Skills for a world that constantly changes

You can read a German version of this article here.

For 50 years Moore’s Law has been changing the world at a stunning pace. The constant doubling of computing power that goes hand in hand with increased efficiency and reduced component size is causing a nonstop rapid evolution of what technology can do. Today’s next big thing will be outdated the day after tomorrow. The impact on the economy, on politics and our social life is huge. Forecasts about what comes next are getting harder and harder, even in the short term.

Because of this development, individuals are confronted with permanent uncertainty about what will happen in 10, 5 or even only in 2 years. The questions that are looking for an answer are numerous. Will my profession or customer group still exist? Are fixed employments to be replaced by freelancing and contract gigs? Will robots take away all our jobs? Will cars drive themselves soon? In which city or country am I going to live? How will we deal with climate change? Do we have to expect violent conflicts and wars in our close proximity? Is China about to take over the U.S. in regards to global power and thus changing the world order? Which new gadget will be as revolutionary as the smartphone? Can democracy be defended against the pressure of autocrats, fundamentalism, terrorism and mass surveillance? Is it even worth it to start a family and settle down? Will humans be able to conquer and live on Mars? And so on.

One does not need to like the continual anticipation of changes and the consequent pressure to steadily having to get used to new conditions. But this is reality that one needs to accept. Those who do want to make sure to cope and even benefit have to adjust. Stubbornness and resistance to change won’t be rewarded in the long term. For individuals, “adjusting” primarily means to learn and acquire new skills. Skills that will enable us to navigate through the challenges and uncertainties of the next decades and that put us in a position of strength. Coming up are some suggestions what kind of skills and know-how that could be. I am happy to hear additions in the comments.

Learning to code

This is an obvious one. People who know how to code improve their career opportunities and become capable of hacking together their own solutions for personal needs. A rudimentary experience in coding also generally helps to understand a world which increasingly is shaped and controlled by computers. The great news is that acquiring coding skills has become much easier thanks to the Internet and the vast number of mostly free resources to learn specific programming languages. As long as self-discipline and endurance are ensured, small successes are almost guaranteed.

Learning foreign languages

This recommendation might initially sound old-fashioned and obsolete, considering how translation software is advancing. With Skype’s recently released real-time translator, people can talk to each other in foreign languages and get voice translations instantly. However, ultimately people will always prefer to skip technical tools if they can have a fluent face-to-face conversation in a joint language. So being able to speak and understand one or more foreign languages will remain a great skill, and it also acts as a personal quality seal because it is evidence of intellectual capacity. Especially when it comes to languages that have the reputation to be hard to learn. Furthermore, speaking foreign languages creates intercultural understanding  – something extremely important in a globalized world with multicultural societies. It also helps to keep the brain in a good shape during aging. As with coding, there are many online services and apps that make language learning easier and more fun, like Duolingo, Babbel oder busuu. For those who want to try out Mandarin, Chinese Skill might be worth a look. It’s like Duolingo but for Chinese.

Learning to better understand humans

To be able to have a conversation with someone in the same language does not guarantee mutual understanding though. Today’s societies are often being characterized as being especially polarized. And that should not surprise anyone. Thanks to the Internet and its global character, different views on the world, on politics and religion are clashing, leading to seemingly never-ending debates and controversies. At the same time, even in people’s work lifes, the established structures are eroding. The model of the lifelong employer which guaranteed maximum stability and a long-standing network of colleagues and peers, is being replaced by project work, freelance gigs and fast changes of work places. That leads to a constant need to cooperate and interact with new people, new groups in new environments. That this is not always easy can be best understood if you take a seat at a commuter train during rush hour. Often colleagues travel together and their conversations more often than not refer to third persons who somehow failed to live up to their expectations (which of course also could mean that their expectations were unrealistic or not communicated well).

One more factor that contributes to polarization is the demise of established social norms and hierarchies. These often have been a point of reference for individuals, helping them to evaluate situations and offering suggestions about what kinds of actions and reactions might be expected from them.

All this together means that individuals permanently have to position themselves in a complex world towards others in a convincing way that also is aligned with their own immediate and long-term goals. In order to pull that off with a high success rate and without wasting precious time and energy on useless discussions and on disappointments about others, knowledge about the human psychology is very helpful. Anger and conflict management, argumentation strategies, a realistic self-assessment and the skill to empathically assess and understand others are useful instruments to avoid ending up in too many conflicts but also to achieve what one wants to achieve. Let’s keep in mind: If someone is going to ruin this planet, it won’t be technology but humans who build and operate the technology. It won’t hurt to learn how these humans actually function.

Increasing antifragility

Antifragility: Things That Gain From Disorder” is a highly recommended book written by the researcher and philosopher Nicholas Taleb. In it he describes how human-made systems are volatile and easy to break when unexpected or extraordinary things happen. To counter this problem, Taleb introduces the concept of antifragility, which creates a state in which systems can easily absorb sudden stress and even get stronger. The author focuses on social, political and economical systems. But I think his philosophy can easily be applied to individual lives. The better we mentally and practically are equipped for sudden unexpected events, the less we fear them. How to increase one’s personal antifragility cannot be generalized. In my eyes the starting point is to create attitude which leads to a sensibility for questions of antifragility, which then influences personal actions and decisions in everyday life. So that next time when out of nowhere uncertainty strikes or a stressful situation arises, one can turn it into an opportunity.

Digitizing the existence

This point is one of the practical actions that in my opinion arise from the concept of antifragility: In our time, the conditions of our lives can change often and sometimes almost from one day to another. Maybe we are forced to spontaneously move somewhere else for a job. Or perhaps a friend comes up with a great business idea and a week later we are involved with a brand new startup. Or maybe we are on vacation but unexpectedly need to deal with a bureaucratic or administrative task at home. Or we are facing a personal financial crisis due to an unfortunate chain of events and need to cut down on costs as well as increase income quickly. In all these and many more situations it can be great if we are able to act fast and flexible without having to waste time or money. Digitizing means enabling us to do that by leveraging digital technology. Measures can reach from putting all our important information and documents into the cloud, making use of the sharing economy or being savvy when it comes to smart financial planning using innovative online services.

Increasing data sovereignty and security know-how

Since Edward Snowden there is no doubt anymore how far systematic mass surveillance already has advanced. Additionally, large-scale hacker attacks are threatening companies as well as individuals more and more often. Also, companies are investing heavily into ways to collect increasing amounts of data from everyone. Thus the threats on personal integrity, privacy and data security are rather big. Unfortunately, for average people who are not willing to engage in exceptional measures, full protection seems to be impossible. However, there are many ways with which one can at least make it a little bit harder for unauthorized entities to intrude into our digital private sphere. Additionally, we can gather knowledge to be able to properly evaluate risks and threats. Even if we remain vulnerable, we at least become aware of it and can make better-informed decisions about our actions.

Embracing risk-taking and learning to love change

Some cultures are more prone to risk-taking than others. Some people have a natural optimism about change whereas others are getting stomach pain only when thinking of that something significant might force them out of their comfort zone soon. This is something we have to accept. However, each and everyone has the capability to change their attitude towards risks and to learn accepting change as a natural and welcome state of life. The willingness and readiness to take a risk or to make a life-changing decision can open many doors and opportunities. It sounds stereotypical yet I believe it is true: Constant change is the new status quo. That brings a lot of opportunities. But we need to be willing to see them.


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