very generalized. At the end of each chapter, there is a more specific discussion of how the principles could be applied or where we can go from here.

A point to note: I read this book over a couple of weeks so I will be kind of vague in some spots because I'm still trying to digest the book.

  1. Emergence over authority: I imagine this is the collective intelligence where everybody just collectively gather together in a wave of similar opinions or actions. The "Arab Rising" might have been an example of the emergence; no single leader called the people to up rise. It just collectively happened. There's the Wikipedia where a group of people contribute their time and knowledge to this encyclopedic site. Those are the positive examples of emergence but there is also the negative aspects which the authors lamented. The trolls and the bullying, the intense shaming and some of the "idiotic" sites that promotes fake news or fake facts. In this emergence era, we are going to have to learn how to deal with the evils that will arise. How do we prosper in such an emergent system? I'm not sure. Maybe it is utilizing the technology such as Kickstarter or Facebook to start things such as a movement (like the Women's March the day after the inauguration) or start a small business. Collaboration seems to be essential here because no one can solve today's problems single handedly.
  2. Pull over push: In the old days of advertising, you push your products out into the world via marketing, advertising and sales. Now, it is your customers who pulls you into making the products they want. Your customers give you the ideas. Another way of looking at this push/pull dynamic is instead of stockpiling your resources, whether people or materials, you reduce your costs by having on hand only what you need and you pull in additional resources when needed. Kind of like a just in time concept. On a personal level, you need a broad network in order to pull in the necessary resources. You also need to be exploratory and curious. Through such explorations you will broaden your interests and your network that will allow you to be imaginary and visionary. Focus is not the order of the day.
  3. Compasses over maps: Here, because the world is changing so rapidly, our "internal maps" of the way the world function will no longer work. It is like having a constant flooding that some lands become submerged and others rise, so that the old maps are out of date. Compasses, on the other hand, gives you the general direction to go (like the "true north?") but not the specific details because you may have to take detours or explore unexpected path. Again, things are changing too much to be able to plan. These principles are a kind of compasses. On a personal level, well, the suggestions were more for corporations. Corporations need to develop their compasses which he called moral compasses. A passing criticism of the current focus on only the bottom line? Not sure but that is how I read it. Part of the moral compass will involve creating the proper culture of communicating, of working together, of creating a purpose.
  4. Risk over safety: This is the one Seth Godin always talks about - it's actually riskier to take the so-called safe path than the risky one. Today's world is changing so much that the "safe" paths are no longer safe. Remember those big corporations with life-time security? Well, those jobs are not so life-time anymore. Those jobs are gone under the barrage of shareholder value. On the personal level, the authors talk about education and risk. If you major in something that is popular now, when you graduate, you may face intense competition because everyone else majored in it too. You might be better off finding something that is "emerging" (if you can identify it as emerging), that you have an "unfair advantage" and that you have a passion for (that passion thing again). If you do that, when you graduate, you may end up at the top of the emerging field and can ride it for a (short) while.
  5. Disobedience over compliance: the authors are not talking about breaking the laws such as texting while driving. Wait! A lot of people do that. And we probably don't have laws for that, although we should. Anyway, the authors are simply talking about breaking a few rules that are outmoded. You don't have to follow and do what everyone else is doing; you can march to your own drum. If you don't do anything different from everybody else, then you can't differentiate yourself. Don't be a lemming. In this chapter, the authors didn't offer any illumination for the personal level but they did offer a pithy line: "You don't win a Nobel Prize by doing as you're told."
  6. Practice over theory: here the main message appears to be theories can sometimes lead you astray. Or, as an example, we used to "theorize" that the sun revolved around the earth. Or doctors used to believe that ill humors caused sickness. Instead, you need to continuously practice and test your theories. This is part of the learning process. You need to learn how to learn, you need to be curious, you need to imagine and then test your imaginations. Of huge importance will be self-directed learning because robots will be taking over the routine and the logical.
  7. Diversity over ability: This principle illustrates the concept of breakthroughs coming from people outside of the domain. The experts are too deep within the common knowledge that they can't break out of the box. Someone from outside has to break the box. This is the premise of diversity. It's not that ability is not valued; it's that diversity will bring in people with different perspectives and insights that might lead to breakthroughs. This chapter also talks a lot about racism and bigotry. The subject of Hitler comes up: "The Germans have wrestled with questions of guilt and complicity ever since. One argument holds that the Nazi rise to power and the crimes that ensued were the unrepeatable product of circumstances entirely unique to a time and place. A militaristic nation had been shamed and impoverished by the Treaty of Versailles, leading to riots and chaos and despair. From this wreckage emerged Hitler, an authoritarian figure who offered order and national redemption. Hitler delivered on those promises, and by the time his dark and nihilistic intent was clear, it was too late to oppose him. This story offers many comforts. It has enough truth to be persuasive; it absolves all those who kept their heads down and prayed someone would kill the madman; and it tells the rest of us that it couldn't happen to us....Unless it is happening here. We imagine we'll hear history when it calls...There's an increasing sense - among the millennials who fill our lecture halls, but out in the rougher world of cubicles and delivery vans and hospital waiting rooms as well - that it's not enough to be right or profitable or talented. You must also be just...Far more than at any previous point in history, we also understand how history will judge us...It is no great gamble, in other words, to bet that we will be held accountable for the injustices of our day." This quote actually covered multiple pages and I left out a lot of it. It was really in reference to injustices toward blacks but I can easily imagine extending it to other areas.
  8. Resilience over strength: The authors use the common analogy of a bendable reed versus a tree withstanding a hurricane. A tree will snap because it is too rigid whereas the reed will "go with the flow". There's a lot of talk about resilience and how to get it. As a matter of fact, I have a book on it somewhere. Being able to get back up after a failure is necessary because you will fail some of the time. The trick is to fail without destroying yourself. Maybe you need mini-failures as a way to build in the ability to recover. The software industry has a fail faster ethos so they are not afraid of experimenting. The personal level in the book is expressed as: "making peace with chaos or expecting the unexpected."
  9. Systems over object: I must admit, this one is more obscure to me. The best I understand it is not a single object but a system of interrelating objects. There's the economic system of consumers, businesses, and government interacting with the monetary system and the political system. In the future, we will have the Internet of Things where almost everything will be connected to the Internet, opening us up to greater inventions but also more vulnerability. I suspect the problems of the future will no longer be confined to how to make a thing but how to fix a number of interconnected things that is causing a problem. In other words, the problems of the future will be bigger and will require multiple disciplines to understand the interlocking effects. No one person will understand it. How does this affect us on a personal level? The author talks about merging design and science as a new disciplinary subject. Maybe the future will be about blending the culture and the economics, blending the hearts and the bottom line business, blending the arts and the sciences.

Metaskills, while still talking in generalities, is not as cryptic as Whiplash. The skills are more identifiable and thus the book prescribes more clearly the skills you need to obtain. There will be a need for 5 of these types of skills and I believe we need at least one in order to be successful in the brave new world.

This book has a lot of great thoughts on various issues of the day, especially those related to capitalism. As a matter of fact, in briefly re-reading parts of it to refresh my memory, I find I want to read the book again to capture his insights.

  1. Feeling: Or more commonly called empathy. This is the ability to understand people and to work with people. Understanding people will be crucial to unearthing the unspoken needs and figuring out a way to deliver. Being able to work with people will be necessary because our future problems will be so big that no one person will be able to solve it. It will take a team. I would say that the world is currently undergoing a regression in empathy. You have the cruelty of ISIS, demanding everybody bow to their religion (if it really is about religion - it seems to be more about violence). You have the far right pushing out immigrants and calling out for nationalism. It sounds great until you realize that was the path Germany took under Hitler. We definitely need more empathy today. Businesses that have been busy offshoring and automating are going to have to develop some empathy that encompasses more than just shareholders: you just can't have a small class of the ultra-wealthy and a teeming mass of the poor.
  2. Seeing: Or thinking in terms of systems. Instead of looking at a tiny part, you look at the system as a whole to see if the design of the system is creating the fault rather than the tiny part. In the seeing chapter, the author talks a lot about capitalism.
  3. Dreaming: Or imagination or originality or creativity. The elusive skill that all companies are searching for. This chapter includes the disciplines that lead to creativity.
  4. Making: Or prototyping or testing. We still need to make things and if we want to discover something new, we still need to know how to make in order to understand. There is a connection between doing and/or making and understanding. It's kind of like practice through your homework. If you don't do your homework, you are forgoing practicing and you won't learn. Some manufacturing firms have learned that their engineers no longer can imagine new products because the making now resides outside of the US. Engineers are no longer in the plant alongside the workers, tinkering, testing and making. With that loss of doing, they've lost the ability to create.
  5. Learning: We're going to need curiosity and be able to do self-directed learning because the future will be very uncertain with no clear solutions. This is the adage of the perpetual learning. But the environment needs to be conducive to continuous learning. Companies need to allow time for self-directed learning - they can't work people such long hours that there is no time for learning or exercise. Too many companies adhere to the concept of long hours as a badge of honor. Education needs to be affordable and available to everybody. We have the MOOCs but for some reason not many people have success in completing them. I myself would like to try the MOOCs but between my hours at work and my creative practice, I'm having trouble adding a third activity. I just run out of room.

After briefly touching the book, I want to read the book again. There is so much materials here. I've left the descriptions here very short, mainly because this blog is already WAY too long.

This post is really long and it took me three days to develop! So I'm behind in the posting, but the topic is so important. While both address the topic of skills in a general fashion, they provide food for thought and I find that I want to read the books again, especially Metaskills since it has been a while.

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