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Learning: The #1 Skill That Everyone Needs in the 21st Century

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In an age of stories of ‘digital disruption’ we are increasingly seeing and hearing stories of the need to up-skill or risk seeing our jobs or even entire professions get automated.

The only key that any of us have to succeeding must the relentless pursuit of improvement. This sounds exhausting but it is accurate. Here’s why.

Technology is changing exponentially

“Technology has advanced more in the last thirty years than in the previous two thousand. The exponential increase in advancement will only continue”.

Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist

Okay, so I’m not sure in what year Niels Bohr said this but in case you somehow have not heard of him, he died in 1962. It’s fair to say that the word exponential makes sense in his description of technological advancement. Could anyone have foreseen just how technologically advanced we’d be in 2018 all the way back in 1962? Or, for context, think of the impact that the smartphone has had on our lives and all of the other businesses that it has enabled. Think Facebook, Instagram, Uber, online banking…..

Routine based work will be automated

It’s not difficult to see how any kind of logical, analytical or routine based work can either be outsourced or at worst, automated.

I remember one of my first jobs out of university was in hedge fund administration. In my first two years in the position, an entirely new management information system was introduced which made my job a lot easier.

Sounds great? I certainly thought it was, at first. But it also removed some of the human value that I could bring to the job in terms of client specific routines and procedures that I was able to create and manage. These are things that I had codified in my brain and they enabled me to add value to my client’s interactions with the company.

From a business perspective, this also meant that there was a risk that when a fund administrator left the organisation, clients could be upset as the specific routines and procedures that had been developed for them could be forgotten.

For this reason, I can see how it made sense commercially to codify procedures. For one thing, it standardised procedures from fund to fund. It also made it easier for staff to take over responsibility for administering new or different funds. But if you think about the bottom line, it meant that the work people did was less valuable. This had the knock-on effect of making it more difficult to ask for a promotion or a pay rise.

If this example doesn’t mean anything to you, maybe it makes sense to draw a line with the supermarket cashier, the bank teller, the switchboard operator, the movie projectionist, assembly line projectionists. We are going to see automation of at least part of many white-collar jobs in the coming years.

Are you in the management stream? (Do you want to be?)

I remember discussing this with a friend who asked me if I was in the ‘management stream’. As I examined the work that I was doing, I had to admit that I needed to be involved in more value adding activities to make progress in my career. I wasn’t in the stream and found it difficult to envision a pathway to get into that stream. And so, I moved on.

Side note: It was my first full time professional position. Was I also immature and self-entitled to want to progress quickly? Admittedly, yes! But in terms of my intuition about technology taking away the value I could add to the job, and just as importantly, the satisfaction that I could get out of doing a good job, I continue to think that my logic was sound.

Fast forward to 10 years later. I work in marketing. The impact of digital has meant that marketing is a discipline that is in constant flux. If you work in marketing, it’s either a very exciting time to be a marketer, or it’s stressful! Why? Because things are changing so quickly.

Marketers are either excited about topics like marketing automation, AI and machine learning and what industry will be next to get ‘disrupted’ — (ahem, banking), or they are apprehensive. One thing that marketers can certainly agree on is that anything that can be digitised or automated will be. Incidentally, if you work in marketing and are interested in this topic, we wrote a report at Econsultancy called How Marketers Learn. Check it out.

Focus on what can’t be automated and learn everything you can about that topic

In the words of one of my idol’s David Bowie, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. And so, we need to identify those things that can’t be automated or digitised, and learn everything we can about them. The best way to equip ourselves to do this, is to always be learning. If there is one key skills that anyone should consider improving this year, it’s the ability to learn.

Three reasons to always be learning

  1. Getting better at something provides a great source of energy. It’s true. Our brains release dopamine when we learn new and interesting things. What’s not to like about that?
  2. Everybody wants to achieve their potential. Don’t sabotage your potential by not learning new things and exposing yourself to new ideas. Learning is at the heart achieving one’s potential. To learn is to live.
  3. Change is inevitable. Here is something to ponder over — the pace of change today is the slowest it will ever be. Our best response is to suck it up and deal with it!

So, it’s important to always be learning, or at the very least, always be curious (ABC)! In the words of Socrates: “The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery”.

If you are interested in learning about learning, there are tonnes of great books on the topic. One of my favourites is called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley. Don’t let the word “math” scare you off. It’s a fun and very accessible read that focuses more on the science of learning than mathematics.

If I’ve convinced you of the value of learning, my next post will be about turning dead time, like commuting into learning time. Feedback, comments, critique and of course learning tips welcome 🙂

Note: This post was first published on LinkedIn on 25th January.

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