Up until now, for the vast majority, life has been divided into two complementary parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of life you accumulated information, developed skills, constructed a world view, and built a stable identity. In the second part of life, you relied on your accumulated skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society.
Take my father for instance, he finished full-time education at 17 and has worked in factories ever since. The availability of factory work has declined in his lifetime but he has not been forced to reinvent himself as a software engineer or a writer. In his fifties, my father doesn’t want change and he has given up on conquering the world. He has invested so much in his skills, career and identity that he does not want to start again. He much prefers stability. The harder you have worked to build something, the more difficult it is to let go of it and make room for something new. My father still cherishes new experiences and minor adjustments, but like most people in their fifties, he is not ready to overhaul the deep structures of his identity and personality.
For the younger generation, life will not be so forgiving. The traditional model is now obsolete. Change is accelerating and our increasing life spans are making tomorrow’s 50, today’s 40. You will need to reinvent yourself again and again. This will likely involve immense levels of stress. For one, you will struggle to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ despite your response being more urgent than ever before. On a more scientific level, reconnecting neurons and rewiring synapses is exhausting work, but you can hardly afford stability. By trying to hold on to some stable identity, job or world view, you are risking being left behind as the world goes into hyperspeed. To stay relevant – not just economically, but above all socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty.
Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental stability that the twenty-first century demands. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and still relying on their outdated education to instruct you. A 45 year old biology teacher would have completed undergraduate study in 1995. Since then, we have mapped the human genome helping us to not only determine the causes of genetic diseases, but uncover who you are from your body odour to your tendency towards addiction. In 2007, we were able to create stem cells from mature skin cells, opening up the possibility of growing replacement organs. Today, there are prosthetic limbs available which are entirely controlled by the brain.
You will need great reserves of emotional balance as it is much easier to feel inadequate when you are not only competing against humans but machines too. It’s not the fault of teachers, they are conditioned and guided by an outdated system. The Industrial Revolution gave us our education system and it hasn’t changed much since then. It’s easy to denounce the current model, yet we have not found a viable alternative. As it stands, millions of school children across the world are stuck in a system that offers very little protection from the technological disruption that awaits them.
What can you do today to prepare yourself? Becoming comfortable operating with some level of pain means that you will be able to evolve at a faster pace. For example, exercise is painful but it allows you to progress physically. At some point in life you will crash in a big way. Failing at your job, realising that the life you imagined is out of reach forever and other work-related crashes will become more frequent in the future. Therefore, the quality of your life will depend on the choices you make at those painful moments. However, making those choices will depend on you identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses. If you don’t then an algorithm will have no trouble finding your weaknesses out instead, letting someone else use them against you. Do not be embarrassed about your problems, for everyone has them. Bringing them to the surface will help you to break bad habits and develop good ones, and you will acquire real strength and justifiable optimism.
Primary Inspiration: Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Secondary Inspiration: Ray Dalio’s Principles
Image credit: Qualcomm