I don’t need to tell you the world is in flux – there’s a reason why you clicked that headline. You know how difficult it is to tell up from down in the world today. You see the crazies making stupid money and the people who followed the rules starving.
What used to be scarce is now abundant. What used to be valuable is now free. What used to be the middle class is now No Man’s Land.
As machines advance further into what we thought
to be human realms of production we see an increase in the concentration of wealth. Fewer people are necessary to produce all the stuff we need.
We’ll also see an overall increase in wealth. We know that wealth’s effect on happiness is relative to those around us, though; we want to be on the side with the leverage. We want to be on the side that’s winning.
After internalizing the most recent economic, marketing, and business literature (along with that other educational source – direct experience) I’ve teased out the three most valuable skill types in the current and near-future economy.
I said “skills” in the headline but I really mean “skill types”. Each of the following three skill types encompass a huge variety of individual skills. Also, you would be better off having a healthy dose of each with a more intense focus on one.
-I use “machines” to cover robots and software. Things that do work but aren’t a human or animal.]
1. Use Machines
The Luddites would rather blow up the machines that replaced them rather than learn how to use them. Cowen opens Average is Over with the response of a chess grandmaster who was asked about the strategy he would use against a computer:
I would bring a hammer.
Indeed! Cowen uses chess throughout the book to demonstrate how machines will change workplaces throughout the world. While computers were demolishing chess grandmasters a new form of chess was born. Freestyle chess is played by humans using computers. It’s created a new breed of chess players, ones that look different from the old grandmasters.
These new chess players win based on their skill at using their computer, not raw chess skill.
This isn’t about chess though.
As a day trader I witnessed hedge funds hiring mathematicians, physicists, and programmers. The best traders now looked more like hackers than traders.
The same is happening in other industries industries. Al Gore provides a couple specific instances of this in his big fat book The Future. The first would interest anyone in law school:
Consider the impact of intelligent programs for legal and document research in law firms. Some studies indicate that with the addition of these programs, a single first-year associate can now perform with greater accuracy the volume of work that used to be done by 500 first-year associates.
And for anyone who drives for a living:
Much has been written about Google’s success in developing self-driving automobiles, which have now travelled 300,000 miles in all driving conditions without an accident. If this technology is soon perfected – as many predict – consider the impact of the 373,000 people employed in the United States alone as taxi drivers and chauffeurs. Already, some Australian mining companies have replaced high-wage truck drivers with driverless trucks.
It’s important to be the guy operating the machines and not the guy driving the cab. These statistics are scary on purpose and act as an exaggeration of the rate at which machines take over tasks. Cowen relates his chess experience to show that the transition is usually gradual. Obviously no NYC cabbie is going to be replaced by an automated car in 2014. These are trends to position ourselves for, not events to paralyze us.
The more you leverage machines the better.
Maybe that means you use your Google Analytics data better. Maybe it means you start running AdWords campaigns for your kitten-mitten knitting enterprise. Maybe it means you start accepting payments using Square.
To reiterate an important point: human-machine teams are often more effective than just a human or just a machine.
Machines are not even close to replacing the human brain. Even the most optimistic among artificial intelligence scientist, Ray Kurzweil, says we’re at least four decades out.
In most parts of the contemporary economy, artificial intelligence and related concepts remain immature and are not close to dispensing with the humans. Furthermore, the advances have, for the most part, not come from making the machines more like human brains; rather the machines remain complements to humans. – Tyler Cowen
Companies are desperately trying to hire quality labor with unique skills. There are plenty of opportunities to fill the need, especially while so many people are dragging their feet and refusing to do the hard work of mastering a skill.
Need a specific suggestion? Programming. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are practically begging you to:
2. Choosing Good Ideas
We’ve never seen a truly creative machine, or an entrepreneurial one, or an innovative one. – Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Second Machine Age
Machines are becoming decent writers (they can even rhyme) but they can’t know what they should write about next. Machines can’t make decisions about what machines should be created next. Machines can make an infinite amount of ideas by combining things… but they can’t decide which idea is good.
Humans have a unique ability to decide which ideas are good and which aren’t. We can use information provided by machines to help make decisions about the quality of an idea but the machine itself can’t.
Machines can help you validate a business idea for almost free. Netflix used it’s staggering amount of viewing data to invest big in House of Cards. Machines were used to collect the data but a ballsy human had to decide to invest $100,000,000 to make it. Machines were used to type up the scripts, to record the sound, to capture the images, and to edit it all together. Artist humans had to use each and every one of those machines to make them matter.
This skill is really two skills:
How to have ideas and how to choose the good ones.
Every day I sit down with a pen and paper and I write ideas. I write ideas for businesses I could create. I write ideas for ways I could live my life better. I write down ideas for blog articles, books to write, partnerships to make. Everything. Serious things and ridiculous things. I force myself to write down ideas. After a while my subconscious has ideas about the things that I want it to be thinking about. Ideas will pop up at random.
I carry a notebook around to write these automatic ideas down. Even if the idea isn’t that good. It’s more about signaling to my brain that I want more of these ideas to come. And they do. And it’s glorious.
Choosing the good ideas is the hard part. Hollywood produces massive flops (ahem, I, Frankenstein) based on the same calculations that produce “reliable” blockbusters. Almost all brilliant startups fail. Not because the initial idea was bad but because subsequent ideas were bad. A startup is essentially the execution of a million little ideas. But back to the list.
After having thirty bad ideas you may find a good one. You follow your intuition to pick out what ideas might be good. No computer program will be able to tell you which will work so you’ve got to follow your human instinct. You’ve got to decide.
The act of choosing a good idea means nothing unless you follow up on it. Choose an idea, then execute, and then you see whether the idea was good.
If machines mess up then there is something wrong with them. If humans mess up… they’re human.
That’s what gives humans the power to choose. Set a course.
Your ability to envision a future better than the present is a uniquely human. An ability that is becoming more valuable every day.
3. Connecting With Other Humans
What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens. – Robert McKee, Story
Computers serve up facts but they can’t even attempt to get near the capital-t Truth.
This is the magic. The thing that’s farthest from the grip of machines.
We can live in complete abundance and yet feel totally alone. Our ability to connect with others and form narratives of trust, motivation, and meaning will never be available to The Machines. Cowen explains the safety this domain enjoys:
We wish genius machines to serve our practical ends, but we don’t want to turn over to them the spheres of life that structure our narratives, drive our emotions, define what our lives are all about, and help us separate right from wrong. We’re determined to “keep them in their place.”
Cowen sees “… marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy.” Marketing? That’s like storytelling for pay. He explains this prediction:
The growing importance of marketing integrates two seemingly unrelated features of the modern world: income inequality and increasing pressures on our attention. The more that earnings rise at the upper end of the distribution, the more competition there will be for the attention of the high earners and thus the greater the importance of marketing.
As marketing is increasing in importance it’s also changing in form. Marketing looks a lot differently than it used to. Nobody understands the nuances of the new world of marketing better than Seth Godin:
“The value we create is directly related to how much valuable information we can produce, how much trust we can earn, and how often we innovate.”
In the industrial economy, the stuff we made (literally stuff – widgets, devices, and O-rings) comprised the best assets we could build. Fortunes belonged to men who built railroads, lighthouses, lightbulbs, and buildings. Today we’re seeking something a revolution apart from that sort of productivity.
The connection economy rewards the leader, the initiator, and the rebel.”
the rebel smiles!
To understand this more thoroughly, let’s take a look at the newest type of scarcity as described by Godin:
The new, third kind of scarcity is the emotional labor of art. The risk involved in digging deep to connect and surprise, the patience required to build trust, the guts necessary to say, “I made this” – these are all scarce and valuable. And they scale.
It’s your human ability to make a decision that matters. To do the unexpected and make it seem like it was inevitable. To help frame a world that makes less sense.
(For those interested, the past scarcities were effort and physical resources. Robots and globalization made unskilled effort abundant and cheap. Physical resources are tough to get your hands on and we use them more efficiently every day.)
It doesn’t really feel like we’re talking about marketing anymore, does it?
The best marketers look a lot like trusted friends and teachers. Cowen uses the transformation of the chess teacher to give us an idea of the future of education (and, indirectly, marketing):
In part, the human chess instructor teaches the pupil how to use the computer. The human instructor has also become more important for motivation, psychology, teaching pacing, and teaching the psychological foibles of potential human opponents. With younger and less experienced players, the skills include keeping one’s composure, maintaining concentration, and not getting psyched out or intimidated by older or better opponents. These skills are important, and if anything they are more important outside the world of chess.
The ability to weave more compelling stories for others is increasing in value. Whether it’s motivating someone to make a purchase or achieve a goal, giving them a sense of purpose, or better understanding of the world. Powerful communication has never been this important.
The connection economy (ie the attention economy) rewards those who can connect deeply with others; those who can create relationships lasting beyond the initial click or purchase.
30 Seconds To Mars and Oscar performances … he mixes them up well
Not Just One
You can survive, even thrive, by mastering one of these skills. You can do even better if you combine them.
A good marketer can connect with his audience. A great marketer will use data to connect with his audience more deeply than he would be able to otherwise.
The advent of the growth hacker is a perfect example of this. Marketers can no longer live in their own department. They need to understand what’s going on in the rest of the company. Ryan Holiday describes this thoroughly in Growth Hacker Marketing:
[Growth Hackers] are data scientists meets design fiends meets marketers. They welcome this information, process it and utilize it differently, and see it as desperately needed clarity in a world that has been dominated by gut instincts and artistic preference for too long.
They respect the contribution of the machine without giving up their humanity. They use machines to A/B test their own human-made ideas. They welcome the machines into a world thought to be purely human.
If you’re a writer then you use the Internet to spread your words. If you’re a filmmaker you understand that your laptop allows you to do for free what cost millions of dollars a couple a decades ago. Machines have empowered us to do what we never thought we could. It’s happened before, this time is no different – we just need to find the right fit.
Thanks for taking the time to read this! Let me know what you think - the good, the bad, the ugly - in the comments below.