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We can navigate the future of work by looking back at our legacy of change

The Adaptation Advantage explains that the way change happens, driven by technology and social adjustment, is as fluid and nuanced as we humans are.

By Susan Lahey

Published October 19, 2020
Last updated November 3, 2020

“The future of work is often presented as a binary choice: a hunger game between organic and silicon cognition that results in either a dystopian nightmare in which humans fight for the last jobs not taken by robots or an nearly inconceivable utopia where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, yet we bask in the leisure and self-expression afforded our newfound time free from work.”

Tucked in the middle of The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work the above sentence describes two opposing beliefs about where we’re headed—where all this accelerated social, technological, and economic change is taking us. Authors Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley, (and the forward by Thomas L. Friedman), explain that the reality is far more complex and interesting than either of these options. In fact, the two concepts above are kind of based on the old, linear paradigm that things go in one direction: from birth to death. Robots will take over the earth and everything humans have come to identify as themselves, and their purpose, will be erased. And who will we be then?

The Adaptation Advantage explains that the way change happens, driven by technology and social adjustment, is much more like real life in that humans are constantly changing—even from being babies to children to teens to adults, and so on. We don’t have the same bodies we had a few years ago, the same knowledge base, the same understanding. We add and drop things in a perpetual progression, just like the evolution of technology. And just like technology, we’re not only moving in one direction; we’re moving in many—and through our work, our play, our relationships, we’re redefining what we believe is meaningful. Now we just have to learn to embrace that reality rather than clinging to the idea we’re like a train on a track.

We add and drop things in a perpetual progression, just like the evolution of technology. And just like technology, we're not only moving in one direction; we're moving in many—and through our work, our play, our relationships, we're redefining what we believe is meaningful.

Making the argument for abandoning your old identity

Today, the idea of learning, working, retiring is something that happens continuously in “flows” of knowledge, the authors explain. One great example was of an educator they interviewed who said he didn’t know what he would do outside of academia. The writers were shocked.

“Will had exercised tremendous skills through a wide array of challenges,” including negotiating through teachers’ strikes, helping a school recover and move forward from a fire that damaged the buildings, managing public relations, mentoring students…. “Any of these skills are transferable to hundreds of jobs that would never have ‘educator’ in the job description,” they wrote.

Most of us are like this educator. We see our education and our various job titles rather than seeing all the various skill sets and knowledge bases that comprise that job. We think we’re a puzzle that only goes together one way. The authors encourage readers to, in a sense, pick their job history apart for these components and find out what new thing, new expertise or job they can create if they combine these talents and skills in a different way. So a project manager might be a negotiator, an analyst, a planner, a logistics expert, a salesperson...and so on. They might find a new role that emphasizes one of these aspects they’re really good at and enjoy, that is a totally different job title. And then, in a few years, when the world changes again, they can take their new experiences and skills and redesign themselves again. This is what it means to adapt, and it comes with a lot of freedom and creativity.

[Related read: The bright future of generalists in the workplace]

The authors explain how deeply ingrained it is in our society to identify with our profession, and that the loss of a job can cause even greater trauma than the loss of a loved one. Our identity—and often career choice—is shaped by our family, gender, race, community…. What kind of work your parents and neighbors had will probably direct your idea of your own career, often closing out a lot of possibilities. We expect small children to label themselves when we ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we don’t accept the answers of “a unicorn” or “a gorilla” as valid. After toddlerhood, the pressure to identify oneself with one’s profession never eases up. We associate all kinds of attributes to someone who is, say, a journalist, a massage therapist, a chef, a doctor…. Historically, once we’ve launched on a trajectory, we must cling to it for dear life or risk everything. McGowan and Shipley acknowledge and explain these narratives and then gently, but firmly, encourage readers to abandon them.

Historically, once we've launched on a trajectory, we must cling to it for dear life or risk everything. McGowan and Shipley acknowledge and explain these narratives and then gently, but firmly, encourage readers to abandon them.

One great difference between The Adaptation Advantage and similar books is that it doesn’t treat those who struggle to accept this way of thinking as casualties of evolution. Instead it offers practical steps to ease the change. Speaking of the “Deaths of Despair” of older, largely white men from drug addiction and suicide, the authors note, “If you are not well prepared to participate in a changing labor market and if your social status is being reshaped by changing demographic and gender norms, how can you be comfortable in the vulnerability required to learn and adapt?”

They encourage readers that humans do not peak at some age and then begin to decline, but that, as MIT researchers discovered, people peak in multiple ways and at any number of ages.

[Related read: Relational Mindfulness: 4 ways to relate as humans at work]

5 tips for embracing change

Adapting to change has a lot to do with our attitude. Here are a few reminders from McGowan and Shipley about how we can adjust our perspective when facing change.

  • Every day is a new day. Think of it like the first day of school, new clothes on, pencils sharpened. This is going to be exciting: “That idea—that every day is a new learning day—is at the heart of the adaptation advantage.”
  • Always be looking for the next wave. Disrupt yourself by challenging yourself to learn something new; don’t wait for circumstances to disrupt you.
  • Recognize that your identity is a story someone told you about yourself. Is it true? Is there another story you’d like to tell? Another part of the narrative unexplored? Know that your identity is in your own hands.
  • You are not a finished product. You are instead a prototype in continual development.
  • Humans have a leg up in adapting. Social and emotional intelligence, creativity, communication, judgement, sensemaking, and empathy are all fundamental to the adaptation advantage...and robots don’t have them.

Getting comfortable with change means taking new approaches

The authors’ personal histories are wonderful parables about how the principles of no longer defining yourself by your job title and reinventing yourself as things change can unfold. Their stories include failure, vulnerability, recovery, experimentation, and growth. But the authors go beyond their personal journeys and also address the role of educational systems, societies, organizations, and leaders in facilitating, rather than obstructing, this transformation. Traditional educational systems, they note, are often far too eager to help someone into a work identity that they’ll struggle to shift from if it becomes necessary. The authors point to some progressive educational systems that offer more innovative approaches, such as experiential teaching in which people learn about themselves, their skills and their likes, through project-based learning, rather than just pedagogy.

They encourage readers that humans do not peak at some age and then begin to decline, but that, as MIT researchers discovered, people peak in multiple ways and at any number of ages.

There are also employers that go out of their way to help people cross-train in different departments, upskill, and evolve. AT&T offers a “career intelligence” dashboard that shows available jobs, required skills, salary range, and job demand outlook. Or, the authors note, a bank that is shedding accountants might retrain them as cybersecurity analysts. But these types of programs are still somewhat avant garde.

[Related read: How to pivot in the face of change]

An encyclopedia of change

I once was given a book called Larousse Gastronomique that not only had hundreds of classic French recipes, but it explained what things like aspic were and where they came from, and the history of the food, etc. The Adaptation Advantage reminded me of it. This book is nearly a narrative encyclopedia of social, technological, and workplace change over the past 100 or more years.

The reader does run into cairns of wisdom that seem a little worn if you’ve been to every SXSW conference or are well-versed in books on the startup world. For that crowd, the Steve Jobs commencement speech about getting fired from Apple, or Simon Sinek’s “Power of Why” TED talk about how people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, will read as familiar anecdotes. There’s also the story of the three bricklayers and how they each viewed their jobs differently. These are classic guideposts that remind us that we’re human and that, at the heart of all this technology and change, are our dreams and feelings. We don’t lose these when we adapt; they’re at our core.