The era of average is over
As published on Switch & Shift on July 29, 2014. In the past 30 years, millions of people have lost their jobs to the rise of computerized automation, technology and robots offering unparalleled efficiency, reliability and performance benefits. Experts state that we are at the crucial tipping point often referred to as the great decoupling, with economic growth for the first time not followed by a similar increase in job creation. Bold predictions state that a robot journalist could win a Pulitzer within 5 years, that all human work will be fully outsourced to robots by 2045 and that humans can even fall in love with and marry robots by 2050.
While many of these predictions seem far-fetched at first sight, it is clear that especially people with ordinary skills and abilities will be most affected by this global shift from people having jobs to technology taking over. With nothing standing in the way of technologic progress, it is unlikely that our future will be created by average people from average backgrounds using average skills that generate average results. While our economy will always depend on humans who buy, use, create and connect, we will need to learn more than ever how to go beyond being average and to develop our own unique skills and capabilities. Everyone will need to find their extra, moving beyond what we have learned and stepping out of our comfort zones.
1. Embrace bias
The term bias is an ugly word to many people. With most of human knowledge grounded in probability theory and drawn from random samples, we instinctively work hard to root out unwanted biases. While some forms of bias are indeed troublesome, we need to embrace other kinds of bias to act intelligently and make progress. Think for example of the way organizational cultures are often biased positively towards a specific purpose. A company like Patagonia serves as a good example here. Every new recruit receives a copy of its founder’s book Let My People Go Surfing which charts Patagonia’s history and vision; at the headquarters people take their surfboards to work to catch a few waves during breaks; employees can apply for 2-month not-for-profit internships during which they’re still paid by Patagonia. It turns Patagonia people into a special kind of people, living and working according to their own biased rules.
Bias is also present in the capacity of outliers, i.e. observations that deviate so much from average observations that they arouse the suspicion of being generated by a different mechanism. Many of the world’s greatest inventions are a direct result of looking deeper into the root causes and context of outliers, with Post-it notes, Velcro or Corn Flakes all being the result of accidental discoveries rather than intended innovations. Similarly we see an increased interest in less representative research techniques. For example, communities of interested and interesting people working together on a specific topic taking the lead as the fastest growing research method according to the latest edition of the GreenBook Research Industry Trends Report.
Finally, social media thrives on bias. While a lot of our thinking is based on the assumption all persons are equal (think for example of elections), in the digital age, people act as an interconnected network rather than a group of randomly isolated individuals, with a limited number of social influencers shaping the opinions of the masses that gravitate towards them.
2. Fight the norm
Did you ever catch yourself staring at a person who is different from the norm? It is a deeply rooted human trait to embrace whatever we know and to reject whatever is new to or different from us. It explains why most people desire to fit into society and live by existing rules. I am sure many of you have watched the inspirational TEDx talk by Lizzie Velasquez who suffers from a medical condition that prevents her from gaining weight. The condition is so rare that only two other people in the entire world are known to have it. Instead of trying to comply with the norm and fit in, she decided to turn her non-average condition into a strength, becoming a successful motivational speaker.
A similar path was walked recently in this campaign, where Intermarché launched a brilliant and successful campaign, creating a separate range of oddly looking Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables that do not fit the norm, celebrating the beauty of the Grotesque Apple, the Ridiculous Potato, the Hideous Orange and so many other outcasts. Scarcity can be a great way to think outside of what is normal. Being confronted with a shortage of cocoa due to World War II rationing, Pietro Ferrero extended his chocolate supply with hazelnuts to develop the famous Nutella spread. By challenging the chocolate norm, he created a far less expensive way for people to enjoy something that tasted great. The product still is a world hit today with 250,000 tons of Nutella being sold in 75 countries each year.
3. Become the specialist among specialists
Being able to tap into a global creative, interconnected and sharing brain, specialization will overtake generalization. People like Bill Gates and the Beatles have gone beyond our normal understanding of achievement, putting in enormous amounts of time before hitting the big one. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the ’10,000 hour rule’, meaning that to a large extent the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. Or, as the French scientist Louis Pasteur put it:
“In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
You could argue that specialization is the core secret to Germany becoming the soccer World Cup winner this year. After a terrible Euro 2000 campaign, Germany introduced national talent centers with more than 1,000 part-timers coaching children aged 8 to 14, defined new Bundesliga rules enabling young German talents to fast-track into the club system and embraced a healthy work ethic putting a dedicated focus on the ball and nothing but the ball. They went through extraordinary lengths to create the world’s best soccer team by narrowly focusing on how young players can progress more rapidly in a redefined German soccer culture and structure.
4. Cherish diversity
Traditional management practices have long been cheering the virtues of homogeneity, with organizations grouping individuals that are mainly copycats of one another. In today’s world, diversity clearly outweighs homogeneity. By opening up to diverse sets of people having different backgrounds, interests and skills, we are all able to do better. In line with its purpose and mission, Amnesty International takes special care of recruiting a group of employees who are as diverse as possible, providing the necessary conditions for mutual understanding and progress. Cherishing diversity also means exploring atypical environments that stimulate human creativity. As long as we create the necessary conditions for it, anyone can be creative. Having showers in your office might be a cleverer idea than having meeting rooms. Our creative brain benefits from the dopamine released from and distractive effect of taking a relaxing, warm shower, which is why the best ideas are born in the shower.
In a world that is in urgent need of extraordinary thinking, we can no longer rely on average people or solutions. Despite obvious challenges that lie ahead of us, the good thing about today’s society is that everyone in it has the power to be extraordinary in their unique way. I am interested in learning what your ‘extra’ is and how other people can benefit from it!