A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. His show was focused on automation and its impact on the types of jobs that are slowly disappearing and will become obsolete in the future. The main point of the show was not to elicit horror that robots will replace workers and we are all going to be out of work, but to inspire viewers to start rethinking how we think about a career. In a clip of an interview with Farai Chideya, the author of The Episodic Career, she suggests that to the question we often ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we may want to add, “What five things do you want to be when you grow up?” Inevitably the pace of technological advancement will lead to job losses for many, and we may have to prepare younger generations to think more flexibly about their career plans.
Toward the end of the show, Oliver endearingly explained to a group of young children how any job they want to do now, robots will be able to do better in the future. One kid asked, “Well, what can I do?” Oliver replied: “You can do a series of non-routine tasks that require social intelligence, complex critical thinking, and creative problem-solving.”
Social intelligence, complex critical thinking, and creative problem solving! Oliver and his team hit the nail on the head. That was music to my ears, for two reasons: First, this is what I do for a living – training people in those skills – so my job is safe. I will not be replaced by robots!
The second reason, however, is that I see how much the quality of my clients’ lives improves when they actively engage in learning and applying these skills in their daily lives. These skills are essential not only for career selection and job performance, but for success and happiness more broadly. From a cognitive perspective, these skills are considered the cornerstone of goal-directed behavior, the kind of behavior that determines the kinds of goals we set in life and the types of results we achieve. In fact, these higher-order cognitive skills are part our executive function system. Weakness in these skills is the reason we often feel stuck, overwhelmed, indecisive, misunderstood, and even hopeless. Social cognition is the foundation of emotional balance and healthy relationships. Critical thinking enables us to make more informed decisions. And creative problem-solving can give us the sense that the world is indeed our oyster.
The good news is that these are skills that, to a certain extent, we all come equipped with. They are part of our brain engineering. We already use them implicitly to run our lives on a daily basis. The even better news is that just like with other mental skills, like attention and memory, we can engage them consciously and explicitly in order to improve them. To understand the difference between implicit and explicit use, think about it this way: We can put on a pair of sneakers and mindlessly go for a run. We implicitly know how to move our legs and arms to cover the distance and we know when we are too tired and it is time to stop. We may even feel accomplished at the end of the run. However, if we want to do it well, we have to switch from mindless to mindful. There are many factors that make for a better run. Learning good technique so that we minimize the impact on our joints, choosing the right gear so that we are not too cold or too hot, picking shoes that fit our training purposes and our bone structure, knowing when and what to eat or drink, setting up a schedule that meets our level and training needs, and more. All of that is explicit. We can run either way, but when we know how to run the benefits are greater and the risk of injury lower.
In a similar way, every day we solve many small and big problems, make plenty of decisions, and go through a range of emotions. Implicitly. Automatically. But it doesn’t have to stop there. We can become more mindful about how to solve problems at work, at school, or at home, how to make good decisions, and how to relate better to ourselves and to others. Explicitly training ourselves in these skills is going to make life’s journey more fulfilling and more enjoyable.
Even if we are eventually able to train robots in these skills, too, and we lose some more jobs, we will still need these skills to deal with an increasingly complex and socially demanding world. And to Oliver’s point, social cognition, complex critical thinking, and creative problem solving will make us irreplaceable.
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