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Dealing with Change
A Common Theme From My Favorite Books in 2022
“We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)” - Ray Kurzweil
While change is nothing new, the pace of today’s change can be disorienting.
Ray Kurzweil famously captured this idea back in 2001 with his Law of Accelerating Returns. When we forecast future developments, we assume the same pace of change we’ve recently experienced - but this is flawed because the pace of change itself is accelerating.
How do I stay grounded in the midst of rapid change? How do I stay competitive professionally as software and AI replace previously sought after technical skills? How do I prepare my kids for a radically different world?
As I looked back on my favorite books from the past year, I realized each book had relevant messages.
Meditations introduced Stoic approaches to crafting a life philosophy that hinges on what we do and do not control - from the personal diary of one of the greatest Roman emperors.
Deep Work outlined a professional philosophy for thriving in a world of distractions and change. Incorporating deep work could foster a more thoughtful, impactful, and resilient career.
Futureproof highlighted the dangers of our increasingly digital environments. Without careful consideration, we can all too easily succumb to “machine drift”, allowing software algorithms to shape what we do and who we are.
The End of the World is Just the Beginning forecasted a world where deglobalization puts the global economy on a radically different course.
Range provided a framework for operating in a world of increasingly “wicked” learning environments.
It’s incredible to read the personal diary of one of Rome’s great emperors - the most powerful person in the world sharing his frustrations and admitting his faults, yet also reminding himself of his life’s purpose and crafting a philosophy to achieve it.
A few relevant lessons from Marcus Aurelius:
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius understood that his thoughts were not controlled by outside events. Of course we cannot control the forces driving immense change around us - but through mindfulness, we can control our response. This is a core tenet of Stoicism.
“Remind yourself at frequent intervals how quickly things and events are carried past and swept away. Reality is like an endlessly flowing river, its activities constantly changing, its causes variable beyond counting. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that nothing is stable, even what is close to us in time. Past time is infinite and the future a yawning gulf in which everything is swallowed up. In these circumstances, isn't it just sheer stupidity for man to get angry, agitated, or aggrieved, as though anything lasted any amount of time and could irritate him for long?”
Quite a perspective! Change is inevitable. How will we choose to react?
”If someone can prove me wrong and show me that something I thought or did was mistaken, I'll gladly change, because my goal is the truth and the truth has never harmed anyone. The man who's harmed is the one who persists in his own self-deception and ignorance.”
The moment we decide we know everything, we lose our capacity to adapt.
How do we hold true to our principles, while remaining open-minded to new ways of thinking?
Cal Newport identifies two core abilities we need to thrive in the new economy:
The ability to quickly master hard things
The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed
As the rate of change increases, technical skills that were relevant yesterday might be outdated tomorrow. I see this in the analytics space - the explosion in new tools for extract-transform-load (ETL), data visualization, machine learning, etc. can replace previously time-consuming workflows and dramatically simplify certain technical challenges. Perhaps you specialized in those projects before - now a less experienced analyst can accomplish the same task in less time.
As Alvin Toffler noted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
In order to produce, we need distraction-free chunks of time to pursue deep work. Cal Newport’s basic formula is:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
Yet, we’re surrounded by devices pinging us, work meetings filling our calendars, and social media to fill in the gaps. We also default into a “culture of connectivity” where we’re available to our colleagues via email, chat, phone, etc. at all times.
“Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with these types of shallow concerns. Even when they're required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that's dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn't a pleasant world to inhabit.”
Escaping this takes a thoughtful, counter-culture response.
One tactical approach I’ve taken in my work is ending the day with a ‘shutdown ritual’ to identify outstanding tasks and my plans for achieving then. The goal is to ‘leave work at work’ as much as possible. This counters the Zeigarnik effect, which “describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.”
What makes humans valuable and unique in an increasingly digital, AI-infused world?
Similar to Deep Work, Futureproof asks us to take a step back and question whether our day-to-day activities are aligned with our purpose in life. If we don’t question this, we will be swept away by the conveniences of today’s machines.
Author Kevin Roose describes this as “machine drift”:
For years, I mostly went with the algorithmic flow ordering the stuff Amazon suggested for me, playing autogenerated Spotify playlists, and watching the shows Netflix recommended.
For a long time, all of this lifestyle automation seemed harmless. But eventually, I began feeling that surrendering my daily decisions to machines wasn't making me happier or more productive. Instead, it was turning me into a different person-a shallower one, with more fixed routines and patterns of thought, and an almost robotic predictability in my daily life.
I started calling this feeling "machine drift," and I first noticed it happening to me a few years ago.
There are so many applications here: what algorithms drive the content I consume? The products I buy? The opinions I hold? The people I interact with?
As Roose notes, “the world runs on recommendation engines” and is incorporated into nearly every facet of our modern lives - to the point where “it’s hard not to think that a historic, species-level transformation is taking place.”
How many people are aware of their own “machine drift”?
The philosophy that gives rise to machine drift is, fundamentally, nihilism. It's an attempt to persuade us that there is nothing important about us that cannot be quantified or reduced to a series of data points, or any inner life worth protecting from machine influence. Recommendation engines and frictionless products offer us their help, but their ultimate goal is surrender: a swimmer caught in a riptide, who gets tired of fighting the current and simply decides to float.
At times a bit depressing, Futureproof challenges us to rethink our current engagement with the digital world and consider what characteristics will gain importance in an increasingly digital future.
For the past ~80 years, multiple factors aligned to create the interconnected, global economy as we know it today, including US naval dominance, working age population booms, overlapping industrialization phases, and more.
According to Peter Zeihan, these factors explain the globalization of the past and the degobalization of the present.
“Geography does not change. Demographics do not lie.”
In a globally-optimized economy, nations will focus internal resources to develop the exports that generate the best return, while relying on cheap imports to satisfy certain needs (energy, food, etc.). This is an efficient arrangement… until the underlying assumptions are challenged.
For example, the world has relied on US naval power to maintain safe trade routes since WWII. With the US increasingly energy-independent and inward-focused, this guarantee will fade and trade routes will become more dangerous. Unsafe and unreliable trade routes lead to higher shipping and insurance costs. Even marginal disruption and increased expenses can produce outsized results. Countries that rely on imports for basic necessities are optimized for the current system’s low-friction trade… they would then face the daunting, in many cases impossible, task of 1) paying higher prices or 2) producing these necessities domestically. According to Peter Zeihan, this transition will not be pretty.
The United States is actually poised to renew it’s global superpower status in this new world, according to Zeihan. He also paints optimistic futures for New Zealand, Argentina, and France.
It’s a fascinating read and hilarious - the humor is needed when discussing a few scary outcomes!
I read Zeihan’s book immediately after finishing Ray Dalio’s more conventionally-named “The Changing World Order.” Their contrasting approaches produce divergent forecasts.
Dalio’s worldview revolves around debt cycles and historical patterns in the rise and fall of empires, leaving him pessimistic about the United States’ current trajectory and identifying China as the next great world power.
Regardless of who ends up with the more accurate prediction, it’s a great reminder of all the dynamic, global forces at play.
The best summarization of Range is actually a Shakespeare quote:
A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.
Most people have only heard the first part of that quote… We’ve likely been encouraged to specialize so that we have defined, hopefully somewhat unique, skills to separate us from our competition.
In Range, David Epstein makes the argument that the world will increasingly reward those with broad experience and skills - generalists.
The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.
He also introduced me to kind vs wicked learning environments.
Kind learning environments are filled with patterns and provide quick, accurate feedback to your decisions, thus rewarding repetition and deliberate practice. A common example is chess. There are defined rules and experienced players can recognize familiar chess piece combinations.
For most of human history, we could rely on operating in largely kind learning environments.
“premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else.”
And this is the world we all want to believe we still live in. It’s simple - the type of environment that lends itself to the widely popular 10,000 Hour Rule.
That is increasingly not the world we live in, though.
Rapidly advancing technologies, global connectivity, and more are ratcheting up the complexity we confront every day.
The wicked environments these forces generate don’t have clearly defined rules and the feedback can be non-existent or useless. In fact, you can actually be penalized for having experience, as you attempt to force pattern recognition where this is no true pattern. Flexible thinking and conceptual reasoning across domains will be the keys to success.
“The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”
Desirable difficulties, match quality, cult of the head start, end of history illusion… David Epstein provides a useful framework for operating in a wicked world.
“What are you reading?” is one of my favorite conversation starters. You can learn so much about a person’s interests and beliefs.
Looking at my past year of reading, the ‘dealing with change’ theme was very apparent. I’m ready to find out what the next year holds…
We learn who we are in practice, not in theory - David Epstein