Culture & Structure

The Elongated Life: Life-Long Learning

Many people who read our first blog on the elongated life, noticed that if people are going to plan to live to 100, then the implications are different depending on your current age. For people over a certain age, say 40, the recognition that they may work for as many as 35 years after turning 65 means they need to change expectations and that’s the challenge. They’re not retiring and need to use those extra years well. (That’s the current focus of AgeBrilliantly.org). But what about younger people, say teenagers, who are just beginning to take charge of their careers?

For the younger generations who have not bought into the stereotype that people around 60 should be thinking of retiring, their focus should be on “life-long learning”.  They have the ability, starting now, to rethink and plan their trajectory. Instead of going from high school to college, and college to graduate school(s) and then getting full-time careers/jobs for the next 40 years of life before retiring from work, they can envision a new scenario which some people already are adopting. They can go to schools (physical and onlines) and get the degrees (certifications) they want to pursue a career and when they want to change they can go back and get new credentials for new careers. And they may do this several times, with time off for family, travel and other things. In other words, raher than thinking about having few careers during the 40 years between college and retirement, they can think of life as consisting of 70-80 years after high school, when they can intersperse education, travel, family, careers, sabbaticals etc.

Fundamental to this new lifestyle, is good health and fitness, financial security, social relations—all backed by a commitment to life-long learning. The learning – whether in buildings or online – should be able to help them address all the issues that arise.

How do we stay a life-long learner? Here are some tips:

  • Stay curious, ask questions, and maintain a thirst for knowledge. Never be content with what you know already – always strive for more.
  • Don’t stop growing. Commit to personal growth and continued education. Be on the lookout for new opportunities and possibilities. And then try them. Take time to think and reflect on your needs, the needs of your (current/future) professional and society.
  • Don’t stop connecting. Life is what you learn from media, experiences and people. Align with other life-long learners for maximum opportunities. Constantly expand your network of positive influence, find communities of practice and build a network of mentors, friends and supporters.

If you’re starting the 70-80 year life – what are your thoughts? What challenges worry you? What hopes excite you?  If you’re older, what advice can you give the younger person who, as a life-long learner, has the ability to live a truly fulfilling life to 100+?

Test or Debug: What’s Your Style?

Frank Wilczek writes a column in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition, and one headline grabbed my attention. Better to Test Than to Debug.  His focus was on computer programmers, but the question and implications applies to all of us when we do creative work.

Is it better to draft an entire project (article, computer program, etc.), and then when there is a problem “debug” it, or to view the project as consisting of lots of small steps that you can take and ‘test” before going on to the next step?

While it would seem more efficient to “test” parts before having to “debug” the whole things, yet many people opt for the latter. For instance, as a teacher, I often encourage students to provide me with a brief outline before starting the entire paper, and a sizable number of students prefer to skip the “testing” phase and just hand in the completed work. Similarly, when I invite people to write a guest blog for AgeBrilliantly.org, I encourage them to fill out a simple outline form (the “test”) so they can get feedback first, and instead get full articles.

Wilczek believes that “debugging sucks” while “testing rocks”;  “haste makes waste”, and “the struggle for existence” is the test, while Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is debugging.  What’s your style?  Why? Share with us.

The Risks of Automation Displacing Workers

In this blog, as well as my college courses, I’ve been raising the issues of how important it is for young people to focus on the power of automation to displace some workers, while also transforming industries and creating new jobs/careers. This is key inforamtion for young people making education decisions, and advisors (and parents) trying to guide them.

McKinsey & Company , in its July 2016 Quarterly magazine, began reporting on a study that analyzed 2000+ work activities for more than 800 occupations to help us understand where the greatest risks are.

They discovered that current demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and that 60% of all curatesion could see 30% or more of their constitutent activities automated.

They discovered that automation will depend on five factors:

  • Technical feasibility,
  • Costs to automate,
  • The relative scarcity, skills and cost of workers who otherwise might do the activtiy;
  • Benefits (e.g. superior performance of automation vs. labor-costs)
  • Regulatory and social-acceptance.

The most automatable activites are those in which human activities are predictable. These including physical activites (e.g., moving things) and operating machinery in a predictable environment. Overall this is about 20% of what takes place in the US workplace, with much of it taking place in manaufacturing, food service, accomodations, and retailing. Less susceptible (for now) are activities which require cognitive and social skill decisions which are not predictable and require judgement and emotional intelligence. For instance, they calculated that 47% of a retail sales’ person’s activites have the techical potential to be automated, compared to 86% for bookeepers, accountants and auditors.

The takeaway: part of everyone’s job is automatable today and will increasingly be vulnerable if they are predictable and “easier” to do by machines; even more will become susceptible as algorithms for making decisions are developed. Advanced banking, which requires risk assessments based on more than numbers, such as character and potential, will need people, while “teller” jobs will continue to be replaced by ATMs and online banking. Future job risks will remain smaller for those work aspects which require creative decision-making.  For students seeking careers, the wise path is to find industries, careers and jobs, in which they can develop their “irreplaceable” skills and specialize in them, using technology to handle the automatable parts of their jobs.

What’s your experience with automation replacing jobs?  What do you think the future holds? Share with us your views.

Social Influence: Don’t Underestimate its Power

As a social psychologist with a strong interest in behavioral economics, I enjoy learning new ways that people influence one another – so we can use them for good purposes.

Jonah Berger, in Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, identifies several factors that influence people’s decisions based on laboratory and field studies.

Let me share one example. Imagine you’re trying to get people to conserve energy. There are many ways to do so – focusing on their concern for the environment, their desire to save money, an appeal to good citizenship etc.  Studies have tried all these – and in general none have a real impact. However, encouraging people to follow a social norm – showing them on their electric bills that their neighbors are spending less than they are – and giving tem concrete suggestions for how they might also reduce energy consumption has had an impact.

Indeed, Yates and Laskey created a company Opower which sent consumers carefully targeted energy reports. Rather than an appeal, they simply report the difference in consumption patterns of people with their neighbors/ they also note that they can save energy by replacing certain electronics, turning off lights, adjusting light settings, etc.  The program led people to reduce energy consumption about 2%/ That might not seem a lot, but multiplied by the number of people they’ve reached so far it saved 6 trillion watt-hours or enough to take all homes in Alaska and Hawaii off the electric grid for a year. And, it reduced carbon dioxide – the equivalent of taking all cars in Chicago off the road for a year.

There are many other helpful hints in this book. For instance, if your sales (or other) team fell behind their goal, social influence can come to the rescue in certain cases – by unleashing the competitive spirits. If you’re using social influence techniques now, share them with us. If not, after reading the book share which you liked and will be applying!

Stop Disruptors Before They Stop You

Is your company so concerned with maximizing your current strategy that you’re missing out on new entrants who might actually disrupt your business?

We’re all familiar with the fact that Blockbuster was so concerned with making its stores successful, it was blindsided by the ability of Netflix to create both a company without any physical stores and one that would succeed without a physical disk or tape – as it relied on streaming.

Similarly, Sharon Terlep reported in a July 20, 2016 WAll Street Journal announcing Unilever’s acquisition of the Dollar Shave Club, that Proctor & Gamble’s executives had privately acknowledged that they were caught off-guard conceding that “we weren’t necessarily having the right conversation around what might disrupt us.”

How do you make sure you are having the right conversations? One step is to value being “paranoid” as Andy Grove, former Chairman of Intel said in his book “Only the Paranoid Survive.” That means making it part of the portfolio of some executive (e.g., VP of Strategy) to dedicate time to looking at new technology, models and businesses and identifying scenarios in which they might “eat your lunch”.

Second, engage all executives on a regular basis in an activity of challenging each other on how their company can be put out of business. One approach, which Clayton Christensen and Maxwell Wessel described in “Surviving Disruptions” (HBR Dec. 2012) is to assess the threat of potential competitors. Identify:

  • The strengths of the disruptor’s business model
  • The relative advantages your company has
  • The conditions that would help or hinder the disruptor from co-opting your current advantages in the future.

Another is to engage periodically in the “Put Us Out of Business” exercise. Have each executive role play how they might if they worked for an existing and future competitor target the weaknesses of the company to beat them. Have them target strategic functions for which others are responsible, so they are forced to be creative and will be less defensive.

How do you now challenge your business model and “competitive advantage”? Should you change?  If it’s effective, share it with us. We want to keep our companies vibrant and growing!

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