This week on The Digital Life, chat about automation and reinventing yourself in the job market.
Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of books like Sapiens and Homo Deus had this to say about automation and the difficulties of reinventing your career on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast:
“It’s questionable how many times a human being can reinvent himself or herself during your lifetime—and your lifetime is likely to be longer, and your working years are also likely to be longer. So would you be able to reinvent yourself four, five, six times during your life? The psychological stress is immense. So I would like to see a science fiction movie that explores the rather mundane issue of somebody having to reinvent themselves, then at the end of the movie—just as they settle down into this new job, after a difficult transition period—somebody comes and announces, ‘Oh sorry, your new job has just been automated, you have to start from square one and reinvent yourself again.’”
Have you ever had to reinvent yourself during your career, maybe due to automation? Personal characteristics like flexibility and creativity play a role as well as external factors like work availability and the market. Join us as we discuss.
Jon: Welcome to episode 275 of the Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: For our topic this week, we’re going to chat about automation and reinventing yourself in the job market. So, as a little preamble to this episode, we’ll say that it was inspired by a comment made by Yuval Noah Harari, who’s perhaps best known as the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus. I believe he has a new book coming out as well. He appeared on The Wired, A Geek’s Guide To The Galaxy podcast just recently and had some interesting comments about science fiction, and AI, and automation and the like.
But one particular comment that he made resonated with me for a number of reasons related to this topic for today, and I’ll just paraphrase from his comment that, he was saying it’s questionable how many times human beings can reinvent him or herself during the lifetime, especially if you’re anticipating longer lifetimes for people in the future. So, the question he posed is, could you reinvent yourself many times? So, whether that be four, or five, or six times during your life and whether or not the stress of doing that would be very difficult to deal with.
He went on to say he’d be interested in seeing a Sci-Fi movie or something like that dealing with that problem of this constant reinvention, and transition, and adjustment periods around that. So, that’s the inspiration for our topic today, which is around reinvention due to automation and the job market.
So, Dirk, lets, out of the gate, I think it would be interesting to entertain the question, have you ever had to reinvent yourself either due to automation or just some other factor?
Dirk: Yeah, I mean, I’ve reinvented myself a number of different times to the point where I have trouble telling a cohesive professional narrative about myself.
Jon: Right? So, what were the, if you wouldn’t mind giving some of the highlights, like the different kinds of roles that you played and whether or not there were triggers for those changes?
Dirk: Sure. So, I was pursuing a degree in Philosophy to be a professor and I got a divorce, which meant I had to start making more money. So, I moved into advertising account management, and in doing account management I realized I had more interest and aptitude for creative. So, I moved into writing and design. Through that, this isn’t the early zeros basically when web design was just becoming a big thing.
So, as you know that technology and the needs around it emerged, I shifted from more traditional contexts into that, into basically what we would think of as UX design and things like that. From there, started a company and in … Our company today, but starting it way back then, there came a point pretty early where one of the two founding partners had to be the business guy and that turned out to be me.
So, I had to redefine myself now as an entrepreneur, as an agency owner, basically, as two different things. That was a longer period for me. Then when the recession really killed the company, I had, had is not the right word this time, I felt very lost. The meager fortune that I had accumulated was wiped out, and I was no longer learning in what I was doing, I was feeling bored, and I, from a hobby perspective took on game design as a new creative outlet.
Then a couple of years later, had the idea for a software startup around identity graphing and personality matching to jobs, to partners, to all kinds of things. So, then a new type of entrepreneurship, like a dotcom startup entrepreneurship took on that role after a couple years, and finally our next round of funding didn’t materialize. Went back to some of the old stuff, but now more recently with some of the things that we’re planning, getting into writing in a different way than I ever have before. Yeah, I mean, at least those changes.
Jon: Right. So, that’s six or seven just right there. I’d say there’s at least one that was tied to automation, which is the advent of the worldwide web, right? So, this creation of automated communications in many, many forms.
Dirk: Sure, technology change. So, certainly I run against his conclusion of the people aren’t able to adapt that much, but he is a very intelligent person and also a very big thinker. So, I found myself actually disappointed by his contention because what he’s not accounting for us that we’re all different. Certainly there are some people for whom even one massive reinvention of themselves would be trying, just in terms of their personality type, who they are from a combination of nature and nurture.
On the other extreme of somebody like me who, going back to when I was a child, my pattern was deep dive into something for two or three years, I’m totally consumed and then get bored with it and then completely change gears and dive into something else, right? So, on the other extreme of somebody like me who’s wired to want to reinvent on a fairly regular basis, with lots of gray in between those.
So, the hard premise of, oh, can people redefine themselves this often? Some will love it and some won’t be able to, and in between there’ll be people who can and don’t particularly like it again, and in varying shades of gray. So, yeah, I mean, we’re going, we collectively will need to be more adaptable. We will, compared to the past, certainly need to professionally redefine ourselves more and perhaps in more extreme ways, but blanket statements about our ability to do so or not, or just silly, frankly.
Jon: Yeah. So, yeah, you mentioned lots of different points that I want to get into. One is that, and I think perhaps this is a moderately safe conclusion that the entrepreneurial mindset, the innovator’s mindset is a flexible one and perhaps well suited to the coming changes of AI, automation, or however you want to frame that. So, the upending of the usual environment of the continuous career with, say, one company that that change is perhaps like a good proving ground for this idea that people can modify their careers in response to technological shifts like this.
I think it’s probably also worth exploring a little bit like this idea that … So, I think you had some vastly different career positions in there and then some which are arguably along the same continuum, so you’re taking different roles, but you’re within this broader continuum that is similar, like you’re not going from being a game designer to being a mechanical engineer to being like somebody who’s driving a taxi or something. The distances between those things, they all fall into the knowledge work, creative activities, that are unified from that perspective, or they draw on similar skill sets that you leverage each time you make those shifts.
Dirk: Yeah, I think that’s generally true. I think in the details there would be more difference than appears to be the case in the executive summary version. But no, let’s just stipulate that for the sake of conversation Jon.
Jon: Yeah. So, perhaps there’s really broad shifts and moving into discomfort, right? Like moving from … you’re moving towards things where your skills are adaptable, which is saying something about your skill set that it’s adaptable, and it doesn’t necessarily veer into something that you’re uncomfortable with, right? So, perhaps this example would work for both of us. Maybe we’re not super comfortable doing like lab work or something like really going in there and pipetting stuff or something. I’m just making up a skillset that would make us … where we’d grind a little bit, where it’d be harder.
What I took from Mr. Harari’s comment was just these vast turns, not like an evolution of skill, but just like a huge cutoff at the past where … and I’m sure that this is what it might be like for somebody shifting from, “Hey, I’m working in a factory right now, and I’m a part of this assembly line.” To, “Woops, now I’m an entrepreneur and I’m just taking a left turn.”
Dirk: Yeah, and I don’t even think that’s correct, right? I mean, I think either his concept is flawed or the way he’s communicating it is muddy that leads us to think that it’s flawed because there are not … If there are six or seven redefinitions for people over the course of their lives in this theoretical future of work, they’re not going to be as different as the ones that you’re talking about here. There may be one or two that constitute that, but, no, I mean you’re not going to go from creative work to, to driving a cab as a typical change. Doubly so because the future of AI automation is one heading towards getting rid of jobs like driving a cab. The jobs that are, are distinctly, and dramatically different than core knowledge and creative work are the things that are going away. So, the very world and context that we live in is gearing us more towards things that require more from our brains and less from our ability to repress our boredom.
Jon: Right. Yeah, there’s …
Jon: Yeah. I think there’s a couple different aspects there that I’d like to consider. One is, we’ve talked about this example before how certain kinds of automation are going to make it easier to do some kinds of knowledge work, and at the same time are also not necessarily going to touch jobs where the amount of, or the type of work is so variable and physical that it doesn’t allow for the level of robotic or knowledge automation that we would see otherwise.
The examples are, of course, nursing and caregiving because taking care of people can be so such a unique prospect. I think another example we’ve talked about in the past is plumbing. The idea that, whether you’re thinking about the way the plumbing works currently in a building, or you’re modifying that to make adjustments to it, just the sheer physicality and …
Dirk: And, diversity of content.
Jon: Exactly, yeah. That it’s not going to be easily automated. So, in those examples, I could see very much, and I’m not saying this is what’s going to happen, but I could see very much certain kinds of knowledge work that are routine, say, become automated and all of a sudden we find a lot of folks who may need to make a shift into, say, like nursing, or plumbing, or-
Dirk: Yeah, trades.
Jon: Yeah. Right.
Dirk: Really skilled trades.
Jon: Yes. So, yeah, this combination of knowledge, and the physicality that is … could be a rough switch.
Dirk: If you want a safe career path, that’s the safest.
Jon: Oh, I think so.
Dirk: It’s not the knowledge and creative work, it’s the skill trade stuff that is mashing them together because the machines have a long way to go before they can make that happen.
Jon: Yeah, and that’s an interesting point that I don’t think that’s made enough is that it is this combination of the knowledge, like the understanding of materials, and fittings, and pieces, and the way that you do things like welding< or the flow of water. So, there’s so many things that you need to know, and then you need to know like, “Hey, I can pull this off in this space, or there’s no physical way that you can do this.” So, it’s this combination of the physical knowledge, and the memory, and skillset, and training that all come together there.
Dirk: And, just physical ability to do it, right? I mean, with plumbing, you might need to go into the floor somewhere. Are you going into linoleum, are you’re going into cement, are you going into wood? These are different tools, these are different … Having the one multipurpose robot that can do all of these things after having diagnosed the problem and doing it correctly, it’s just way down the road. It’s way down the road.
Jon: Yeah. I think that’s totally right. Reflecting back on this idea of flexibility especially in terms of the way that you’ve transformed your career over time … Excuse me. I think that’s absolutely key in combination with curiosity and continuous education. So, on occasion, I give a lecture on emerging technologies and design. One of the stock tenets that I like to talk about is just how everybody needs a continuous learning methodology, like a personal one where you have a way of learning new skills once you’re out of a purely educational environment like college. Obviously I’m talking at universities when I’m saying this, but I’m saying, hey, once you’ve got your degree, this is not the end of your continuous learning, and how do you not just learn new things, but how do you catalog those things and return to them and digest them, and integrate them into your work, et cetera.
But, that really also goes hand in hand with this flexibility mindset and curiosity about, hey, if I take this slight change, this slight turn, and in your case, go and create games, right? So, you’re leveraging a bunch of stuff that you already knew, but you’re learning a bunch of new things as well.
Jon: So, that being a really key factor in being adaptable in the future, I think that’s pretty important.
Dirk: Yeah, I mean, I think in that case I’ve just been lucky. I’m really curious about things, and when I latch onto something, I go deep. There’s a friend of mine who says to me, “Dirk, it doesn’t matter what it is, you’re always in balls deep. It doesn’t matter what it is.” and it’s just my nature, right? It’s nothing I’ve earned or it might manifest as effort, but it’s effort based on just I’m naturally turned to just sink myself in as much as I can.
That is something that, if people can develop as a skill, would suit them well for the future is really, really going deep into stuff and really getting excited about it, and learning as much as you can. Going really deep.
Jon: Yeah. I think you’re right about that. That curiosity, I think, is essential. So, for myself, I certainly had a multi job career path. Not dissimilar to yours Dirk, and without marking out each of those, I mean, I’ve worked as a musician, I’ve worked as a house painter, I’ve run startups, and I’ve helped design, digital products across those things.
Dirk: Knowing a lot about your career, I might go so far as to say … not even go so far, I think without a doubt the diversity in your experiences are more than mine.
Jon: Yeah. It’s been all over the place. Perhaps the most different one was being a working musician, that was really different from anything else that I’ve done.
Dirk: I think that has a lot of overlap with other things that you’ve done. I don’t know about that.
Dirk: I don’t know.
Jon: All right. Well, yeah, we’ll have to talk about that.
Jon: Just from the standpoint of the lifestyle that went around, along with that, I mean, that was largely nocturnal. So, that’s all I meant by that comment. So, I too was struck by this idea that reinvention may be foreign to some groups of folks, but in-
Dirk: Definitely is foreign to many groups of folks.
Jon: Yeah, and that perhaps the entrepreneurs, and the innovators, and the creative workers’ mindset are in some ways prepared for this shift towards reinvention. Certainly, at the same time having to be aware that there is so much opportunity for knowledge work to be automated, which I don’t think is getting enough play as far as that point goes.
Dirk: No, it’s not, but you and I are going to be talking a lot about that in the months ahead.
Jon: Yeah, we will, and I think this theme of reinvention is really key to the future of work, and the future of jobs, not just because of automation, but certainly just changing technologies, whether it’s automating things or presenting new opportunities that weren’t there before. This idea of reinvention is very powerful because it also means that the thing that … You could do some amazing discovery, it’s possible you’re not even in the career path where that happens, right? Like you could just be building towards that next great opportunity.
So, from that perspective, reinvention is a hopeful thing if you’re not particularly enthralled with what you do now, hey, it’s like the weather in New England, wait a little bit and it will change.
Dirk: Yeah, but look, I mean, we’re talking about a lot of the sunny sides, and for ourselves who are easy to adapt to those, but there’s a reason why there are, for example, whole towns that are basically stuck in time around the coal industry, right? That folks haven’t diversified or done … It has not been within their personal set of decisions and tolerances to move out of the ghost town that’s been left behind by an industry like coal or some other, and tried to reengage, right? There’s a reason why people are stuck and trapped and hurting still decades after those things happened, and they haven’t been able to shake free.
To what degree that’s nature, or nurture, or social, I don’t know, I’m not informed enough on the topic, but the reality of it isn’t all happy, and fun, and reimagine ourselves. There’s a lot of people who get left behind by this stuff. So, the greater challenge for us is how do we help people not be left behind, for whom this is not a natural metamorphosis, not a natural change, because we’ll all be better for that, and it’s something that as a country we haven’t been good at. These are even bigger changes. So, dare I say, it might be even more difficult to pull people along and help people to participate. Those are the big questions from my perspective.
Jon: Yeah. Those are exactly the big questions, and they’ll in particular be important from a policy basis and a political basis increasingly so as these things progress. So, that’s a bigger topic of course, but that is something that is probably worth digging into as well.
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Dirk: You can follow me on twitter at Dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
Jon: So, that’s it for episode 275 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.