In the old days, folks added value mainly from their physical work. They might plant and harvest crops, or make a tool, or whatever. But it was work that made the world go round.
We work less than we used to because automation does a lot of that work for us. And that trend will accelerate as machines get smarter.
So what will we do? If the past is used as a measure, many of us will spend a lot more time watching tV. Yikes! But some of us will do other stuff that is a lot more fun than watching TV. And it might save the world.
These other folks will find ways to add value through what we might call “mental work”. They will engage in learning, and find ways to apply that learning to add value to the folks around them.
What will that look like? There are essential 5 tasks that require mental input to add value. They are
- finding new knowledge. For now this is what our great scientists do. Note that new knowledge in it self has no value, except to seekers who revel in the discoveries.
- Connecting knowledge to challenges. This is what trail blazing inventors do. Dr. John Snow did this when he connected knowledge of bacteria with outbreaks of cholera in London. Snow and others like him reveled in solving problems.
- inventing new products and services using that connection. Think about making a quantum computer. Folks who do this love tinkering and creating.
- improving the performance of new products. Early cars, phones, computers, etc. all sucked. Step by step, markets informed firms how to make these products more useful. Think of Henry Ford and his glee in making the Model T.
- sharing the discovery path. Distributing success stories speeds up the pace of copying and thus innovation. Folks who do this are great teachers. They want to help folks climb the ladder of success.
BTW, you might have noticed that doing each of the above activities well requires radically different skill sets. The finders need scientific background. The connectors need problem solving skills. The inventors and improvers need engineering skills. The sharers need communication skills. Of course, these folks need other skills too. But you get the main idea. To make this work as an engine for progress, we need to develop (1) training and career paths for each type of person, and (2) institutional connections between them.
We should keep in mind that these things can happen on their own. We don’t need institutional structure to enable folks to be curious, to share information, etc. But with the support of institutional structure, folks can focus and move up the ladder to perform at a much higher level. Think, for example, how the institution of organized sports have raised the level of athletic performance.
Greg Satell gives some fun examples of how this has worked so far. His examples are great — and they show that up to now, a lot of the discoveries that have led to great value added were made in an ad hoc sort of way.
We can do better!