Like rats and pigeons, human beings are highly adaptable, flexible animals. As a species we inhabit some of the coldest and hottest parts of the planet, as well as all the temperate zones. Most of us live in cities, some of us make a living from subsistence farming, and a few hang on to traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Within those broad categories, we have created a stunning array of diverse cultural customs, political systems, economic and production modes, and civic institutions.
The one constant of modern human life is an accelerated rate of cultural and technological change. This is true not only for those of us who live in cities and use computers; most remaining traditional hunter-gather societies are being forced to change just as rapidly because of climate change, environmental destruction, and interactions with technology-using cultures. In traditional and modern cultures alike, each generation is growing up with different sets of opportunities, challenges, and cultural landscapes.
It wasn’t always this way. Humans practiced a variety of hunter-gatherer lifestyles for tens of thousands of years with little, if any, change from one generation to the next. The change to an agricultural lifestyle was momentous, but in most cases it happened gradually, over a number of generations.
With the Industrial Revolution, and more recently the advent of computer technology, the rate of cultural change has accelerated immensely. Not only does each generation live differently than their parents, but today’s modern human must learn to live a completely different lifestyle multiple times within a single lifetime.
My parents remember a time before there was a television in every house. I remember a time before there was a computer in every house. In my late teens and twenties I learned how to make music with computers; something that was only done by technologically elite experimentalists ten years previously was now available to the masses. A few years later I learned how to build and program databases. An arcane skill once practiced only by guys in lab coats with advanced engineering degrees was now available to a kid just out of college with no formal technology training.
Technological change doesn’t just create new opportunities for individuals, it also creates and transforms (and sometimes destroys) entire industries. Record labels, companies that make film (like Kodak), newspapers, and book publishers have all been forced to radically reinvent themselves (or perish) because of technological change. People with specialized skill-sets working within those industries can find themselves not only out of work, but without skills for which there is any demand in the new markets.
If the only constant is change, what skills should we teach our kids? And what skills, or meta-skills, should we focus on in our own lives to stay culturally relevant, economically viable, and sane?
Since my own culture is “western modernity,” more-or-less, that’s what I’ll write about. The list isn’t meant to be culturally universal, or definitive.
5 Skills Needed To Thrive Within Western Modernity
1. Learn How To Learn
This is obvious, but sometimes difficult to put into practice. As children and young adults most of us are shepherded through intense knowledge and skill acquisition periods, but there’s little focus on meta-learning (for example how to design a curriculum for yourself, or how to learn more efficiently). Once we graduate, we’re on our own, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve let the learning process become stagnant. Maybe we’re challenged for the first few months of a new job, but once we get the hang of it, it’s easy to coast.
I recently attended and reviewed a talk given by Tim Ferriss — “Accelerated Learning for Accelerated Times.” One thing Ferriss gets right is that most of us underestimate our own learning capacity. He offers a number of techniques to hack the learning process (some of them, like the use of mnemonic devices, borrowed from antiquity). While these techniques can be useful, what’s more important is the purpose and passion behind the desire to learn. Why bother?
We know that learning keeps the adult brain plastic; new neurons live longer and build more connections, protecting us from both dementia and general stupidity. There are also clear economic advantages that come with the ability to quickly acquire new skill-sets (especially languages and technical skills). But ultimately, it’s the skills and knowledge that mesh with our life purpose that will be easiest to acquire.
I enjoyed reading this post by Penelope Trunk, in which she asserts that the work we enjoy equates with what we like to learn. That’s the interesting part of a job or any pursuit — what you’re learning while you do it.
An active, conscious approach to learning has always helped people thrive, but it’s now a required part of the modern skill-set. In most careers, it’s impossible to just learn one set of skills and coast. The landscape just changes too fast.
2. Discover/Create Your Life Purpose
Those of us with secular backgrounds who have asked the “What’s the meaning of life?” question (and been subsequently confronted with the existential void), may have taken the next logical step and created and/or discovered one for ourselves. To understand and define your own purpose, or calling, is a deeply personal and emotional process. It has to be this way, you must go deep within your own psyche, or the result will not resonate to your core, and will not be strong enough to guide you through life.
The reward of having gone through this process is an unshakable sense of identity and motive. While losing a job may still be painful and inconvenient, it won’t shake your core if you have a clear purpose. If no one will hire you or pay you to pursue your life purpose, you do it anyway. You find a way. In the fast and fluid modern economy, with little loyalty felt or expressed by either employer or employee, it’s important to have a sense of yourself outside of a single job (or even a single career).
So how do you “get” a life purpose, or “discover” your calling? (I use quotes because neither word adequately describes the process).
I like Steve Pavlina’s post on discovering life purpose. And he says you can do it 20 minutes!
Like conscious learning, having a clearly defined life purpose isn’t a new idea. But once again, it’s something that’s newly required to thrive in modernity. With the cultural and technological landscape overturning itself multiple times each generation, our life purpose serves as a moral and emotional anchor, so that even as the world changes we always know what we’re about and what we’re here to do.
3. Understand Self-Branding
Recently I wrote about the term self-branding, and my own process of coming to understand what the phrase means. It occurred to me that we don’t have to be everything to everybody to effectively self-brand. We don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator, or to the general public. Effective self-branding is simply showing the people whose opinions you care about what you do, and that you do it well.
We all have multiple roles in society, and thus multiple self-brands to manage. This might seem like a crass or commercial way to think about life, but it has more to do with being effective than it does with selling something. If what we want to achieve requires (or can benefit from) the help, good will, and/or attention of other people, then how those people perceive us matters. That’s equally true if we’re selling something or if we’re trying to improve our community, do scientific research, or create a work of art. Nobody works in a bubble, and everyone is perceived in a certain way whether they’re aware of it or not.
Is it disingenuous to try and “manage” the perceptions of others? It’s not like that. Self-branding is simply letting the people that matter know what you do and that you do it well. It’s letting your light shine. Completely being yourself is probably the best approach in most cases — you don’t have to put on an act to self-brand. You just have to get the message out to the people that can help you — this is what I do and this is how I do it. Of course it helps if you make a good first impression (having a well-designed website, dressing well, etc.), but in many cases your reputation will precede you. Presenting high quality work and treating people fairly are even more important to your various self-brands than any aspect of personal presentation or marketing campaign.
How is this definition of self-branding different than reputation? In a recent conversation with Thor Muller, Thor criticized self-branding, pointing out that in a way self-branding is an individual trying to imitate a corporation which is in turn attempting to imitate, on a company level, the way an individual can have a good reputation.
It’s a good point, but I think what separates self-branding from reputation is media (social and traditional). Media can amplify and/or distort reputation. We can’t entirely control how we are represented across various media, but we can use various outlets to express what we do and how we do it to more of the decision-makers that we want to reach.
4. Understand How Supply and Demand Are Relevant to Your Life
It’s good to take a long, cold look at what the world wants, compared to what you have to offer.
If we maintain an awareness of this space (including how it is changing, and likely to change), then it’s more likely we’ll be able to put food on the table and have money in the bank.
If we ignore this space, we might find ourselves out in the cold. Tastes change, the demand for certain skills changes, and we change, getting older and often less resilient, attractive, and/or energetic (though hopefully wiser and more resourceful at the same time).
We can’t change what the world wants, and we can’t change what we’re interested in or what we’re naturally good at. But we can choose what skills and knowledge we want to acquire, and what direction we want to take our business and/or organization. If we modulate these choices to take advantage of low supply and/or high demand, we’ll have an easier time of it (at least economically).
I’m not suggesting this is a useful lens for every area of life. It’s fine to ignore supply and demand and just do what you love to do, letting the chips fall where they may. That’s the approach Spesh and I take with our record label, Loöq Records. Selling dance music is a high supply, low demand area. We only make a few hundred bucks a month from sales — there are thousands of dance singles released every month, and most DJ’s play music from their promo lists instead of actually buying the music. That’s OK, we still love the music and have a huge amount of pride in the music we release and support. We’d love to have a huge hit — something that crossed over and appealed to a mainstream audience, but we’re not going to chase after the “genre-of-the-month” because that approach doesn’t appeal to us. It just wouldn’t be fun.
On the other hand, I’ve got to put food on the table, pay my mortgage, and pay for my daughter’s preschool education. My wife Kia and I have chosen to learn technical skills for which there is high demand and low supply (database design and programming in my case, motion graphics production in hers). Even though we both work freelance, there’s usually plenty of work, and it pays well. Of course, demand for our skills could change (and quickly). Demand and supply are constantly moving targets in any field.
You might say that if you can create something truly great, there will always be demand for it (as well as low supply — there just aren’t that many great works of art — they’re hard to make). But artistic (or product) greatness is in the eye of the beholder (reader/viewer/listener/fan). So “greatness” is a moving target as well; even if you have impeccable creative skills, there’s no guarantee anybody will want what you make (at least while you’re still alive). You just can’t get around demand.
So what’s the skill, exactly, of understanding and effectively acting on supply and demand? On one level it’s strategic thinking, but on another level it’s an attitude. It’s realism combined with allowing yourself the possibility to experience economic ease and abundance.
5. Information Reduction/Information Dieting
Modern life is noisier, both in terms of decibels, and distractions. It’s easy to go through an entire workday without getting any work at all done, just moving from one distraction to the next.
We distract ourselves with social media streams, email, news, and gossip.
Other people distract us with phone calls and interruptions, questions and demands.
Modernity has turned out the noise level, both literally and figuratively. There are multiple firehoses of information that will absorb all our available attention, if we let them. It’s no longer possible to just “read the headlines” and be done with the news. There are endless headlines, endless newspapers, and on top of that there is endless commentary.
“Dieting,” or paying any attention to the quality or quantity of food we consume, is a relatively new cultural antibody. Before agriculture, there wasn’t enough food to get fat. Before food production was industrialized, unhealthful/processed foods didn’t exist (so we didn’t have to think about eating donuts or not eating them).
In the digital/information/computer age, we now need to think about information in the same way. If we consume vast amounts of “junk” information all day, it will affect our minds and spirits, not to mention our productivity. “Information dieting” is a new skill we need, to filter out all the crap.
Personally, I can’t really trust myself with link sites like reddit.com or digg.com. I’ll just click on links all day, and my day will be gone. I’m like those rats that press the lever that triggers a surge in dopamine in their brains — they just press the lever continuously until they starve to death. For other people the problem might be receiving hundreds of emails every day (each with their own demand or request), or tracking a dozen social media streams. The end result of info-gluttony is generally the same; lost time, low spirits, feeling overwhelmed, and action paralysis. Reading and reacting to large amounts of somewhat random, mildly engaging material can subtly drain our willpower and time. It may feel like we’re “taking a break,” but we can easily get drawn into expending mental energy (“Someone is wrong on the internet! I must correct them!”) and wasting hours of each day.
There is no universal prescription or solution to this problem. It’s just like food — some people can consume sugar, alcohol, processed foods, and other “bad stuff” in moderation and not experience any ill effects. Others might have to cut a substance out entirely or risk spiraling into an addictive binges.
If email, link sites, news sites, or even something as innocuous as a phone on your desk are negatively impacting your life, stopping use them or turn them off entirely. It’s your choice.
What Didn’t Make The List
There are a few skills I considered including, but they didn’t make the cut. “Navigating Byzantine Bureaucracies” was one I considered, but many institutions are focusing on making the user experience easier and more intuitive, so the need for this skill is fading. I also considered “Coding,” but computer and machine interfaces in general are trending towards becoming more user-friendly, and requiring less specialized technical knowledge to operate. I might have included “Writing” — it’s a rare person that doesn’t come across the need to write clearly and persuasively. “Creating a System of Functional Vitality/Health Management” might be another relevant modern skill. I may come back to this topic and do a Part II.
What do you think? What other skills are newly required for modern life?