Surviving the Smart Machine Age

Essential principles for adapting and staying employable in the Smart Machine Age.

ARTICLE | Jun 27, 2017

By Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig

For decades, people have been grumbling over manufacturing jobs moving overseas, and yet there could be more trouble ahead in terms of available jobs of all types. We predict the impending age of automation will cause tremendous job loss during the next 15 years—much more than people have witnessed to date.

According to the 2013 research study “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” by Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, there is a high probability that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. will be automated over that time. That's more than 70 million jobs lost.

Changes will be driven by smart technology like smart robots, driverless cars, 3D manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and smart machines. Jobs requiring the personalized, real-time, adaptive delivery of services—teaching, nursing, and specialized trade jobs requiring problem solving and manual dexterity—may be safest from automation. To be suitable for employment in the Smart Machine Age, however, people will need to learn new skills and embrace a key set of behaviors that machines cannot master.

These new skills include quieting the ego, better managing our thinking and emotions, learning to reflectively listen, and embracing "otherness." We refer to this skill set as NewSmart or being able to thrive alongside technology. Here are seven ways for developing the needed skills:

1. Become humble, because it's not really all about you. Quieting our egos requires people to embrace humility as a way of life. Humility doesn't mean submissiveness or thinking less of yourself. Instead it means avoiding self-absorption, self-centeredness, and defensiveness. People tend to seek to confirm their own views of the world and themselves, and this tendency can lead to closed-mindedness and poor listening skills. Thinking only of yourself gets in the way of having empathy and compassion for others. When you embrace humility, you can finally stop thinking “it's all about me.”

2. Slow down and live fully in the moment. In our complex world of instantaneous messaging, news, interruptions, and pressure to perform faster and faster, we become reactive and reflexive. We go on autopilot, and the irony is that in the Smart Machine Age we will need to slow down to do the jobs that will earn us a living.

It's important to be mindful of this need now. It's counterintuitive, but you need to slow down to be better. It means calming your inner motor and being fully present in the moment. This will help you see reality more clearly, listen better, and manage your emotions.

3. Think like a good scientist. How do good scientists think? They approach the world with an appreciation for the magnitude of how much they do not yet know. They are open-minded, data-driven thinkers and decision makers who learn by testing their thoughts and ideas with experiments and always looking for data that disconfirms what they think. If they find that data, they amend their ideas.

In the Smart Machine Age, thinking like a scientist and being curious instead of being so confident that you know it all will serve you well by keeping your mind open and amenable to learning.

4. Talk less, listen closer, and ask more questions. The ability to master continual learning will be the No. 1 job skill in the Smart Machine Age. But mastering continual learning is easier said than done. It requires curiosity, open-mindedness, and an acceptance of how little we really know. In short, it requires us to talk less and listen more with an open, nonjudgmental mind.

Listening is a way to learn from others and allow them to help you do your best thinking. You can't listen if you are busy formulating your answer while another is speaking. Nor can you listen if you are judgmental and just waiting to tell them how much you know and why they are wrong. Keep your focus on listening, and when it is your time to speak, ask questions instead of “telling” to make sure you understand what the other person is saying.

5. Have the courage to try. We are on the cusp of a new age. Soon technology will do the jobs requiring efficiency and speed and the jobs that can be translated into an algorithm. The remaining jobs for humans will be the ones that require us to excel at the skills that are universally human—skills that require us to develop a personal process to do new things and explore uncertainty. Having the courage to enter unknown territory and using all of our senses to learn these new skills is vital to people’s success.

6. Manage your emotions. Everyone deals with fears and insecurities, but how we handle them makes all the difference. The fear of making mistakes, not being liked, and looking stupid inhibits our best thinking and our ability to perceive the world and other people with an open mind.

Too many people translate their emotions into regrettable behaviors. They become hyperreactive and emotionally defensive if someone challenges their views. But we all have a choice in how we engage with our emotions. Learning to manage them and generate positive emotions will help everyone adapt in the future.

7. Embrace "otherness." Otherness is the science of how to connect, relate, and emotionally engage with other people. It hinges on showing you care about and respect each other as unique human beings with great value. In this way, otherness builds mutual trust that neither will harm the other. 

In essence, we need others to help us think at our best, both critically and innovatively. Embracing otherness allows people to give each other their best selves without egos and fears getting in the way. It allows true listening and understanding to occur and helps everyone better recognize their own biases. Otherness requires us to quiet our egos and manage ourselves better, and asks us to focus on other people as an end, and not a means to our success.

In the Smart Machine Age, humans will be in a frantic footrace to stay ahead of ever-advancing technology. These guidelines will help you recognize habits that may already be holding you back from greater success. By becoming NewSmart and thriving together with technology, you will be able to achieve the type of excellence that makes you an indispensable employee (and a better human being!) both now and in the future.

Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig, Charlottesville, Virginia, are authors of the book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4) (http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty-research/directory/edward-d-hess; www.katherineludwig.com).

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