The human race has seen more social and technological change in the past two decades than in all previous centuries combined. Things are changing so fast that we barely have time to steady ourselves after one technological wave, before another washes up on deck and sweeps us off our feet again.
It’s easy to see why this is happening when we look at technological development in historical terms. Older technologies, like the telephone and the car, were adopted by consumers gradually, over time, sometimes over decades. Newer technologies, like the cell phone and social media, spread seemingly overnight, taking almost no time to go from invention to universal use.
Today, each new technology scales with bewildering speed. It is no longer an adoption curve; it’s an adoption rocket. With AI, genetic engineering and robotics on the anvil, this pace is unlikely to let up anytime soon. It’s disrupting political, economic and social systems as well as cultural norms and social roles.
It is also taking a toll on each of us psychologically and emotionally.
Disruption: in business, education, and everyday life
Examples of this disruption abound. The impact of social media on the Brexit election and across the world has yet to be completely understood and poses the question: Are free and fair elections still possible? Even the creators of these digital technologies have limited understanding of them and in some cases lose control when AI algorithms take over, as with the awkward situation that arose when the recent Notre-Dame fire was algorithmically and inappropriately classified with a very different kind of conflagration, the 9/11 attacks.
As an educator, I’ve seen schools stockpile technology and then struggle to bring it to life in a meaningful way to improve learning. The money spent hasn’t translated into large-scale value creation. It reminds us of author Peter Drucker’s words: “Do not confuse motion with progress.”
During a recent car ride (Lyft) in Manhattan, I learnt from the driver that one of his friends is filing personal bankruptcy because he acquired two New York City cab medallions for $800K about a decade ago, and now with ride-share services gaining popularity the medallions are worth a fraction of the price he paid. Disruption can happen fast and hit us in the face. With self-driving cars just round the corner, even the Uber/Lyft drivers will soon be facing disruption.
The above three examples from different settings highlight the forces of disruption and the need for us to recast our political, educational, and economic systems. Creating change on one dimension is a daunting task. Imagine doing that on multiple dimensions.
If we don’t change ourselves, it will be impossible to change the systems and institutions that govern and enable us. Rapid learning and rapid execution are keys to staying ahead.
Three key skills
There are three key attributes that I’m convinced we must cultivate in order to take on the challenges the fast-paced disruptive world throws at us: learning agility, resilience, and grounded optimism.
1. Learning agility: This is the ability and willingness to learn and then apply that learning effectively to prevail even in unfamiliar situations. The seeds of lifelong learning come from curiosity. Curiosity is the innate urge to know, the spark that drives us to explore, discover, invent and reinvent. Today, as we get older, most of us don’t make a point of nurturing our curiosity. But we will have to do it and get better at it. If we don’t learn, how will we evolve? If we end up with a fixed mindset, it will be harder to adapt, evolve and excel.
As Alvin Toffler predicted: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
How can one develop learning agility?
• Be curious – start by asking “why?” Do it continually.
• Explore. Try new things and engage with different types of people.
• Reflect. Cultivate self-awareness. Make yourself do this. Actively seek feedback and help. See failure as learning.
A Harvard Business Review article on “Improve your ability to learn” calls out Innovating, Performing, Reflecting and Risking as key learning ability enablers.
2. Resilience: This is the quality that enables one to bounce back when knocked down by life. It helps us to endure and thrive. In a disruptive world, coping with stress and catastrophe are vital, as adversity and new challenges become mainstays of life.
Resilience is important in personal life and business. Take a quick test to see where you stand on three key attributes of resilience: challenge, control and commitment.
How can you build resilience?
• Practice cognitive reframing. Learn to make the mental shifts necessary to identify the upsides and not just the downsides of a difficult situation.
• Avoid the victimization mindset (“Why is this happening to me?”) It’s not helpful.
3. Grounded optimism: Optimism is the propensity to anticipate the best possible outcome. Grounded optimism is where that optimism has a healthy dose of realism and pessimism blended in with it. Grounded optimists are wired to take the positive emotion and convert that into tangible action leading to realistic solutions.
Optimism can be learned. Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, introduced the concept of learned optimism based on his research on learned helplessness. Stanford has a survey based on Martin's research to analyse one's mindset – the pessimist-optimist spectrum.
How to build grounded optimism?
• Focus on the positive.
• Read about optimists and keep company with people who have both an optimistic and realistic outlook.
• Be mindful. Mindfulness is a skill, and there’s a lot to it. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to help you cultivate it.
As we dive deeper into the 21st century (shorter product life cycles, breaking business models, competing against machines), IQ alone will not be sufficient to help us adapt. A healthy dose of EQ (emotional intelligence) and RQ (resilience quotient) are critical as we chart our courses.
Today, we live in a “VUCA” world, characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In this world, it isn't how hard you fall or how many times you fall, but how fast you get up that matters. Are you ready to unleash the VUCA warrior in you?