A.I. will never be able to replicate this human job skill

Automation is coming for everyone, but it’s both a liability and an asset.

It was a workday Halloween this week, and depending on who you ask, the scariest thing you might face this isn’t the fact that you didn’t put enough effort into your costume. It’s that one day in the near future, your co-workers won’t just be wearing robot costumes, they’ll actually be robots. Maybe even you will be replaced by a host-style robot with elite job skills.

While it’s true, automation is a force that will reshape the job market, there’s reason not to fear impending doom.

On one hand, AI, quantum computers, neural networks or other intelligent machines may not totally represent the end of work as we know it.

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Brookings has estimated that automation will have a “low impact” on 39 percent of jobs, a “medium impact: on 36 percent of jobs, and a “high impact” on 25 percent of jobs. This varies significantly on the type of job you’re talking about — jobs with “routine” physical and cognitive tasks have high risks, they _, whereas jobs with “abstract activities” or that have a creative or emotional bent lower risks.

Automation is coming for everyone, but it’s both a liability and an asset. In that sense, it’s a good move to both embrace the opportunities inherent in automation and protect yourself from it at the same time. Go ahead: celebrate the achievement of “quantum supremacy” But also, let’s take some time this week to future-proof your job skills.

Fortunately, as Edward Hess, author and professor of Business Administration of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, tells me there are skills that never go out of style. In order to access those skills, we have to be willing to update how we look at intelligence. In his book, Humility is the New Smart, he calls that concept “NewSmart.”

“In the digital age, computers will know much more than we will know because they will be able to process more information faster and much better than us with perfect recall,” he tells me. “So, we need a new definition of what it means to be smart in the digital age, and that is the purpose of “New Smart.”

I’m Emma Betuel, and this is Strategy a weekly newsletter packed with tips about how to navigate your life, career, and finances. This is the final week in our October deep-dive in to jobs, which is why we’re looking into the future. If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, pass it to them with the link at the bottom of this email.

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Forget “Old Smart”

While doing research for Humility is the New Smart, Hess spent time interviewing executives who were eager to ready themselves for a more automated economy. But they found themselves unwilling to make changes to the way they viewed their skills on the job. Particularly, says Hess, they all having the same problem: they defined intelligence by what they knew.

Think about the the “smartest” kid you knew in elementary school. Often, it’s the kid who memorized all the state capitals, or could recite the most digits of pi. Quantity of knowledge was (and in some workplaces, still is) a symbol of intelligence, says Hess, though it won’t be for long. Why memorize state capitals when you have a phone in your pocket?

The skills that will carry on are not information-based. Rather, they’re both related to our ability to take in new information, learn it, and come up with creative, new applications (even when we have limited data to work with). Ultimately, you’ve got to be a quick learner.

“We will have to constantly learn-unlearn and relearn at the pace of change,” says Hess.

The strategic way to approach this is to remove, or at least divert, all roadblocks to learning that could keep you from adapting to new information. And Hess argues that ultimately, the biggest thing standing in our way is ourselves.

Emotions, he argues, play a large role in learning and ability, and in some cases can hold us back. But seeing as we have yet to create a machine of Dolores-like emotional breadth, they’re also a defining part of the human experience, and the key to staying one-up on the machines.

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“The most needed skill for the longest time”

A crucial future-proof job skill is “high emotional engagement,” Hess tells me. This skill is crucial for optimizing learning, creating lasting connections with others, and solving problems. It’s also something that a machine isn’t capable of (as far as we know).

“High emotional engagement will be the most needed skill for the longest time,” says Hess.

This idea may be reminiscent of emotional intelligence, a phrase which is becoming more and more common in managerial training and is on its way to corporate “buzzword” status. That concept describes the ability to recognize your own emotions (and those of others), and manage your response.

At best that’s anything from taking a moment to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, at worst it’s a way to actively manipulating your coworkers — a darker side to emotional intelligence has been pointed out.

High emotional engagement does suggest that we can learn our emotions, and then engage with others. But it’s a bit more nuanced, says Hess. It’s the idea that when you exhibit positive emotions you end up not only working better with others, but also facilitating your own learning (that key skill that was mentioned earlier).

“Basically positive emotions (caring, empathy, compassion, being happy, feeling comfortable with another, etc) enable learning and can optimize the quality of connection with other humans,” says Hess. “Negative emotions inhibit learning and positive connections with others.

Hess makes a case for this in his book, and there is some scientific literature that speaks to the idea that learning and memory are affected by emotional states. One rodent study found that both positive and negative emotions processes related to social learning. Anxiety has been shown to impair working memory. From an education perspective, research has suggested that positive emotions “preserve cognitive resources” and promote “deep learning.”

Though this connection hasn’t been fully experimentally validated in a work context, there is some evidence that happier workers aren’t just more productive about 12 percent going by a 2015 study originally published in Journal of Labor Economics. At the time, that study’s lead author Andrew Oswald told The Guardian that “Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings, while negative emotions have the opposite effect.”

High emotional engagement, then is being able to interact with your co-workers while you’re feeling these warm, fuzzy, and organic positive emotions. “People can learn how to generate positive emotions,” he argues, though this is likely a different recipe for each individual person. But the payoff in terms of job skills, he adds, are numerous.

“High positive emotional engagement is needed to optimize learning and to optimize the connection with and relating to others (collaboration) in solving complex problems, in choosing, designing, conducting and evaluating the results of innovation experiments; in understanding and meeting customer needs,” he says.

Ultimately, this all comes down to a simple thing. There are reasons to pursue your own happiness and fulfillment on the job. It will allow you to be as nimble and creative as possible: which overall is a future-proof skill.

And even if robots eventually learn to be as warm and fuzzy as Aibo, you’ll still have one thing on them. You’ll be such a good coworker that you raise everyone’s game collectively, including your own.

Unsplash / Masaaki Komori

Push for a natural stopping point

One of the major issues with self-interruption is that it creates what Benbunan-Fich calls a “resumption cost.” That’s the idea that when you get distracted, you will take a small hit in productivity as you try to recreate the state of mind you were in before you quit. The key is to try to find a place where you can get that cost as low as possible.

One way to best reduce that “resumption cost” is to find a natural stopping point: the end of a paragraph, after every 50 cells of data entry, or at some place where, once you resume, you can do so with a fresh perspective. If you feel a negative break coming on, it may be worth pushing just a little longer until you see a natural opening for a break.

“Research has shown when you stop a task in a natural stopping point, the self-interruption has the effect of replenishing your cognitive resources,” she says. “In that case, the self-interruption isn’t necessarily detrimental. That’s because you’re not leaving things absolutely in the middle,” she adds.

At the end of the day, we’ll always be fighting our inner distraction demons. But the good news is that, occasionally, they can be benevolent. The trick is not letting negative emotions dictate when you decide to turn your attention elsewhere.

A version of this article first appeared as the Strategy newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it weekly.

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