To understand that these events even exist, and that they occur all the time, is an important first step. But they cannot be extrapolated from where we are today. That’s the first key to understanding Excession Events. You cannot steer by your wake. Secondly, you will learn how to mitigate the risk of Excession Event changes. There are so many useful steps to take, for you personally and for your business, that can help reduce your risk. Finally, we will discuss strategies on how to take advantage of Excession Events’ unexpected upheavals, and potentially turn them into massive gains. If you can see far enough ahead, you can retrain or you can change your business faster than anyone else. You can take advantage of the new set of criteria for success, and you can win.
And the real beauty of the principles in this book is that they are timeless. Whether you are reading this book in 2015 or 2115, the principles are the same. This fact is important. Excession Events have always happened, but the speed at which they are happening is now increasing. They are increasing because the speed of innovation of our culture and our society is increasing.
The world will change more in your lifetime than in the last 2,000 years combined. Very few people in past times were in a position to have the opportunity to just think. the only way to be the best in the world is to be better than everybody. this—the more people in a network, the more powerful it becomes at an exponential, or a square, rate.
systems and societies are more powerful than individuals, and we’ve got bigger societies today than we’ve ever had. Nothing is capable of stopping an idea whose time has come.
In 1964, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, stated that you would be able, for the same cost, to produce twice as much computing power every 18 months to two years. What happens is that they believe Moore’s Law to be true. There is an argument that Moore’s Law is actually holding them back. If we imagine technology as the ocean at the beach, we may see all of these new ideas coming in as a series of waves. But when you zoom out and look at what’s happening from a macro level, these little waves add up to a sea of change: The tide comes in. After your worldview has been changed to a black swan, you see the world differently.
Companies and individuals who ignore Excession Events—and the changes they bring—risk massive failure. In a world of slow evolution, sticking with the status quo is often a “safe” decision, but in a world of Excession Events (especially when more and more of them are happening with greater and greater frequency), sticking with the status quo is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do. The world is changing rapidly, and it’s crucial to keep up.
One of the best examples of a company that didn’t keep up is Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster was extrapolating a prosperous future from their prosperous past, and it severely limited their vision. Blockbuster’s first major blunder was they saw themselves as being in the “VHS cassette” business. They didn’t understand that the VHS cassette was simply a delivery mechanism for something else. People didn’t rent “cassettes.” They rented movies! Blockbuster failed to recognize the business they were actually in: Giving people access to entertainment in the most convenient and efficient way possible. And even as they lost ground to Netflix, they didn’t try to catch up. If you can recognize the Excession Event before they can, by even a few weeks, it makes a big difference Blockbuster was not a technology company; they did not see that their salvation could come from technology.
Status quo is “safe” for these companies because every business has investors and stockholders and analysts and a whole litany of other people who want to know what next week, next month, and next year will look like. If you don’t have a plan that tells your investors and your creditors and the world what your plan is, then they’re not going to invest in you. we live in a world where people spend their lives expecting it to be linear. What else can they do? This is the difference between a 10% change and a 10× change. ” Most businesses are in a position where, by making these incremental changes, they can get a 10% better, more efficient business on an annual basis.
To put it another way, if I said to you, “Here’s a 100-pound barbell. Can you lift that above your head?” You probably could. If I put 10 pounds more on it; you most likely could still lift it. Or at least you’d try. If I said, however, “The barbell is now 1,000 pounds,” what are you going to do? You’re not even going to bother trying. You’re going to go and do something else. You’re going to go and hire a forklift truck and use that to lift the barbell over your head. In other words, what you’re going to do is change the way that you think about the problem. That’s not what Blockbuster did. Blockbuster looked for 10% gains in extra video rentals and popcorn sales, instead of looking for 10× gains by adopting a digital delivery model.
In today’s world, where the rate of change is increasing at an exponential rate, the whole idea of keeping up by simply sweating the business for another 10% has become a losing strategy. If you’re not looking for dramatically different ways of doing your business, then you’re probably in a position where somebody else will replace you. And really, that’s a good thing for society. Our society is based on the concept of constructive destruction. For new businesses to come into play, with new ways of thinking and more wealth to be created, we can’t just continually sweat another 10% out of the business. These new businesses are actually doing society a favor by sweeping the old ones away. The resources being spent on a business model that was failing can then be redeployed to go into something more useful. Netflix is the Excession Event that killed Blockbuster, but that does not mean that Netflix has won. The market is still changing dramatically. Somebody else will come along and have their day in the limelight. Then eventually their idea will get replaced. It’s continual. Every win is only temporary—we must always keep up, or be forever left behind.
the MBA is a distinct disadvantage. “Knowing” is dangerous because it defines what you can see and makes it hard to look at things differently—which is quite the opposite of the agile mindset that is needed excel during Excession Events.
This philosophy is a common thread between all the people and companies who do a bad job of handling Excession Events. They think they have all the answers, and focus on the status quo rather than asking valuable questions. I would argue that Excession Events prove time and time again that supporting the status quo is a losing strategy. Don’t do that. Don’t defend the position. Unfortunately, instead of teaching students how to think, the MBA culture teaches students what to think. This practice may doom them to failure. We’ve gotten to the point where MBAs are a symptom of a culture that is obsessed with education and “knowing things.” But in truth, knowing the answers isn’t what matters. In the modern knowledge economy, knowing which questions to ask is what really matters.
When you have this mindset where you think you know it all, you’re then unlikely to say, “Everything I have done until this point is wrong, and I’m going to start again.” Because effectively, you’re then saying, “The work that I’ve done until now was a waste of money and time.” Emotionally, most people are incapable of coping with that. They would rather support the status quo, even if in their heart of hearts they knew it was wrong. It is easier. As a result, the MBA breeds stewards of the status quo, rather than visionary rebels who are out to change the world for the better.
MBA course is written and then it’s taught. But it’s not taught the same day it’s written, as soon as it’s written, it’s out of date. In most business courses, and MBAs are an extreme example of this, you end up with data that’s well proven by long association with professors who looked at the data long ago. The MBA does not change dramatically on a weekly basis, but the world does. Because MBA students are learning the last war’s lessons, they often come to the wrong conclusions for the present day. As ill-equipped as this knowledge may be for the present, it’s even less useful for the future: The next war simply isn’t going to look like last one. To prepare for Excession Events, we must always remember that answers have a half-life. What is true now won’t be true in 40 years, even for the same question. Regardless, people get wedded to a question and answer combination that doesn’t change.
One of the fundamental problems with the education system as we have it today is that people have this concept that when they’re young, they learn. And when they’re older, they don’t. That is wrongheaded for several reasons. One, because when you’re young, you only learn the answers, not the questions. Two, because the longer ago school was for you, the more likely it is those answers are wrong, because facts change over time. Three, because if you believe that when you went to school, you learned, and when you went to work, you didn’t learn, then you end with a situation where you’ve decided you don’t want to learn anymore.
Groupthink teaches MBA students to not be contrarians, because contrarians are lonely outsiders. They teach that it’s much better to be in with the in-crowd who come up with an idea for an organization. It doesn’t matter that their idea is out-of-date or trite; it will still color everyone’s opinion because of groupthink. Here’s how groupthink works. Organizations hire people who look like themselves. They bring in people with the same background, same education and same prejudices. If everyone is the same, you end up with a pecking order within the organization that’s far too based on compliance to the existing status quo. It will promote the people who have linear thinking and exclude those who don’t. The organization becomes homogeneous, and may even weed out all the contrarians who don’t think like the group does. This approach creates a shallow “gene pool” for the company, which just gets worse over time as the same people rehash the same ideas. The groupthink problem is not limited to MBA. The whole education system is designed around a processor feeding you with facts and helping you understand how those facts fit together. What it doesn’t help you understand is the significance of those facts. We now live in a world where figuring out the right questions to ask is far more important than knowing what the right answers are.
Institutions like the education system are created to change slowly and to hold back societal change in order to maintain consistency. That’s why they are so slow to change. In the meantime, everything else around us is speeding up. If you want to survive you’ve got to change faster. Those who are slow to change are much more vulnerable to Excession Events. Google updates its information a thousand times a second. Google is much more reliable than you are because with the data you’ve got, at best you are probably lucky if that data is right. And at worst, that data will send you off in completely the wrong direction. You’re never going to be better than Google, so why try? Instead, we should be focusing on what we can do that Google can’t do—working out which questions to ask. I wonder if the right thing to do with the school system today would be, “Please write down 10 interesting questions.” Not, “Here are 10 questions. Answer them.” Students then graduate having absorbed lots of useless knowledge, but without having been taught the critical and valuable skill of thinking. And that is the worst possible scenario for our future.
Consultants and analysts generally have a number of traits that are diametrically opposite to what a useful consultant would actually have. Consultants are not, by their nature, wanting to be contrarian. They’re fighting the last general’s battle. Worst of all, for outside consultants or analysts, there are no consequences for being wrong.
Consultants and analysts do have an ability to help organizations wring out better productivity; they can do the 10% improvement from time to time. But they’re useless at the 10×. They know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
Most societies are built by the people who are at the top of it. Societies, therefore, generally become self-serving towards the people at the top. Most people are relatively happy with their position in life. That’s why it’s a basic fact that people do not like change! When things have changed historically, it hasn’t turned out well for the common man. Change typically means chaos or even death. This is especially true of Excession Event-grade changes. Changes can build and build, gaining momentum until they wipe out entire belief systems. Strangely, our response isn’t to be sad or worried when change happens. More often, we pretend the change isn’t even happening. We become paralyzed by dogma. Aristotle once noted that people keep doing things long after the usefulness of those things has expired; long after the old model has been proven false. It is our nature to be this way. People do these things all the time, simply because they become dogmatic. The useless activity becomes something unconsidered. A dogmatic position is an unconsidered one. Our lives are full of these legacy cultural tails, and they are the societal equivalent of the appendix.
Correlation is not causation. In the business world, the old way of thinking is linear thinking: Companies will continue to do the same thing because they assume that doing the same thing slightly better will create a slight increase in the business they’re already doing. People think that changing is the risk. Actually, the real risk is created by doing things without understanding why you are doing them. Einstein once said, “To do the same thing and expect a different result is the definition of insanity.” It reminds me of the story of the blind monks patting the elephant. One of them has got a trunk, one has a leg, one has an ear, and one has the tail. If they don’t speak to each other, then they all think that what they’re touching is something entirely different from everybody else because they’ve never experienced an elephant before. What this means is that your view of the universe is partial at best.
Aristotle’s logic said that if you fire a cannon, the cannonball goes in a straight line and then it just drops vertically. Aristotle knew nothing of parabolas; he didn’t believe they existed. And it didn’t matter to him because he lived over 2000 years before cannon fire became an issue for anyone. This example is important because it underscores that knowing how to think can give you a great advantage over simply possessing knowledge. If someone thinks in a different way, then they are capable of coming up with a whole bunch of new ideas. If you use old ways of thinking, then you’re never going to get to a new way of doing things because you’re never going to consider that it would even work.
The future is always risky. People won’t do it. They are more concerned with losing what they have than the potential gain, however good that gain is, because the future is unknown. As a result, they have a predilection for maintaining the status quo. most people are far more nervous of losing what they have today than any potential upside that is unknown. So, what I have today is worth far more to me, psychologically, than some potential upside in the future.
Human beings are pattern machines. We have a built-in propensity to see patterns because it’s a great survival instinct, even when there isn’t any real threat. The problem with that is that we end up failing to understand the difference in business between causation and correlation. We all have this built-in propensity to see patterns, to make sense of the data, and then to act on that data. The problem with this pattern recognition issue is that we end up making an assumption of a certain position. We then look for data that fulfills that position. You make sense of it, whether it’s real or not, because the caveman part of your brain tells you to. As a result, you end up doing correlated ideas rather than causation ideas. The MBA never looks for alternatives. What you know today defines what you see. One of the things that Excession Events do is to change what you see.
So if you were to extrapolate that out, by the year 2043, everyone on the planet would be an Elvis impersonator. Now we all look at this and say, “That’s absurd.” But plenty of people will take the business model of an organization, like Ford or Microsoft or Apple or any other number of businesses, and they will extrapolate that out to way beyond the point where it makes any sense. not blaming them for wanting a predictable future. But to just blindly believe that things grow in linear ways is a very short-term concept that paradoxically creates considerably more risk. It seems that it’s a positive disadvantage to be one of the intelligent men. What you need is to simply be open-minded.
If there are two players, it proves that a market exists. Excession Events often don’t make the first person a ton of money, but they can often make the second guy an absolute fortune. The innovator doesn’t always win! It’s a bit like a man running through a minefield: The first guy is going to lose a few limbs on the way through and may not make it, but he makes it a lot easier for the next guy, because at least he knows where not to go. Just because organizations believe something to be true (or believe something doesn’t exist) doesn’t make it so. Unfortunately, so many organizations get so wrapped up in their product or themselves, they fail to understand that what they think doesn’t matter. It’s what the market wants that matters. If the market doesn’t want what you have, you’re not going to be able to defy gravity for any period of time. What success looked like in a market for the user of your product can and will change. In addition, what success looks like within the organization itself can change. When companies play it safe, they avoid big changes. They will look at short term gains only, and will often come up with 10% increases like “working harder” or “optimizing.” This conservative approach stops real thinking. When companies are willing to explore the possibility of moving backwards, of embracing changes, they can then open up options that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and might even be the best long term path. Of course, there is a side effect of leaving the status quo. If you are willing to reimagine everything and climb down one ladder, you may create an opportunity to climb a taller ladder and realize 10× gains.
just like emerging technologies, business models can be Excession Events, too. It could be argued that business processes can be bigger, more efficient and more effective Excession Events than technological changes. If you want to know what business you’re in, it helps to start asking questions like, “What problems am I really trying to solve?” and “How are customers actually using our product?” But to truly get to the bottom of things, you need to ask your clients what business they think you’re in. Then, not only do you have to listen to lots of them and have an open mind, but you have to decide whether you want to take any notice of them. The problem is that people hear what they want to hear. Instead, it’s better to be the simple man. Be the man who doesn’t know anything. Don’t be the most educated of men. Asking your customers is a great way to do this.
There is one group that I can predict quite easily, hence the following warning: When you try and find out what business you’re truly in, do not ask the analysts of your existing business, the consultants in your existing business, or the suppliers in the existing business. They’re all wedded to the status quo, and as a result they’re not going to give you radical answers.
To be able to utilize a new paradigm shift, a new series of puzzle pieces have to be all clicked together. If we’re personally not in a location where all of those pieces come together, then we won’t be able to take advantage of that technology. But when the puzzle pieces are all present, it seems to be inevitable. Like a developing thunderstorm, when the right elements are placed in close proximity, there’s really no stopping them from creating an event—including an Excession Event. So if these events are inevitably going to happen, what can you do about them? You can pay attention. If you’re not aware that a number of pieces of technology are coalescing or are building on themselves, then you’re going to get blindsided.
you can’t see them all then you’re not going to see the bigger picture. Simply paying attention is a critically important step to managing Excession Events. Earlier we talked about the advantages of knowing less and less about more and more. To be a polymath: The person who sits above it all and has enough information about any one piece of the puzzle to see where it fits, without having to be an expert in any one piece. Because the trouble with being the expert is that it often means you need to have specialized, which takes you down the rabbit hole of not being able to see the bigger picture, and leaves you wedded and heavily invested in the status quo. A lot of Excession Events, almost all of them, come from people who aren’t wedded to the status quo within an existing environment.
a wonderful ecosystem; of how lots of different pieces of technology needed to come together for it to work. Once it did work, then everyone adopted it because it was an obvious thing to do. The next step after that was that it enabled lots of other people to benefit from the ecosystem. Other mp3 players were devices, but they were not systems. Apple had created an extremely powerful ecosystem. Invoking Victor Hugo once more, there is simply no stopping an idea whose time has come. When you then start stringing a series of ideas together and place them in the right ecosystem, you can achieve a multiplying effect.
We have established that groupthink and conformity can hold organizations back, and leave them highly vulnerable to Excession Events. Conversely, by building a contrarian company culture that encourages questioning and flexibility, you can promote growth and innovation—as well as an adaptability to help your organization thrive in times of change.
How did Netflix get there? They constantly re-examined who they were. They understood that they didn’t know the answers. But they also understood that normal, average-standard levels of work are completely useless to them. Netflix is only interested in extraordinary talent and extraordinary thinking. Netflix has a culture of being that’s like a world class sports team. They only want the absolute best in the organization. They would rather get rid of standard players and enable the culture to have a hole in it, waiting for the next superstar to turn up. You’re either the best there is or you don’t work there. That is their culture. Even if you’ve worked there a long time and proven that you are extraordinary, you don’t get tenure. That doesn’t mean that they want you to leave, but they don’t regard a 10-year employee as “better” than a one-year employee. As an aside, this “anti-tenure” philosophy is the opposite of our education system, which is constructed around the very idea of tenure. If you’re not able to come up with new ideas all the time, they’ll simply replace you with somebody who will. Netflix simply doesn’t tolerate mediocrity. It must be a vibrant, if exhausting, environment. Netflix is not interested in status quo 10% growth. They are fixated on the 10× leap.
Thomas Jefferson once said that every generation needs a revolution. If it feels comfortable in a position, you’re unlikely to move from it. Complacency is a killer of 10× results. Institutions, by their nature, try to institutionalize everything. They try and say, “This is the way we do business. So therefore we will set up rules around how we do business that will never change.” of course, is quite the opposite of business innovation. If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always had. Institutions need a linear control over a manageable business, whatever that business is. As a result, it’s inevitable that companies first get stuck, and then get Excession Evented to oblivion,
Another reason companies prefer answers over questions is because questions are scary, and sometimes painful! Everyone survived the past, but no one knows if they’re going to survive the future. Therefore, if you can make your future look very much like your past, then you’re much more likely to be in control a bit and to manage it. At least that is the thinking process. People are very afraid of change. They like the idea of change, but the reality of it is often too frightening for them to deal with. In cases such as these, organizations may indeed change, but at a very slow rate, so it’s not quite as frightening to them. A company’s culture is only a collection of individuals, whose emotions influence their decisions. As a result, they will often only change at the slowest rate they can possibly get away with.
These tales of change bring us to Sisyphus. In Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by the Gods to push a rock to the top of the hill constantly. Once the rock got to the top of hill, it would roll the bottom, and he would have to walk down the bottom of the mountain and push it back up the mountain again. He was condemned for all eternity to do it again and again. For many people, there is comfort in this repetition. They know what they need to do. It produces an entirely repeatable action, whether it’s pointless or not, and it makes the days go by. They know that the rock will get to the top of the mountain, and it will roll down, quarter after quarter, year after year. contrarian, of course, would handle a Sisyphus situation much differently. Instead of pushing the rock to the mountaintop ad infinitum, the contrarian would likely say, “Why am I pushing this? What’s the purpose? Maybe this rock shouldn’t be pushed at all.” It’s extremely liberating to think this way.
You see, one of the major problems with pushing the rock is that all you get to see is the front of a rock. This is one of the reasons companies get blindsided. They don’t give themselves enough time to think. The vast majority of people, individually and within companies, generally equate “busyness” with success.
There is a strong argument that says, “Being busy is one of the worst things that any individual business can do.” Because it stops you from thinking. I think that a lot of business people actually like that. As for me, the last thing I ever want to do is anything twice. I want to spend my entire life doing everything once. Once I do a thing, I then automate it to the point where it could be done without me. The thing I’m really good at in business is thinking, but the thing I’m really bad at is doing. I get bored really quickly, but most people do not.
Most of our culture is about spending as little time thinking as possible because people are frightened of it. And like the Belcerebrons, we tend to fill our world with trivial distractions to avoid the fear of thought. It is far preferable to have people who are different; who have come out of different disciplines, different worlds of business, and are also culturally different from you.
The Israeli Defense force developed a concept they called “The 10th Man.” The concept: If everyone in an organization agrees on a course of action, whatever that course of action is, it must always be one person’s duty—whether they believe it or not—to argue the opposite. To be the contrarian who is prepared to sit there, be unpopular, and say to the organization, “You’re wrong. This is an issue and we must fix it.” Then it’s their job to try and convince the rest of the organization. On a Navy vessel, the Executive Officer who reports to the Captain is the “designated contrarian.” The First Officer enacts the Captain’s orders; the Executive Officer gives the Captain options.
key strategy in identifying and managing Excession Events is to be constantly learning. So the whole idea of having any education in which you learn things and then a working environment in which you do things means that all your information will ossify. So-called “knowledge” will become part of the groupthink, and will stay there, regardless of whether or not it is true. You don’t get an overall degree because it would, in some sense, be viewed as meaningless. But actually, having an overall degree that gave you the ability to see the connections between different things would be great. Knowledge, shared across disciplines, opens amazing opportunities. Learning doesn’t end the day you graduate. The world is always at our fingertips.
Try to know less and less about more and more.
- The wider your scope of knowledge, the more equipped you are to detect these connections.
- Next, you must read outside your existing positions and interests. Read about things that you are not familiar with. So how, in our busy lives, can we find the time to be continuous learners?
- subscription can be a great way to start, and if I could recommend one publication to read above all else, it would be The Economist. The Economist does a fantastic job of talking to you like you’re an intelligent, well-read, reasonable human being, but without you having to be an expert in any of it. The BBC radio for podcast called In Our Time is another I would recommend. HBR, Harvard Business Review, is good because it’s probably got the latest and best ideas about management structures and way that you actually enact any of them.
- Get a mentor or become a mentor. So, effectively, having a mentor is like having your very own personal 10th Man. They’ll actually make you justify your thinking. When you are a mentor, you get to be the 10th Man, and work on your questioning skills. This is a good thing in itself. Most of the time, when you’re questioning somebody else’s assumptions, you also, by nature, end up questioning your own. You get into this mode of questioning that can have so many benefits in both personal and business affairs.
- Stop with the television.
- The second way to leverage your time is to take advantage of your empty time in the car.
- Finally, it is helpful to put time in your diary or in your calendar for mental exercise.
- The best option for continuous learning is to always be doing things, not merely consuming things. If you only consume ideas and you don’t do anything, then you’re not actually getting outside of your own head. While you’re doing ideas, however, you learn. Because what learning allows you to do is fail. Because you’re actively doing things, you have the opportunity to have your idea tested; in some cases, your ideas can be tested to destruction.
What happens is that organizations with very expensive products have sales-led business models. Then once products start getting cheaper, you move from a sales-led organization to a marketing-led organization. Then the third group is brand-led. If you’re buying a Samsung or LG Television, they don’t know your name, but they advertise to you on television and online. They know what your persona is, your demographic, but not you personally. All three of those models are entirely valid. Businesses have a problem, however, when they try and move from being sales-led to marketing-led, and from marketing-led to brand-led. Boeing is a sales-led organization. No one reads The Economist and decides, “Oh, I’m going to buy a 737.” You have a sales rep who comes and visits you if you’re the buyer for Southwest or United. Coca-Cola would be a perfect example of a brand-led organization. The Virgin Group has done an excellent job of making certain that they sell you anything, but you’re never buying a Virgin product. IBM was trying to move from a world of selling things to a world of marketing things. What Compaq did was simply start in the marketing-led world, not in the sales-led world. Dell moved the world of PCs from a marketing-led to a brand-led business.
Everything is becoming cheaper. This shift is not only fundamentally changing our economy, but also brewing massively destructive Excession Events on the horizon. These two items aren’t getting cheaper. They are making us feel much less wealthy than we used to. Healthcare and education. Businesses have to be careful. If you’re in a position where your market is moving from sales-led to marketing-led, or from marketing-led to brand-led business, you have to understand that what you did previously cannot work in the new paradigm. Those who follow the status quo can’t cope with this shifting world. That’s one of the reasons why companies don’t change. The head of sales is the most important man in the business. They are very unlikely to say, “You know what? This business model doesn’t work anymore. I’ll get my coat.” He doesn’t do that because he can’t. Both emotionally and physically, he can’t turn around and say, “This company does not need me anymore. I need to leave and you need to be successful without me.” How many people are going to commit to that? If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. Most people won’t do that. These high-end sales guys and senior management of sales are workers, rarely thinkers. Thinking is just not what they do. They’re doers. How many of them are going to put their hand up and say, “You don’t need me anymore.” They’ll let the company make that decision. They’re not going to volunteer it.
There is one looming event that is particularly powerful: Artificial intelligence. AI could be the ultimate Excession Event. There are numerous ways in which technology can replace humans. Much of the law might be automated. The same would be true for accountants doing a tax return, or for social media managers, or for any number of skilled but repetitive tasks. The automation of society has been happening since the industrial revolution. The difference today is that it is not just the low-skilled, low-pay workers being affected. It is now beginning to have significant consequences for high-skilled, middle class workers. The effects on society are likely to be profound. The AI Excession Event may have a bright side: It may finally give us the opportunity to break free of the shackles of the 9-to-5 workday, and instead rely on original thinking and creativity. Jobs being replaced by automated machines has been going on constantly since the Industrial Revolution.
Thomas Edison once said, “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.” Doing is not the answer to anything. Knowing isn’t either. If those are your solutions, you are in trouble in the new world. Much like the office, the present education system was designed for the industrial era. In essence, classrooms were meant to turn children into effective factory workers. In a world where AI and automation are overtaking factory jobs, our current education system is simply no longer relevant. Today, we’re moving from a world of doing to a world of thinking. If you’re going to be a success in the future, you need to think of new ideas and think of questions—not answers. Education today is all about knowing. We need to change that. Our world has changed dramatically since the Industrial Revolution era, but why have our classrooms stayed the same?
A hundred years ago, the school system changed as people moved out of farms and into an industrial world. Why is it thought impossible to do it again, as we move from industrial to our post-industrial knowledge age? It is possible to change the education system, but it will be a lot of disruption during the period of change. Half of a generation will really struggle with it. If we don’t, we’ll end up with entire graduating classes possessing skill sets that simply aren’t needed anymore. One of the problems of the university system is it turns out people who know answers, but they do not ask questions. They all look pretty similar. Meanwhile, our society is beginning to value uniqueness above all else. The only thing you can do better than anyone else is be you. No one else can be you better than you are. it is a great advantage to be unique. Being unique is more valuable than ever, and yet our universities are creating assembly line graduates who all look the same.
What should we change about education? One of the primary things is to break down the silos between subjects: To farm the fertile ground between subjects and see what kind of thinking grows there. Education needs to give certain members of our society a broader base. Instead of having a degree in microbiology, they might end up with a science degree. Today, there is a huge opportunity for a Renaissance person: Someone who knows enough about a range of subjects that they can pull together specialists from multiple disciplines and enable those people to talk to each other. “The generalist knows less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.” Until universities do create them, individuals can do it for themselves by reading widely, understanding lots of topics, and knowing less and less about more and more until you know nothing about everything.
Like the Renaissance men of the past, we once again have the opportunity to understand the gaps between skillsets. Now, the value of that knowledge is on the decline, but the value of knowledge webs that enable us to click together many different puzzle pieces is on the rise. In addition to encouraging a broader base of education, we must embrace the use of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These communities are a major existential threat, and a possible Excession Event, to the university system. The trouble with generalists today is they usually lose out to the specialists. They’re seen as less useful. But this will change. In coming years, the generalists created by education changes will be far more valuable than specialists.
Traditionally, society has resembled a pyramid. The very wealthy and often the most educated were at the very top. A big middle of middle class average people. Finally, we had the bottom of the pyramid, which were the working class. The Industrial Revolution has enormously swelled the ranks of the middle classes, particularly in the 20th Century. Automation and AI will have a similar effect on the middle classes that are unable or unwilling to change.
Democracy relies on the voting population believing that they are part of the franchise. That their voice matters. People will reasonably complain that, “We don’t want to live in a world where 1% of the population has got more money than the vast majority of the rest. It’s unfair.” The people who can work out how to change their business so that they’re thinkers, not doers, can push themselves into the top of the hourglass. This might be people who can build capital by investing in the right new technology. It may also include those who can own and run a business that provides a thinking-oriented, Excession-proof product or service. Other ways to stay above the pinch point: Constant reinvention.
A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is right now.” The best time for anyone to start planning a strategy is right now. The time to learn how to swim is not when the boat sinks. The time to learn how to swim is before you even think about getting on the boat.