How to Thrive in the Age of Change
For the last couple of years, I have been consumed by an important question.
What are the key skills that are especially important to cultivate in order to thrive in the age of change?
You’ve probably heard of the wheat and chessboard problem. As the legend goes, the inventor of chess, asks the emperor to reward him by giving him a single grain of wheat on the 1st square and doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square.
Things seem uneventful until the second half of the chessboard, by the end there are 18 million trillion grains of wheat. Ray Kurzweil has likened this to the exponential pace of technological progress, stating that we are in the second half of the chessboard.
I’ve been on a quest to determine how we can turn such a rapid rate of change into an opportunity—in order to thrive rather than survive. I’ve been observing everyone I have worked with for the past number of years, from CEOs to the most junior employees. I have read 20+ books, and have listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts in service of this question. And I have found those who thrive in the age of change have 2-4 of the following four key skills:
- The ability to learn (in particular self-learning; autodidacticism)
I want to be clear; these are not the only skills one needs to succeed, but I’ve found these to be of utmost importance in an environment prone to constant change. Other skills, say communication, creativity, and grit, are certainly valuable but they are either not necessarily unique to the age of change, or are closely linked to these four skills.
For example, creativity and problem solving have a close relationship. In fact researchers speculate that mind-wandering which plays an important role in creativity—uses the same areas of the brain as those used during problem-solving.
Ultimately, the age of change rewards those who can:
- Take unique/new problems and turn them into solutions (problem-solving)
- Quickly and effectively adapt to new information (learning)
- Discover their uniqueness, allowing them to do naturally what feels like work to others (self-awareness)
- Be in tune with the feelings of others and make better decisions (empathy)
1 - Problem Solving
Problem-solving is the use of previous knowledge and experimentation to devise a solution to a problem. It requires one to use intuition, analytical thinking, and creativity to both understand problems, and respond to them with effective solutions.
In a constant environment where change is a rarity, such as on an assembly line, problem-solving is almost a redundant skill. Of course, problem-solving is not unique to the current age, otherwise it wouldn’t have evolved as a skill. But in the past, as long as a couple of individuals were good problem-solvers, the rest of the community could benefit. In our current environment however, where problems are constantly thrown at us like curveballs, not cultivating the skill means getting left behind.
The following diagram is the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden as a management framework.
In the book, The End of Jobs, Taylor Pearson uses it to explain how work has changed over the past few centuries.
He maps the different types of work to each quadrant as follows:
- Simple, Best Practice: Agricultural and industrial
- Complicated, Good Practice: Knowledge economy over the course of the 20th century
- Complex, Emergent Practice (we are here 📍): Entrepreneurship
- Chaotic, Novel Practice: Some forms of entrepreneurship
He believes we are experiencing the transition from complicated to ‘Complex, Emergent Practice’. As markets and job demands change rapidly, “what is needed is the entrepreneurial skill-set around probing for new opportunities, sensing what those are and responding. So this nature of work is shifting towards the complex and in some cases even the chaotic”.
One of the most essential skills within entrepreneurship is the skill of problem solving; the ability to either start with a problem or search for a new one (opportunity), experimenting and iterating on it, and finally coming up with a solution.
The world rewards those who dare to swim in the complex and chaotic world.
Cultivating the skill of problem-solving requires a mindset shift. It requires you to have the belief that you are capable of solving problems that you have not yet seen. This belief is strengthened by a) solving more problems and b) learning to depend on yourself and your tools:
- Researching (Googling etc) effectively and knowing where to find answers
- Accumulating knowledge
- Note-taking for future reference
- Experimenting with your solutions and seeing what sticks
Individuals who are good at problem-solving tend to display the following characteristics:
- They have patience and resilience when faced with failures
- Think critically about things
- Take the time to really understand the problem
- Acknowledge the variables involved - no problem is in isolation
- They ultimately have a growth mindset (they refuse to think “I haven’t done this before, therefore I can’t do it”)
2 - Learning
“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.” - Charlie Munger
This skill is probably the most obvious of the four. Learning has always been an important skill of humanity and we are incredibly good at it. But as our world becomes more complex, the number of skills we have to learn in a lifetime, and the speed at which we have to learn them, is beyond humanity’s comfort zone.
The job we will have in 20 years time likely doesn’t exist today, and we have to get comfortable with reinventing ourselves. As Yuval Noah Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, says “In the 21st century you can’t afford stability, if you try to hold on to some stable identity, job or world-view, you risk being left behind as the world flies by you with a woosh. To stay relevant, not just economically but above all socially, you will need the ability to constantly learn and reinvent yourself”.
Personally, learning to learn has changed my life. I hated school most of my life and I couldn’t wait for adulthood to get me out of it. I was an average student. And although I found some subjects such as science really interesting, most of the time I studied for the grades.
It wasn’t until I was 23 when I started learning to code—out of completely losing hope of ever doing anything interesting with my Pharmaceutical Science degree—that I started to fall in love with learning. It was also the first time that I started to learn the meta skill of learning to learn. The difference between my new experience of learning and that in school was like night and day. At school, I learned abstract concepts I didn’t know why I was learning; here, I was told to build something; so I had to learn my way into building it.
Learning, really learning, has had an impact on my quality of life, confidence, job prospects, income, social capital and above all on how I perceive the world. I now view the world with a growth mindset, that most of the obstacles between me and what I want to achieve in the world, can be removed by learning.
At least once a year, but ideally more frequently, set aside the time to think critically about where you want to be in the future. Picture the best version of yourself without limiting yourself. Understand that the thing that stands between you and that person is skills, habits and opportunities (luck).
Then think about the skills. Break them up into categories, for instance, career, health and relationships. Then take one of each category and write down what skill you need to develop. For example maybe you want to become a better friend, this a goal rather than a skill, so break it down further and determine what skill you’re lacking. Say you feel you need to listen better. Now that is a skill to develop; listening skills. The next thing you need is a learning feedback loop.
For example you could start by picking up a book about listening skills, but apply your learnings right away, before waiting to finish the book. The moment you learn something, apply it, and observe the results. Perform experiments on loved ones who know you are trying to improve your listening skills. One experiment you could do is to let them talk and then discreetly keep a tally of every time you catch yourself wandering off or thinking about yourself. Then continue with the book and other resources and perform the experiment again, this time checking if there is a change in the tally. This is your feedback loop and the tighter the feedback loop, the quicker and the more you improve.
Next, you have to make this a habit so the new skill becomes ingrained. Start small, and celebrate your improvements. Your friends will slowly notice your improvement and start to see you as more likeable; leading to not only stronger relationships but even new friendships, as your friends start to introduce you to more people. AKA opportunity or “luck”.
- Follow your curiosity and desires
- Break the skill up into small components
- Have a tight feedback loop (apply, observe, refine)
- Learn from different sources
- Turn the new skill (and learning itself) into a habit. (You can learn more about habit formation here)
3 - Self-awareness
Yuval Noah Harari, author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century points out “As biotech and machine learning improve it will never be easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart. When Coca Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, will you still be able to tell the difference between yourself and their marketing expert? To succeed at such a daunting task you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are and what you want from life. This of course the oldest advice in the book, know thyself.”
In an age where little change happens in an entire generation, self-awareness is of little importance. Such a society is homogenous, meaning values are shared, and the path of getting from A to B is well-defined, and the number of total available paths are limited. Even if you attempt to determine your core values and interests in such a world, you likely won’t be able to find enough people in your neighbourhood with the same interests.
In a world of little change, being unique is unfavourable.
But as Naval points out, “The internet allows any niche obsession to scale”, meaning that today, honing on your uniqueness is exactly what makes you thrive. And to do that, we need to get to know ourselves. By critically differentiating between our own voice and the voice of society, we can reject conventional one-size-fits-all wisdom and find ourselves. In short, if you know yourself you know how to align yourself and your environment to best serve each other.
For example, the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker, points to research showing that: “Pessimists outperform optimists in law school…because they can’t tell themselves happy stories about how a deal with unfold.” If your family wishes you to pursue a law degree for instance—knowing that you’re a highly optimistic person, together with the above observation, can make the difference between becoming an unhappy lawyer and a successful entrepreneur where optimism can be a determining asset. Of course, this is a highly simplified example, but the point remains that people do best when who they are best aligns with their environment.
This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, “Successful careers are not planned, they develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person, hard working and competent but otherwise mediocre into an outstanding performer.” It’s striking though, how few of us are self-aware, yet how much the skill is neglected. As Tasha Eurich points out “95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% actually are”.
Yuval suggests meditation as the best technique to not only make sense of our rapidly changing world but to get to know ourselves. “How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?…Clarity is power.” “Mediation is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality.” And a way to understand “your operating system”.
While Yuval suggests meditation as the main method to understand ourselves, Tasha Eurich sees meditation as only one of many practical tools available to us. I have previously written about Tasha’s advice on developing self-awareness. Here are key tips from that post:
“Think about what gives you and takes away your energy”: This is a compelling way to help reflect and amend your environment accordingly. This will help you determine which type of people to keep in your life and which types to avoid. Which type of situations to go into and which to avoid. Which type of activities to do and which to avoid. Since time is one of our most important assets, the implications are profound.
“Ask what, not why questions”: If you said something to a friend that you later regret, you may find yourself saying things like: why did I say that? Why do I always make a fool out of myself? Why didn’t I just think before I opened my month? Ruminating on a past behaviour by asking why you did X is not productive. In fact, research has shown that it negatively impacts our well-being and weakens our immune system. So instead if you ask, what questions, such as, what can I do to make her feel better, what can I do to avoid finding myself in this situation again? you will come up with solutions to improve the situation.
Asking for feedback: Tasha recommends finding a ‘loving critic’ such as a friend, family member, mentor etc, who is willing to give you honest feedback. Watch out though as some loved ones will only tell you what you want to hear, while others such as a competitive colleague might have a hidden motive. Once you find the right individual, plan a dinner with them and ask them what is the thing that annoys them most about you. For this to work well, you can’t get defensive, instead name the emotion and listen. They are giving you a gift and getting defensive will prevent them from telling you the full story, the parts that you desperately need to know.
4 - Empathy
This neuroscience research paper defines empathy as “the capacity to share and understand the thoughts and feelings of others”.
Let’s talk about decision making. The age of change lends itself to a more complex world in which decision making becomes more challenging. Not to mention, the increase in the number of life-altering decisions you have to make, given how often individuals change jobs for instance. In a study carried out by Careerbuilder, 45% of employees planned to stay with their employer for less than two years. Compare that to a few generations ago, where most people stayed in a job for decades. That means, less life-altering decisions.
As with the other skills and perhaps more so, empathy has always been important. However, it’s the scale of change that increases the importance of empathy.
The truth is, every problem we encounter, is connected to humans in one way or another. For decisions that only affect ourselves such as a single person choosing between job A and job B, then self-awareness is key. Of course, many decisions involve other people. Given that humans are driven by emotions, those who can best mentally simulate how others must feel, are the ones who can make better decisions. The importance of empathy in decision making is often neglected however.
In the past, life-long relationships were more prevalent and made up of the large percentage of the total number of relationships people had. Today however, we have many more short-life relationships. In such a world, the time you have to really get to know someone is a lot shorter.
The less time you have to get the know someone, the more important it is to be empathetic and in tune to other people’s emotions. This makes you more trustworthy and likeable.
- One of the best things you can do to become more empathetic is to listen intently
- Show interest in other people, ask them questions about themselves
- Give them plenty of time to speak, then summarise what they’ve said to ensure you have understood it
- Ask questions rather tell people what to do. For example, instead of “You should talk to your parents about X” it’s better to say “Do you think it would be helpful for you to talk to your parents about X”. This gives the other person the opportunity to decide for themselves.
If they are sharing a negative experience, instead of saying “I know how you feel” or “I’ve been there, but everything turned out fine”, it’s actually better to say something like “I’m sorry this is happening”. Sociologist Charles Derber calls the former response “conversational narcissism”, the tendency to shift the focus of the conversation to yourself. He describes two types of responses a shift response and a support response. E.g.:
- Person A: I’m so tired today.
- Person B: Me too! I can’t wait to go home.
- Person A: I’m so tired today.
- Person B: Oh, how come? Did you have a lot on today?
This allows the other person to continue sharing their narrative, instead of making it about us. As Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk points out, “While reciprocity is an important part of any meaningful conversation, the truth is shifting the attention to our own experiences is completely natural. Modern humans are hardwired to talk about themselves more than any other topic.” However, “the cerebral cortex, takes in the information that people tell us and then tries to find a relevant experience in our memory banks that can give context to the information.” The issue here is that “The more comfortable you are, the more difficult it is to empathize with the suffering of another.” In other words, if you have a shared experience, say you have both missed your flight, then your assumption of how they feel is likely to be accurate, since you are experiencing the same issue. However, if you are having a great day, and your friend has just missed their flight, your good mood will likely cause you to underestimate how they must be feeling. So one of the best things you can do in this case is to just listen, make the other person feel heard and give them the opportunity to work things out through you.
While this post focuses on thriving in the age of change in the context of work and personal relationships, I don’t want to overlook health.
Unlike our careers in which using the past as a model would render us redundant, when it comes to our biology, drawing from the past is a good bet.
It goes without saying that our ancestors slept more, consumed less sugar and processed foods, had more idle time and moved their bodies a lot more. Not because they had better self control, but because that’s what their environment forced them to do.
Conquering our biology is a discipline that can’t be ignored. Those who thrive in the age of continuous change and increased abundance, have created systems that deal with the mismatch between our evolution and our new environment.
In the end, change is the only constant. I’ll leave you with this quote from Alan Watts.
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts