Robots are coming – How to thrive in an automated world Hint: Be more human

There’s been a lot of talk on how automation will affect us.

Leading institutions like McKinsey and the World Economic Forum have released in-depth studies on automation,  and social media mentions of “Future of Work” have risen 40% since last year.

Nobody knows exactly what’s coming, but experts expect big shifts in the way we live and work.

Help! Robots stole my job

On one end, the optimists anticipate a net creation of jobs.

Take automated teller machines (ATMs), for example. Although ATMs were expected to make bank tellers obsolete, they actually resulted in more demand for frontline staff. As ATMs took over routine work, it became cheaper to operate a branch. More branches opened, leading to higher employment. Service staff could now be engaged in higher value work such as sales and customer service.

On the other end we have the pessimists, who believe that automation will take away jobs – just like how stenographers, weavers, and farmers all lost their jobs to machines. Some even suggest we’ll have to institute universal basic income to support the redundant.

Winners and losers

With all advancements, there are winners and losers.

As technology develops, society will increasingly demand specialists to work with complex machines, robots, and artificial intelligence. Benefits will accrue to those who can create or work with technology.

Economists call this ‘job polarisation’, a phenomenon where middle-class jobs disappear, leaving highly-paid, high-skilled jobs (lawyers, architects, bankers, programmers) and lowly-paid, low-skilled jobs (waiters, cleaners).

How you can stay ahead

While robots can replace us in routine functions, other competencies remain irreplaceable.

These competencies are:

  • Social and emotional capabilities
  • Creativity
  • Generating novel patterns
  • Logical reasoning / problem solving
  • Management / coordination
  • Natural language understanding

In short, reports found that the more ‘human’ the job, the more difficult it was to be automated.

Being ‘human’ refers to having the ability to empathise with fellow human beings, understand emotions, and create the right social/emotional response.  Being ‘human’ also refers to the ability to create, synthesise information, and find novel solutions.

Like how ATMs allowing service staff to engage in more ‘human’ activities like sales, automation will require us to become more human.

Being a great human

Strategy 1: Attain mastery

In the McKinsey report on the Future of Work, applying expertise to decision-making, planning, and creative tasks was the second least likely to be automated (the first was management). As automation makes repetitive tasks redundant, it becomes ever more important to achieve mastery in a field of work.

To achieve mastery, we have to find a field of work so meaningful and engaging that we are willing to dedicate our lives to it. It could be anything from music to dance to science to finance. This means digging deep into ourselves and uncovering our personal values, passions, talents and gifts.

There are two ways to view our work. One is that it is just a job, an exchange of time and energy for money. Another is to view it as a vocation, a craft we hone and take pride in. Achieving mastery requires us to take the second view.

Strategy 2: Build social and emotional competencies

It’s not easy to build emotional mastery. Of our three channels – physical, intellectual, and emotional – we tend to favour the physical and the intellectual. The physical body being the most visceral, we’ve learned to control physical impulses and hone our survival instincts since birth. As we grow up, we naturally use our intellect to learn how to speak, study, and process information. Modern school systems also prize intellectual growth over emotional growth.

Emotionally, many of us are stuck at childish levels of maturity. Emotions bring us happiness, sadness, pleasure and pain – intense states of being that sometimes overwhelm us. Unable to deal with the emotions, many of us learn to numb ourselves. We are afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to feel, afraid to express ourselves emotionally. But in doing that, we unknowingly cut off our capacity for creativity, intuition, empathy, and joy.

So we have to rebuild our emotional capabilities. We have to learn to feel, to express, to become aware of our feelings. That opens up the doors to leadership, management, care-giving, teaching, counseling, and other kinds of human-centered work.

Strategy 3: Become a super learner

As the world leaps forward, we must not remain stagnant. According to Darwin, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment.

As the life cycle of skills gets shorter and shorter, we find our skills becoming obsolete quicker than ever. Paradoxically, we are also required to have deep skills and expertise.

That means that our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn becomes crucial.

Many people are unable to unlearn and relearn not because they lack the ability, but because of their attitudes. We become more fixed in our ways and stop taking risks. We stop growing.

But that won’t do in the new economy.

We must be malleable, open, willing to face uncertainty. We must be willing to go up and down the learning curve again and again, braving the sea of unknown while gradually building new competence.

Self-development as a foundation

The foundation of all these strategies is personal mastery.

We need to be able to go deep within ourselves to uncover our life’s task and passions, our reason for existence, to unleash the creative energy and inspirations that propel ourselves forward.

To develop emotionally, we also have to do the inner work necessary to break our emotional barriers and confront ourselves, so that we can see and experience our inner truths, and follow their guidance to achieve personal greatness.

Finally, unlearning and relearning requires great will, resilience and humility – qualities we must develop in order to thrive.

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