Unless you have been under a rock, you know that the world is changing fast. You know that technology advances, especially smart robots and smart thinking machines, will continue to drive change. They will raise serious questions about how anyone over the age of 18 stays relevant and competitive job-wise in a world of smart machines. Studying that issue from the viewpoint of the science of learning leads me to believe that we all need to adopt a new operating definition of what being “smart” means. Why? Because it will be a new game—we will have to compete for jobs not only against other humans, but also against smart machines.
Being “smart” now generally means that I know more than you as evidenced by good grades and fewer mistakes. It is quantity-based definition. Well, by that definition, smart machines will beat all of us. Smart machines can learn more, remember more and retrieve much more information much faster than we humans can with far fewer mistakes. Our ability to learn is hampered by our reflexive cognitive blindness and biases and by our emotional defensiveness. Smart machines don’t have those limitations.
So, where does that leave us if we want to stay relevant? We need to be good at doing what smart machines can’t do better than us, at least for the foreseeable future. For most workers that means being good at critical and innovative thinking and creativity and having and using high levels of social and emotional intelligence.
That would mean that the new, 21st century “smart” person would be someone who is a good critical and innovative thinker, listener, and collaborator and who has developed his or her emotional and social intelligence to high levels. This person would also need to be good at managing themselves—managing how one thinks, listens, emotionally reacts and emotionally engages and collaborates with others. Most of us have had no formal training in how to think, how to listen, how to emotionally engage, how to manage our emotions, or how to collaborate. And most of us probably have not done the necessary developmental work to attain high levels of emotional and social intelligence. That raises the question of how do we “old smart” people learn to be new, 21st century smart people? Here are seven steps I found in my research of the science of learning and high-performance learning organizations:
1. Accept the science of learning—our “humanness.” We all are usually suboptimal thinkers who operate on autopilot seeking to confirm what we already believe and seeking to affirm our self-image. We also are usually poor listeners, quick to judge, quick to defend or deny, and “it’s all about me”-oriented. We are usually fearful of making mistakes, looking bad and not being liked. That makes us, in many cases, emotionally defensive thinkers. We usually do not manage our thinking, listening, relating and emotions. In order to change, one must accept those realities and on a daily basis rigorously use strategies, processes and checklists to overcome those natural tendencies. No longer is being smart measured by how much you know. New, 21st century being smart will be measured by how well you think, listen, relate and collaborate with high emotional and social intelligence.
2. Decouple your ego from your beliefs (not values). You are not your ideas. Your mental models are not reality. Decoupling your ego from your beliefs or ideas makes it easier to listen to different views with an open mind and without becoming emotionally defensive. It makes it is easier to collaborate with others and stress- test your beliefs. It makes it easier to modify your beliefs to better represent reality. It makes it easier to be a fair-minded seeker of fact-based truth.
3. Listen to learn not to confirm.Being a good listener is absolutely necessary to be a 21st century smart person. Most successful critical and innovative thinking and emotional engagement requires nonjudgmental, patient, empathetic listening. Good listeners do not interrupt people to show how smart they are. They often ask clarifying questions before giving their views. They reflect more as contrasted to emotionally defending or reacting. They seek to make meaning with other people by exploring ideas. They understand that listening is relational and not a competition. Good listening requires a quiet ego, a calm mind and calm emotions.
4. Embrace collaboration. It is hard for any of us to overcome our confirmation biases by ourselves. We all are inclined to interpret data so it fits into our existing mental models. We are confirmation thinkers. That limits our ability to think critically and innovatively. Thus we need to think out loud with others. We need to collaborate. The new kind of 21st century smart people will constantly seek out other smart people to challenge their beliefs to make sure they represent reality. Rather than feeling insecure when their beliefs are being challenged, they feel insecure when their beliefs are not challenged. New smart people focus on what is right not on who is right and who is wrong. They do not view collaboration as a competition; rather, it is a relational process built upon trust and empathy.
5. Love mistakes. Most learning comes from mistakes. In the Smart Machine Age, continuous learning may well be the only sustainable competitive advantage. New smart people will not be afraid of seeking out new learning opportunities or challenges because they will have developed a way to learn in those situations. They will have learned to be comfortable dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, because they have strategies and processes of learning that engender a feeling that “I will be OK.” New smart people will not count their mistakes—they will count how fast they learn and adapt from their mistakes. Being smart is a never-ending journey. Those that can continuously learn faster and better will stay relevant and competitive in the 21st century.
6. Work hard daily at having humility. A “quiet ego” is necessary for open-mindedness, critical and innovative thinking, listening, collaborating and empathy. A quiet ego increases one’s awareness and ability to manage oneself as well as one’s effectiveness in emotionally connecting and relating to others. Humility is a foundational building block of being 21st century smart.
7. Slow down and rigorously use best learning processes and checklists daily. Before engaging with others, prepare yourself to “really be present” with a calm mind and emotions and a quiet ego. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this engagement?” Is it discovery/exploration or critical or innovative collaborative thinking? Is it to humbly listen to another, debate an issue or make a decision? That helps you get in the right frame of mind to better manage your thinking and emotions. The type of meeting determines the learning processes to be used. Be paranoid about slipping back into bad habits. Use checklists and get constant feedback to prevent that slippage, knowing that you will make mistakes that need to be nipped in the bud.
Sounds hard? Well, it is. It takes patience and time since collaboration is a critical part of the process of being 21st century smart. It requires one to slow down to think, listen and relate meaningfully. “Slowing down” runs counter to the pressure in most jobs to do more and more with less and less. Well, in the future, most activities that do not require the type of thinking and human emotional engagement that we have discussed will be done by technology. The activities left for humans will require new rules, including slowing down to intentionally and deliberately focus on well executing thinking, listening, relating and collaborating processes.
And, it takes daily practice, practice and practice. And practice makes you better, but you never get it perfect. I suggest starting with a few basics. That is what I did. I had to work hard in the beginning to quiet my ego and to slow down my thinking to stay open-minded and not rush to judgment. I had to change my competitive mindset to a relational mindset. I had to become much better at listening. I believe with the right attitude, the right processes and daily practice you can take your thinking, listening, relating, collaborating and learning to a higher level! We all need to do that to stay relevant in the coming age of smart machines.
Ed Hess is author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (2014)
This article was written by Batten Institute University of Virginia Darden School of Business from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.