21 Lessons From Harari, One Big Takeaway From Me

A key concept in Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is that humans are at the precipice of new ages in both infotech and biotech. Sure, we’ve all heard this before – our smartphones are getting smarter and designer babies are right around the corner, but what does this actually mean for us professionally?

Harari says we humans have spent our modern history focused on controlling the world outside with new tools. Between owning land and controlling machines, all value has had a physical component and we’ve organized our work, schools and government accordingly. Now, as data becomes more valuable than machines or land, we will shift our focus towards controlling the world inside. How we feel, our preferences, and our choices are increasingly captured in our internet search, behavioral and location data. Inside means it’s not just about land and machines, it’s about our interactions with them. Our professional ability to justify our cost will be closely tied to adding value to those interactions.

Skeptically, you might be tempted to think our professional lives won’t be all that different, but let’s think through an example: If we needed to build a new family home 200 years ago, we’d probably tap our brother for help. Our only necessary filters were “family” and “knows how to build a house.” 100 years ago we’d likely have engaged with a community bank and some local contractor. Our filter expanded our search capabilities as information became more available. 10 years ago we went to a national bank after filtering for “best rates” online, and proceeded to ask friends/vet online reviews for contractors. 10 years from now we’ll have even deeper collections of reviews and bank rates to query.  We’ll also have new preference-based questions like “these windows fit our budget, but my fitness tracker said my heart rate jumped when I saw these other windows that matched the ones behind us in the vacation home we rented (and shared a photo of on Facebook) two years ago.”

Assuming a person has financial resources at their disposal, will they seek traditional counsel from someone who “does it the old-fashioned way,” or will they prefer additional counsel to help them organize and curate the data in a way they understand? How valuable will “old-fashioned” be once experiences are demonstrably rated by peers, friends, and actual statistics? Underestimate how quickly this could change at your own peril, because on the low end – for those without resources, there will be automated systems offering similar guidance too. The future is in the sophistication of the human touch.

Infotech and biotech are already changing the way we deliver our goods and services. While we won’t need to become data scientists or programmers, we will need to embrace the inside effects that big data brings to our industry. Harari reminds us that the most important trait to carry forward will be our ability to tell a good story. The difference between the story we sell tomorrow and the story we sell today will be in our understanding of the underlying data and how we present it to our clientele. Not everyone will be able to make this transition. Thanks to writing like Harari’s we can all try to open our minds just a little bit further in order to prepare.