When On the Origin of Species was first published, it sent shockwaves through the world.
Charles Darwin had worked on the theory of evolution through natural selection for more than 20 years before he presented his findings to the public. He knew it’d be controversial.
It wasn’t the first time someone had suggested a natural explanation for the diversity of life, but even so, given the damage that the theory would do to existing paradigms of thought, Darwin knew that if he were to risk public outrage, he would have to be near certain.
In the decade after publication, the debate went back and forth on the evidence in the book, but eventually, most of the scientific community came around and accepted his theory.
Darwin’s dangerous idea was that life evolves and diversifies, over the course of millions of years, in response to the demands of any given environment. Humans are no different.
This idea is now accepted as the core pillar that connects the life sciences. We know how we got here. One thing, however, that we tend to forget is how far we likely have to go.
The force of evolution isn’t done with us. It’s still shaping who we are and what we’re becoming. In fact, with advances in technology, it’s doing so at a rate faster than ever.
Artificial Intelligence, Augmented/Virtual Reality, and Blockchain technologies will create and destroy paradigms just like Darwin’s theory did. The only way to keep up with this change is to be prepared for it, and the best way to do that is to observe and adapt by:
• Keeping your personal identity small
• Adjusting to the evidence of the world
• Finding low cost, high impact avenues
To thrive in a changing world, you have to first accept that it’s changing. Then you adapt.
Keep Your Personal Identity Small
If you listen to two smart but different people debate a variety of topics from opposing sides, much of the time even if they never see eye to eye, tension will be low and they’ll be tolerant.
That’s, of course, unless they are talking about something like politics, religion, or even race.
If two people with different belief systems go into many of these kinds of debates, rarely do you see tensionless and tolerant exchanges. In fact, emotions often start to flare quite quickly, and the debate ends up turning into something completely irrelevant and useless.
Paul Graham, the founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, wrote a short, but sweet, essay on this a few years ago in which he argues that the reason for this is that these are topics that people associate with their identity. As a result, they can’t be unbiased.1
When something is deeply embedded in your identity, it’s hard for you to see the other side because you’ve already chosen a side, and then you’ve solidified it by heavily betting on it.
Does this mean that it’s wrong to prefer a political party or that you shouldn’t embrace any belief system? Not necessarily, but it does mean that it’s worth keeping your identity small.
In a world that’s going to see multiple lifetimes of change in the next decade or two, not letting go of an identity that is no longer beneficial is going to become increasingly costly.
Your identity is only as valuable as its ability to help you create a sense of order in your mind about what is going on in the world, and how you fit into that equation. If this ceases to align with the changes going on in the external reality, then you’re exposed to a fairly steep fall.
Believe what you want to believe, but know that the world won’t bend to your preferences.
Adjust to the Evidence of the World
Predicting the future is generally no more accurate than fortune telling, but one of the things that almost every economist agrees on is that a lot of jobs will be lost sooner than we’d like.2
Whether or not these jobs will be replaced or not is up for debate. Either way, old ways of doing things will become outdated, and at least some new opportunities will arise.
The last time we saw this level of disruption in the labor force was about 200 years ago in the days of the Industrial Revolution. New methods of production meant that many people who did manual labor, like textile workers, for example, no longer had an occupation.
In the face of the evidence that the world was giving them about its new demands (like the need to run machinery, rather than doing manual labor), many of the workers adapted.
There was, however, a group that didn’t. They went around and destroyed the machines as a form of protest. They resisted change and eventually had to be stopped by military force.
In the history books, they’re called “Luddites.” While it’s understandable, and even sad, that their way of life was interrupted in such an aggressive way, their failure to adapt to what the world needed did nothing to change the course of history, but it did lead to personal misery.
It’s true that technology doesn’t decide its own impact on humanity, and that we have to take a role in shaping its influence on society. That said, it does respond to the incentives of the world, and these incentives are stronger than any resistance or protest that we can put up.
If you don’t like where the world is going, work to redesign the incentives of the economy. If you can’t, the smartest thing is to look in the direction it’s moving in and adjust accordingly.
This means learning new skills, keeping yourself informed, and being adaptable to change.
Find Low Cost, High Impact Avenues
One of the reasons that it’s hard to predict paradigm shifts in the future is because, by definition, if something has never been done before, it’s incompatible with the current reality.
As a result, many of the ideas that become revolutionary seem like pretty bad concepts at the time. They only become obvious in hindsight. They change our views as they advance over time, not before. The future is rarely shaped deliberately. It’s built with experimentation.
This applies as well to the arts as it does the sciences. Just as Darwin’s theory of evolution took at least a decade of time to gain widespread acceptance, so did Van Gogh’s paintings.
The question then becomes, how on Earth do we harness opportunities we can’t predict?
Well, the first part is being informed enough to understand the general direction that we’re moving in. That means taking time to study what Artificial Intelligence actually is. You should know why people are so suddenly discussing the potential of Blockchain technologies.
After the initial exposure, unless you’re taking it on yourself to use such technologies to shape the future, you should try to identify low cost, but potentially high impact avenues.
Most such opportunities have a low probability of working out in your favor, but if you’re informed and you plant enough seeds in places where the cost of failure is low, then there is also a better than random chance that you’re exposing yourself to a hugely rewarding future.
For some people, this could mean learning a few extra skills in their spare time, while for others, it’s an incentive to try to build something that could be useful in a different future.
Either way, it’s about experimenting enough to expose yourself to undiscovered possibilities.
All You Need to Know
At no point in history have we seen change and progress at the current rate. We’re on the cusp of an exponential growth curve leading to a future that we may not even recognize.
It took more than 10 years for Darwin’s theory of evolution to capture the imagination of the world, but when it did, it did so seismically. The changes occurring today are of similar scale.
To thrive in a fast world, there are three things worth remembering:
I. Keep your personal identity small. When you take any belief system and attach it too close to who you are, you leave yourself vulnerable to the hazards posed by your biases any time the world fights against your belief. Your identity should be flexible enough to evolve with reality. That requires a sense of detachment from most ideas.
II. Adjust to the evidence of the world. Technologies and societies change based on the incentive structures that the world lays out. If you don’t like the direction we’re moving in, change the incentives. Otherwise, get accustomed to where we are going and prepare yourself to get there. Fighting to retain the status quo hurts nobody but you.
III. Find low cost, but high impact avenues. Nobody can fully predict the future. The general direction that it moves in is identifiable if you’re informed, but the specifics are only obvious looking back. Most ideas are bad until they are revolutionary. Experiment and plant seeds in places with low costs of failure and high potential.
People prefer comfort to change, and as a result, anything that disrupts their routine gets labeled as bad. Yet, more often than not, change is only as good or bad as the response to it.
You may not be able to control where the future directs you, but you can defend against it.
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