My kids can’t comprehend how I ever organized a social life back in the ancient pre-Facebook era. Their digital brains boggle even further trying to imagine how anyone ever did their job without computers, email or mobile phones.
‘We used to send smoke signals,’ I chide them.
In their world, as they sit on the couch with their iPads, skyping their friends on the far side of the globe, that may as well have been true for them. What they don’t realize is that by the time they become parents, their children will think the technology they use today is as antiquated as the pagers and shoe box sized “mobile phones” many in my generation relied on to do their job just 20 years ago.
Adult education experts estimate that up to 40% of what tertiary students are learning will be obsolete a decade from now when they will be working in jobs that have yet to be created. Indeed, the top 10 most in-demand jobs today didn’t even exist 10 years ago. To say that we live in a changing world understates the speed of both the pace and the scope of ongoing change.
Of course it’s not just technology that’s changing the world. Profound changes in demography and longevity have experts predicting that by 2020 there will be more people over 65 years old than under age 15 in the world’s developed countries. Add to this the social changes in family structure, the globalization of talent, and continued innovation in technology, and it’s hard to imagine just what the world and it’s increasingly mobile workforce will look like 20 years from now. Certainly nothing like it looked twenty years ago!
For the three-plus billion people in the workforce, it’s not just about keeping up with the rate of change and the nature of the work we do, but how we do it and where. When anyone can work from anywhere, it changes the nature of work everywhere. Traditional boundaries disappear and the global talent pool becomes more skilled and mobile, which presents a challenge for people in developed countries to adapt faster to simply stay competitive. Your ability to adapt to change and proactively make changes in your career is what will make a crucial difference to where you find yourself even just five years from now. To quote Mr Darwin: ”It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
While we’re all born with an intense desire to learn, somewhere along the line many of us lose our passion for learning. The pressure to excel in school with its ever-pressing emphasis on test scores can rob the enjoyment from the process of learning. Whatever the reasons, once the basics are covered, many people tend to stick with what they know and avoid situations or challenges where they may mess up or be forced to learn something new, thus creating a safe, secure and comfortable (and confining) world for themselves. Here, they do their best to mould the changes going on around them—in people, events and the general environment—to fit with their current ‘mental maps.’ They may say they’re open to change, but actually do their best to avoid it. For a while, that strategy can work fairly well. What it doesn’t do is prepare them to adapt to a future that may well require an entirely new set of maps.
As any ex-typewriter repair person might tell you, refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing will eventually land you in a tough spot, with few options and a lot of forced learning (for instance, how to live on minimum wage). When you resist learning, unlearning and relearning, the options available to you can narrow greatly. When it comes to adapting to change, delay is increasingly expensive as you quickly lose your place in a world forever marching steadily forward.
Of course it’s not about acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake. We can all acquire copious amounts of knowledge just by sitting on Wikipedia all day. Your iPhone alone gives you access to more information at your fingertips that you can process in your entire lifetime, much less actually use.
In 1992 Bill Clinton declared that if you just ‘work hard and play by the rules’ you’ll get ahead, have a good life and pave the way for your kids to have an even better one. It’s a nice sentiment that resonates with many people. Unfortunately, it’s no longer true. In 1992 the internet was only beginning to emerge, few people used email and students were still using encyclopedias to research assignments. It was a world in which technology had yet to revolutionize business; a world where working remotely was still a rarity and many people stayed in jobs for life.
Much has changed since then, including the rules for getting ahead. To succeed today you must be in a constant state of adaptation – continually unlearning old ‘rules’ and relearning new ones. That requires continually questioning assumptions about how things work, challenging old paradigms, and ‘relearning’ what is now relevant in your job, your industry, your career and your life.
Learning agility is the name of the game. Where the rules are changing fast, your ability to be agile in letting go of old rules and learning new ones is increasingly important. Learning agility is the key to unlocking your change proficiency and succeeding in an uncertain, unpredictable and constantly evolving environment, both personally and professionally. There are countless things you may have to unlearn in your job, business and career, even in the course of the next 12 months.
Unlearn the designs you use.
Unlearn the methodology you use.
Unlearn the technology you use.
Unlearn the way you approach your brand.
Unlearn the way you communicate your value.
Unlearn the way you deliver your value.
Unlearn the skills and knowledge needed to get to the next level.
Unlearn who your target market is, what they want and why
Unlearn how to get the most from your employees.
Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring. It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70% of the work while repainting is only 30%.
As the global economy evolves and market forces drive competition for jobs to new levels, it’s the people who have proactively worked to expand and diversify their skill sets who will be the most well placed. When you synthesize your knowledge and skills well, you evolve from a knowledge expert into a knowledge entrepreneur. The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote, ‘Everyone has to bring something extra; being average is no longer enough. Everyone is looking for employees who can do critical thinking and problem solving … just to get an interview. What they are really looking for are people who can invent, re-invent and re-engineer their jobs while doing them.’
Lamplighters, switchboard operators, typesetters, icemen, buggy builders, copy boys, elevator operators, carriage drivers, telegraph operators… all of these jobs became obsolete. The reality is that jobs and careers evolve over time, requiring you to adapt your ideas about ‘career.’ Certainly in many companies today, traditional career paths have gone the way of the dodo, especially those in newly created technology and online jobs. Expecting a step-by-step map for the next year, much less 25 years, is simply unrealistic. You have to take more ownership for mapping out a path of your own that may well veer off the traditional ‘career path,’ but which may be far more interesting than any traditional (and predictable) path could ever be.
People who find opportunities in a changing environment are those who are actively looking for them. The choice is simple: act or be acted upon. Since change is the only constant you can truly rely upon, learning to navigate and adapt to it is not just important to your survival, it’s essential for you to thrive in the bigger game of life.
As futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”