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Thoughts on “How to Survive the 21st Century”

Going beyond our current “programming” and perceiving ourselves in a whole new human way.

The World Economic Forum has provided a transcript of Yuval Harari’s Davos speech on How to Survive the 21st Century and it’s remarkably poignant on recognizing the shifts required for us to truly awaken and transform ourselves for the new world that is emerging before us. Below are my thoughts on specific areas that relate to my own life’s work.

Automation will soon eliminate millions upon millions of jobs, and while new jobs will certainly be created, it is unclear whether people will be able to learn the necessary new skills fast enough. Suppose you are a fifty-years-old truck driver, and you just lost your job to a self-driving vehicle. Now there are new jobs in designing software or in teaching yoga to engineers – but how does a fifty-years-old truck driver reinvent himself or herself as a software engineer or as a yoga teacher? And people will have to do it not just once but again and again throughout their lives, because the automation revolution will not be a single watershed event following which the job market will settle down, into a new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of ever bigger disruptions, because AI is nowhere near its full potential.

In other words, we need to learn not just how to flexibly adapt to a single large transitional change but rather to an ongoing series of changes. The reason for this is that we are undergoing a massive systemic shift (aka Big Shift), both technologically and societally, which will change everything, including the very perception of ourselves both individually and collectively. Yet the change will occur virally, slowly at first, building on the edges, but as it progresses and starts transforming things, it will speed up exponentially like a wildfire.

This is why the pace of change feels like it’s speeding up exponentially, getting faster and faster, because as more and more things are transformed, more things are influenced by these transformations and begin to change themselves.

Thus expect people to misunderstand the overall Big Shift occurring because they’re often just seeing and focused on these smaller shifts. Because of this, people will think certain things will need to be done but they will soon realize their solutions are inadequate. That’s because they aren’t thinking big enough and radically enough. For example, yes we need to upskill a billion people by 2025 but the approach of how this is done, and realizing why it needs to be done a certain way, is critical for its effectiveness within the Big Shift versus within just smaller shifts.

To put it another way, if you only focus on smaller shifts, you will realize you’re doing the right things but in the wrong way, thus wasting valuable time having to redo things again in the right way later. If you see and understand the Big Shift overall, you will be doing the right things in the right way from the very start and thus feel like you’re continually building momentum.

Old jobs will disappear, new jobs will emerge, but then the new jobs will rapidly change and vanish. Whereas in the past human had to struggle against exploitation, in the twenty-first century the really big struggle will be against irrelevance. And it is much worse to be irrelevant than exploited.

This is the core reason why I speak about the critical importance of mental health in the future because we need to proactively start helping people deal with their sense of identity feeling shattered when their job becomes obsolete because they believe their identity is inexplicably linked to their job, being one and the same. So we need to help people realize that their identity is so much more than just their “job”. One way of doing this is looking at your life on an “atomic level” as Dick Bolles describes it and seeing how a cluster of transferrable skills, commonly seen across many different jobs you’ve loved doing in the past, may articulate your identity better in a rapidly changing world.

The added benefit of seeing yourself more than just a rigidly defined job and more as a fluid, unique network of transferrable skills is that you’re more able to flexibly adapt to the shifts occurring around you because you’re understanding yourself and stabilizing yourself on a deeper, intrinsic level. In other words, the more you understand your unique skill set, articulating and infusing it with meaning (often described as one’s passion and purpose), the more you’re able to surf these waves of change because you’re transforming and becoming the wave of change itself, finding your own balance internally rather than relying upon society to balance you externally.

Those who fail in the struggle against irrelevance would constitute a new “useless class” – people who are useless not from the viewpoint of their friends and family, but useless from the viewpoint of the economic and political system. And this useless class will be separated by an ever-growing gap from the ever more powerful elite.

This perfectly describes how our current beliefs and mindset are limiting the perception of ourselves, effectively blinding us to the untapped potentiality of ourselves and each other. This is occurring because we are often looking at people within a limited technical context of their past jobs and even more so often just looking at them from a hard (technical) skills perspective. Until we start looking at a person from their soft (transferrable) skills, we won’t see and fully tap into their innate human potential.

I find this somewhat ironic considering that the whole emphasis on The Future of Work is that since automation will replace rote work, we need to focus on and unlock things that only humans can uniquely do. Yet we’re not making this shift in the way we perceive ourselves with regards to this type of human work because the very social constructs we’ve created for finding working relationships, such as a résumé, are still inadequate in helping us to express our overall human potential.

This needs to change and change now, yet it seems barely anyone is focused on the importance of this. It’s like a person wearing glasses that filters out their ability to perceive different colours and the person is continually frustrated they can’t see different colours. Well until they take off their glasses, they will continually be frustrated. In the same way, we need to remove our filtering beliefs which are blinding us to the untapped potential which is literally all around us and under our very noses.

If you know enough biology and have enough computing power and data, you can hack my body and my brain and my life, and you can understand me better than I understand myself. You can know my personality type, my political views, my sexual preferences, my mental weaknesses, my deepest fears and hopes. You know more about me than I know about myself. And you can do that not just to me, but to everyone.

A system that understands us better than we understand ourselves can predict our feelings and decisions, can manipulate our feelings and decisions, and can ultimately make decisions for us.

This is another sad fact, where people might say “Well figuring out the potentiality of a person is probably going to be really, really difficult to do, so it’s probably why very few people are working on it right now.” As the quote above indicates, we have the capabilities to understand a person on a deeper level, so much so that we can know them better than they can know themselves.

So it’s not a question of can it be done, it can be. It’s more a question of how and why. How can we do this and why? What’s the purpose for doing it? Right now the main reason organizations and nations are doing this is for control and manipulation. But imagine if instead of using this knowledge against people and it was used to help people. In other words, the purpose shifted from control and manipulation to freedom and empowerment.

So imagine what organizations and nations could collectively achieve if they came together to radically shift the current societal focus away from the control and manipulation of people to the freedom and empowerment of them. Some people might say that control and manipulation is more profitable. Possibly. But it also what is keeping the world divided and in conflict with itself, thus preventing us from tackling the larger wicked problems we face.

To truly achieve the epic results required in the years to come, we need everyone working together and at their highest capacity and potential. Yet right now, most people aren’t even probably working at average capacity. Most people are disengaged from their work. It feels meaningless and lifeless because they can’t see the deeper meaning they are looking for in their own lives and within themselves.

When I person does begin to understand themselves though on a deeper level, it’s like like their entire life comes together, makes sense, and ignites them like a fusion reaction. The energy released feels limitless to the person and their work begins to feel effortless, more like play than work. That’s because they’re naturally following and being pulled by their own curiosity and imagination, rather than being pushed into doing it. This is the intrinsic motivation need for creativity and flow to emerge within their life, amplifying their productivity naturally.

In the coming decades, AI and biotechnology will give us godlike abilities to reengineer life, and even to create completely new life-forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, we are about to enter a new era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. 

Our intelligent design is going to be the new driving force of the evolution of life and in using our new divine powers of creation we might make mistakes on a cosmic scale. In particular, governments, corporations and armies are likely to use technology to enhance human skills that they need – like intelligence and discipline – while neglecting other humans skills – like compassion, artistic sensitivity and spirituality.

The result might be a race of humans who are very intelligent and very disciplined but lack compassion, lack artistic sensitivity and lack spiritual depth. Of course, this is not a prophecy. These are just possibilities. Technology is never deterministic.

When I read these words, I immediately thought about our ongoing search for aliens (as “new life forms”) out there in the cosmos. More recent articles are saying that perhaps the reason we can’t find alien life forms is because our perceptions are blinding us to the possibilities of what they could conceivably be. In other words, we could be looking at alien life right now but we’re not seeing it as alien life because we can’t perceive it as such.

Why I think this is incredibly important is because by shifting the context of this lesson, we can apply it to the current context of our world today. We are creating a world that is alienating people, not only from each other but from their very human selves. This is why I believe we will never truly start seeing and discovering alien life, until we start seeing and discovering the human potential of people lying dormant all around us. In other words, just like alien life forms, these people are invisible to us because our perceptions of what we expect them to be are blinding us to their true potential of what they are.

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