Cal Newport thinks the greatest modern competitive advantage is the ability to focus. In a world of short attention spans and non-stop push notifications, it’s harder and harder to sit still and do deep work. Those who can, have an edge. Those who can’t, don’t. The robots are coming, with the computers, algorithms, and a handful of programmers and engineers in tow. Are we ready?
When we look at whatever we do in our workday, we should think about what can be automated. Most of the initial low hanging fruit is going to be process oriented tasks that are easily subjected to machination. This will not just be assembly line robots. From the back office to the front lines, all is fair game in the battle for corporate cost savings. We’ve already started this process too – from calculators, to computers, to Salesforce, the trend is less human, more machine.
Luckily, we know it’s coming. Luckily, we know we’re getting close to the tipping point. We don’t have to be the local horse and buggy dealer who laughs at the new Model-T. Luckily, we can be proactive. We can start by considering the things that can’t be automated and investing our attention towards those areas. All things irregularly detail oriented, human emotion based and strategic are where the stickiest opportunities are.
Newport’s work gets extra valuable here. Beyond the obvious skills involved in completing a rote task vs. being strategic, he reminds us that culturally the internet is driving people away from the ability to focus for more than a few seconds. We love to be interrupted. We love to scroll through our feeds. We hate to be unplugged. Need proof? Enter a modern middle class household (legally, please) at 8pm on a Tuesday night and shut the Wi-Fi off. See that chaos? Believe it or not, that’s hope.
We won’t need to be strategic geniuses, just to realize that “focus is the new IQ.” Smarts are great, but finding and solving problems and then being able to communicate those solutions will be highly valuable in an automated world. It also requires us to embrace some form of digital minimalism where we’re in the habit of staying free from distraction to really get things done. Maybe this sounds like nothing new, but per the Wi-Fi example above, culture is training people to only be able to do shallow work and thinking. We have to move in the opposite direction.
The world is changing. The robots are coming… but not for all of us. If we train ourselves to stay human, thoughtful, and communicative, we have a real shot of success in a brave new world.