The Pursuit of Relevance

The Limits of Human Adaptability

I was born in 1989, making me a part of the Millennial Generation. For this, I feel extremely lucky. We are still young, but already we have witnessed more change than probably any generation before us (at least change that is not destructive; history is full of examples of those). I now interact with things on a daily basis that would have been considered the stuff of science fiction on the day I was born. Sometimes I fantasize about travelling to ages past carrying a pair of fully functional smartphones (suspend your disbelief), feigning magical abilities. The funny thing is I wouldn’t even have to travel that far back. Human adaptability is truly amazing: we got used to magic.

Our expectations never lag behind. We quickly become disenchanted. Sometimes, I am surprised by how easily I take things for granted. Take Google Maps for instance. Although other apps are fast improving, Google still seems to provide the most comprehensive data on my home town Ankara. Therefore, I wasn’t thrilled when it wasn’t included in iOS 6. Some time later, it became available on the Apple App Store, but not in Turkey (I still wonder the reason why – if you know, pray tell). When I’m trying to find the address of a place, and it doesn’t show up in either Apple or Yandex Maps (unlikely to begin with), I open Google Maps using Safari, which is not ideal. I find myself complaining at times like this. But I still remember the time when I was psyched about getting a handheld GPS for the first time. We picked it up as we were leaving for a family vacation. I spent hours looking at it, guiding my father through village roads. Yeah it took 20 minutes to triangulate my position (if the sky was clear) and you could count the pixels on its monochrome LCD display, but it showed you where you are on the planet, and that was so cool!

Disturbingly, human adaptability seems to be most efficient in causing disenchantment. Technology is changing the world at an astounding pace and that is a fact. To what extent have we questioned the validity of conventional wisdom in making important life choices? Looking back at my life to this point, I have to admit I haven’t really done this. Now, it is time to start fixing that.

We all struggle to find our place in life. We have to be relevant, somehow, to matter. Relevance is hard to achieve, and takes many sacrifices. Knowing which sacrifices to make is also important, and that is where conventional wisdom comes in. If you plan on taking hard-earned relevance away from someone, expect them to put up a fight. Profound change can never happen without friction. However, when change is (truly – not seemingly) inevitable, resistance can be futile.

More and more, I started thinking that the axioms of conventional wisdom might not apply to my generation for the simple reason that the world is no longer the world in which they were conceived. Therefore, as Millennials, we have to be very careful when it comes to choosing which sacrifices we make so that we do not find ourselves on the wrong side of change in the years to come.

A Warm Fuzzy Feeling

Knowing you are on the right track in life isn’t possible unless you know right from wrong. I believe it’s safe to say there is a general consensus on the subject. When you think you are on the right track, you get the warm fuzzy feeling that I have been living with most of my life. I graduated from the Industrial Engineering department at one of Turkey’s best universities with high grades. I got a great job that showed me half of Europe, travelling from one top level meeting to the next. I made good money, and was very successful at what I did. Most of all, I got to work with and learn from truly exceptional people. If someone asked me where I saw myself in a couple of years, I automatically responded: “Ivy League MBA!”. With each success, that warm fuzzy feeling grew.

Now, I am starting to dispute my entitlement to feeling so comfortable.

I have often heard that not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. That’s too bad, because we all are whether we like it or not. If not our money, we invest our lives in something we (hopefully) believe in. We specialize in a particular topic, and spend most of our lives working our way up the career ladder. During periods of relative stability when change is small and incremental, the risks associated with such investments are small so most people can turn out fine even if they ignore them completely.

The post-war part of the 20th Century was one of relative stability. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me to see that it culminated into a system that treats people like the interchangeable parts of a stable machine, distinguished mainly by the specifications inscribed on their CVs.

I already mentioned there are sacrifices to make. In the aforementioned system, you cannot afford to make mistakes (lest you stain your CV for all eternity). With clear definitions of what constitutes a good school, a good college, a good profession and a good employer that will eventually provide you with a good retirement plan, you have your work cut out for you. The moment you deviate from the norm you fall back in the race. You have no real control over your life. The most important decisions often come down to choosing one out of several comparable options available to you (“Should I apply to University A, or University B?”). You have to think about how you will defend your decision in all future job interviews.

When I was a student, I sometimes found myself facing a dilemma. As a student, you are expected to complete certain assignments that are intended to build your understanding on various topics. How well you do these is reflected in your grade. However, professors cannot tailor assignments based on a single student. There would be times when I had to spend a lot of time doing an assignment aimed at helping me understand something I already knew. On the other hand, university is a place where you hear about all sorts of interesting ideas that you want to spend time researching. The problem is, there are only so many hours in the day. Conventional wisdom teaches us that we should strive to get the highest grades possible. In the end, what I ended up sacrificing was sleep. I gave up the literal warm fuzzy feeling for the metaphorical one.

I think the rationale behind this approach is to guarantee your relevance in life through the relevance of an institution. Doing this gives us a sense of safety and security. In Turkey, there is an idiom: Devlete kapağı atmak (literally, to throw the lid over the government – I suppose with the aim of sealing yourself inside) that encourages people to get government jobs. People believe that once you’re in, you have it made for life.

I’m afraid holding such firm beliefs is becoming harder by the day. We all know the famous example of how the typewriter industry was negated by the rise of the personal computer. The cozy stability offered by the 20th century no longer seems to be the case. The computer revolution is raging on, and we seem to be heading towards turbulent times.

The Changing Landscape

In order to better understand what sort of changes are taking place, I will consider several examples in two main categories: Consumer-Side Changes and Business-Side Changes.

Consumer-Side Changes

Consumers are flexible. All they need to buy something is the money and the willingness (sometimes facilitated by late-night drunkenness while browsing Amazon). There is no bureaucratic process and no complicated politics (then again, maybe you need your parents’ permission).

The beauty of programmable computers is that they can morph into other things. Have a look at this great video showing the evolution of the desk.

A smartphone is a fully programmable computer, small in size, and with telephony capabilities. However, its being a computer is what makes it so special… not being a phone. Calling it a smartphone is not that different from calling it a smartcamera – to me, it seems a little arbitrary. If you make a phone call on your laptop, does it also become a smartphone? Still, I will use the word since people might associate the word computer with larger objects. In reality, the discussion below applies to “computers”.

Let’s look at some examples of what you can turn a smartphone into.

  • Phones, video-phones, address books (I’m not sure younger generations will fully appreciate that last one).
  • I don’t think many people carry a second device they can only use to take pictures.
  • Nowadays, you carry your entire (music, movie, book) library in your pocket, along with respective stores, and the rest of the accumulated knowledge of mankind.
  • If I worked at a calculator company, I would be thankful that students aren’t allowed to bring smartphones into exams.
  • I already gave the example of GPS devices at the start of this post.
  • Apps can even replace your personal trainer or dietician to a certain degree.
  • The list can go on for a while… but I think you get the point.

Having a single smartphone that can take on various roles has distinct advantages over single-purpose objects:

  • A single item is easy to carry around (you only have so many pockets) and does not cause physical clutter. A laptop sitting on a coffeeshop table can be your entire office.
  • Creating additional roles for a computer (software development) is much faster, cheaper and more flexible than producing dedicated objects performing the same function. Design For Manufacturability was an important topic in my Industrial Engineering courses. When designing a product, you have to consider how easy it will be to manufacture it. Once you commit to a design, you invest in a production line optimized for it, meaning that even small changes can be extremely difficult and costly to make. To further complicate things, you have to think about storage space, distribution networks and store locations. You also need people working at every step of a long value chain.
  • The cross-functional nature of the product can enable additional business models (such as data-mining and ads), further reducing the price of apps.
  • Expensive physical products generally constitute commitments. You wouldn’t buy 5 different lawn mowers just because each has a slightly different neat feature. Apps are rather cheap (due to the reasons above) so you can own several that does the same job without feeling irresponsible (e.g. I have several minimalistic text editors). This increases competition (driving up quality), since consumer switching behavior is more likely.
  • Just like Neo learns Kung-Fu, your device can acquire a new role in moments. Unless someone discovers teleportation, you cannot match that performance no matter how streamlined your logistics are.

Business-Side Changes

I think it is clear to see that consumer-side changes alone are capable of causing fundamental change. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Businesses are slower to adapt. They have more constraints and organizational inertia to deal with. Nevertheless, firms are primarily in the business of making money (prioritizing sustainability over current-quarter profits does not mean the overall objective is different). They have to do whatever is necessary to keep on making a profit in order to survive.

Every innovation that makes it easier for you to do something has increased your productivity. The other side of the coin is that a given task requires fewer man-hours to accomplish.

Computer technology has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We are still in the early phases of trying to make sense of it all. Even so, computers have already revolutionized the way we work.

Again, countless examples can be given. I want to look at a few cases from different industries to illustrate the point. My examples are far from exhaustive or comprehensive.

  • Banking/Finance: The appeal of online banking is quite obvious: you don’t even have to get off of your couch. I understand some people like to continue doing things the way they’re used to, and others have security concerns. First, I surmise that younger generations are more open-minded about using online solutions. Secondly, the systems keep improving. If the majority of customers were to switch to online banking, this would likely have serious repercussions. For starters, there would be less need for front offices. This means less cashiers, less clerks, less security guards, etc. Other than the adoption of online banking, the computer tools available to the employees are also important. Algorithms can perform screening on a bulk of loan applications, and those that remain would be processed by people who have most of the information they need to make a decision available immediately on their screens. Algorithms can also track investment portfolios and make trading decisions. I was rather surprised to learn that at least half of all trading activity in the USA now takes place over high-frequency trading (here is an excellent Radiolab episode on the subject – the part about high-frequency trading starts @ 21:39).
  • Vehicle Repairs: When I take my car to the repair shop, the workflow I see is something like 1) connect the car to a computer to perform tests, 2) if an error is detected, fill out an order for the defective product, 3) replace the part. In the past, a mechanic would have to devote a lot more time to pinpoint the cause of a problem. Less mechanics can handle more cars.
  • Driving: If Google is doing something, you better take it seriously. It seems long-term job prospects of taxi drivers, delivery drivers, bus drivers (pretty much the driver of anything other than change) will decrease.
  • Offline Publishers: The domain of so-called intellectual property is in a state of disarray. I lump together book publishers, record companies, movie studios and the like (even video game publishers). In the past, content creators were dependent on these companies to be able to create (e.g. access to a studio) and deliver value (CDs sold at a store). This has been one of the areas hit the hardest by the internet, and the issues raised question the very essence of the human creative process. Everything is a Remix is an eye-opening documentary on the subject.

What To Do?

I hope I have been successful in showing that we as a generation do not have the luxury to count on a conventional career to guarantee that we will remain relevant for years to come. Of course change will be gradual, and not everyone will be effected. Some of us will surely look back in 40 years at a career that we would now consider to be conventional. But I am not sure they will be calling it conventional then.

BCG’s Rainer Stark explains an incoming workforce crisis in this TED Talk. Perhaps the reduction in the overall number of jobs caused by increased productivity will be offset by the shrinking of the workforce. However, the part which I find more pertinent to the matter at hand is the notion of skill mismatch. How do you know which skills will be needed in the future, and how do you get them?

I propose to do two things:

First, let’s think. That is what I have just started doing. I will keep on doing so.

Second, let’s discuss. I deeply believe in the power of communication – I think it is the quintessential human ability to which we owe all our progress. Plus, the internet makes it quite easy!

The computers and the internet are changing many things. They are making our lives better. On the other hand, uncertainty is a part of change. Overall, I believe it is a beautiful and exciting time to be alive in. We live in an age of opportunities. If we approach it properly, we might even get to live lives that are far more fulfilling than most that came before us.

Perhaps after much deliberation, I will conclude that an Ivy League MBA program is where I want to go – but I have to really think about it first. We shouldn’t let conventional wisdom do our thinking for us.

Please leave your comments below, or reach out to me on Facebook or Twitter. I am very curious to learn what people are thinking on the matter! I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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