Fresh Beginnings

In my last post, The Pursuit of Relevance, I wrote about the way technology is changing the world. In particular, it is becoming harder to rely on conventional wisdom to find safety in a career path that will ensure that you stay relevant for years to come.

However, technology brings a different safety net of its own. It enables us to open a new page in our lives every now and again; to start from scratch. That is what I want to talk about today.

Consider the following two examples:

  • A high school student who doesn’t care much about grades. A low high school GPA significantly lowers the possibility of being accepted by a good university, which in turn lowers the possibility of finding a good job. Years later, after having many job applications rejected, that same person might hope they had been a better student. But there really isn’t a way they can go back and start again – no matter how willing they are to put in the effort this time around.
  • A high school student who is a good student, but doesn’t know what he really wants to do in life. Therefore, he makes a somewhat arbitrary choice regarding what to major in, depending on the options made available by his graduating GPA. After living a little, he gets to know himself better, and figures out what he should have become. Now, he is nearing 30, and that ship has sailed.

I think both examples exhibit subtle ways of how one can end up dissatisfied and unhappy in life.

Without computers and the internet, we are really dependent on institutions to be able to create real value. If you want to be a recording artist, you needed a contract with a record company who’ll pay for your recording sessions, print the result on CDs and distribute them to a network of stores where they will be sold to customers. If you want to spend your days doing pure mathematics, it sure does help to be a faculty member at some university to help pay the bills.

Nowadays, creating and delivering value independently (of institutions that is) – being indie – has become possible in many areas. If you have the necessary skills, you can:

  • Record a song (with minimal investment) on your computer, and distribute over iTunes.
  • Produce and star in a show that you can broadcast over Youtube.
  • Produce a mobile app and distribute over the App Store.
  • Create a great video game and distribute over Steam.
  • Write a novel and self-publish as an ebook.
  • Become a journalist and chase news stories on your blog.
  • You can even become a carpenter. You just have to invest in the material and tools. Then build it in your garage and sell over Etsy.

Of course before you create anything, you need to know how. Coincidentally, learning is one of the things that is made absurdly easy by the internet!

Once upon a time, access to quality education was extremely exclusive. Nowadays, you can log onto edX.org and learn about anything from programming to physics, to agriculture for free. These college level courses are taught by the professors of the best universities the world has to offer (including MIT, Harvard and Berkeley). edX is only one of many similar platforms. Many universities have also started recording their lectures and putting it on the web.

handmadehero.org is an ongoing project that teaches people how to create a computer game from scratch. It truly is amazing, and I recommend everyone to check it out.

The sheer amount of information you can find through Google is mind-blowing. Also, as an experiment, you can try randomly browsing Wikipedia for half an hour every day, for two weeks. You will be surprised by how much you learn!

Of course language is an important barrier. You need to know English to take full advantage of these opportunities. This may not be the case in the future, as Google Translate does an amazing job of translating web sites on the fly, and the same technology is now being integrated more and more into generating subtitles for video playback. For the time being, knowing English is perhaps the most important skill you can have today. It gives you access to a world of information. But the thing is, the internet is also revolutionizing how we learn languages. I’ve taken classes in various foreign languages through the years, but I was left speechless at how efficient and fun Duolingo is. Seriously, try it! There are many languages to choose from. It’s also free.

In the past, doing something new was very hard. Acquiring the skills was hard. Even if you did, finding employment was hard. Who would hire someone 40 years old, but without relevant work experience? Employment in a field was also a prerequisite to be able to actually work in that field.

I’m not saying everything has suddenly become very easy. No, it still isn’t. First, the decision to walk away from something you have spent a lot of time specializing in is not that easy to make (and in most cases, might not be the right thing to do). Secondly, you still need to pay the bills. You need other sources of income, or have savings to rely on, until you break even.

On the other hand, sometimes the decision is not yours to make. People get laid off all the time. If my theories in my previous post are correct, this will happen even more in the future.

The key observation is, every time you start something new, you don’t actually return to square one. You retain many valuable life experiences. You mature and get to know yourself better. You become more likely to succeed in your next endeavour (so long as you keep your spirits high).

To be reassured that you will not lose your job is one thing, to have confidence that you can create a new job for yourself from scratch is something else. Technological change makes the prior less likely, but it makes the latter much easier. Furthermore, the more experienced you become in building successful ventures, you can start tackling greater challenges. Ultimately, you might even be able to improve the lives of many in your own small way.