75% of my mindshare these days is spent belaboring trends, data, and culture around technology innovation. To be sure, this fact is not a bad thing and has singlehandedly acted as the inspiration and catalyst of a company I co-founded, whose blog I am proud to be an author and whose team has grown into a collection of smart, hard working, creative, “new economy”, entrepreneurial-minded spirits. We are, in essence, a shining example of how technology empowers those who dare do dream beyond the “half walls” of a cubicle and who see the world as their “business playground” – no longer confined by borders, language barriers, and cultural differences.
But it has not been without struggle; and daily we are met with challenges and choices that did not exist even five years ago. The speed at which we move is lightening fast in comparison to how our industry (communications) was forced to move until recently. What keeps me up at night is not wondering if/when we will be a sustainable business (as we have been from day one) but how we can and will continue to keep up with the break neck pace that technology has so unwittingly set.
On one end of the spectrum – for those bright enough, educated enough and stupid enough to take risks – our new, flat world connected by mobile devices from sea to shining sea has been a boon. It is, quite simply, the new frontier for those willing to jump into the mix. But for those (and the numbers are great) who do not know the rules of “how” which guide our rapidly changing, technology-driven, social thinking culture, the future looks less than bright.
The education sector continues to struggle as budgets are slashed and home life for children on the lower socioeconomic continuum is unstable (if not chaotic) at best. A great divide continues to exist between the lower and upper classes and will only continue to grow. The job market is still struggling not for lack of government intervention and support, but due to an aging workforce unable to keep up with the infusion of technology and a new, untrained, somewhat coddled, workforce being spewed out by educational institutions with few hard skills needed to fill the gaps.
Anecdote: This is what I mean by “coddled”: I once had an intern relay to me how she “felt” about the way in which we conducted our business. I told her that frankly I didn’t give a flying fart how she felt because she couldn’t figure out to write a compelling, creative sentence in her native language – ENGLISH – as a communications major. Point being – the sway towards two way conversations and feedback loops instilled by our socially addicted, “PC” culture has its downside – the least of which is over sensitivity among a workforce that should be focusing less on how they are feeling and more about how they can get the WORK done in a creative way! You won’t ever find me running for office – I would most certainly be ousted for my inability to be politically correct or to give a crap about someone who is technically smart and educated enough to write a complete sentence but would rather eschew that responsibility to focus on their feelings.
As my grandfather always says: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”
Was that a rant? I think it was. But I digress, because there is a point to this interlude…which is..take a deep breath because it’s about to get a WHOLE. LOT. MORE. INTERESTING.
Two weeks ago I had the elitist pleasure of hearing a lecture at Stanford University conducted by Tom Friedman – who just happens to be one of my favorite journalists and authors. Several years ago he released a book entitled “The World is Flat” which was an astute observation and explanation of how globalization and technological innovation had changed the game for better or for worse. A few years after his book made it to the New York Times bestseller list, Facebook was born in a stinky dorm room and BOOM! Just like that, the theories he had laid out so eloquently in “Flat” got an injection of steroids, catapulting us all into a world of not just connectivity, but “hyper-connectivity.”
“In a very short period of time,” he noted during his lecture, “we went from connected to hyper-connected, causing yet another seismic shift. While the barriers to entry are now much lower, there is more to sift through. And now, instead of seven competitors vying for a job, there are seven million competitors.”
Furthermore, according to Mr. Friedman: “The routine work is gone – it’s been outsourced. The only options left are ‘creative, non-routine’ work and ‘non-routine work sons creativity’, and you’re better off being in the ‘creative, non-routine category’. There is no longer room for generalist, non-routine workers.”
Let me translate:
You can’t just be a regular ol’ professional anymore, you’ve gotta spice it up, throw a specialty in there, be specifically good at something. You know why? Because there are a whole lot of other people out there that want your job – not just Johnny Appleseed from down the street but Johannes Appelweissen from across the pond.
This circles us back to my earlier point (oh how I do love the fact that I can connect a point Tom Friedman made with one of my own) regarding a broken K12 education system and an overpriced higher education system that is spewing out an untrained, unequipped workforce. It’s one thing if you plan on staying in academe, or going to law school, or signing up with “Teach for America” – but that 150k English major you just got will do squat if not coupled with a severe amount of practical application to a specific job track. That is to say: be a writer, but figure out how to write about one thing very well then blow the socks off everyone else. Period.
Another good point he made about education specifically regarding America really got me: “we must bring the bottom up to average, and average must be brought to a higher level. And higher requires creativity, collaboration, and communication.”
We must, in essence, be Lake Wobegon-esque…where all the children are above average.
His overarching point here is that America is not keeping up. When we live in places like Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and New York and have decent jobs, which afford us access to cultural experiences and never ending learning opportunities via our peer groups, we are somewhat immune from the “losing America.” I would argue that it is our God-given right and duty, as members of the more fortunate constituency, to stop spending time building pointless smartphone applications that measure the decibel level of your burps to see how you compare to your peers (while enabling you to share this superfluous information on your various social networks) and get back to the real task at hand – figuring out how solve real, social problems based on well-informed thought and utilizing technological innovation to fuel these methods.
Mr. Friedman gave an interesting perspective on how we will reach new heights in our somewhat flailing economy, and it’s an interesting insight into how we can reinvent ourselves and shift the paradigm from entitlement to enlightenment:
“Think like a new immigrant and say to yourself: ‘I just showed up and there is no legacy here.’ New immigrants are paranoid optimists. We are all new immigrants now in this hyper-connected world. Also think like new artisan: carve initials into your work, take pride, and create unique value add in your work. Think like Jeff Besos – always be innovative and lead life as in beta.”
Mr. Friedman has tapped into an interesting phenomenon: for all of our connectedness, which has empowered millions of individuals to do things never thought possible, we still must be driven by our human ability to process and apply creative thoughts, not just manufacture them, regurgitate them and share them. We must shift our paradigm from that of passive opportunism to pro-active opportunism whereby we selectively map out and think about how we are going to use our talents and gifts to steer America back on its course of innovation.
Technology has done great things for us, but there is more work to be done here. If only for a moment we must disconnect, sit back, and analyze the task at hand and develop new methods of education, healthcare, job creation and ultimately, posterity.
The boom in the tech startup world is just that: a boom. And with every boom comes a bust. Where there is no sustainability there is no future – and what we are jumping into now is not sustainable long term. Hyper-connectivity does not a stable future make. Once we grow weary of our “shiny toy guns” which exacerbate our consumerist culture, we will be left sitting squarely on our oversize asses wondering what happened to the greatest nation on earth.
Did someone say China?
We cannot continue to ignore the fledgling middle class with a continually shrinking skilled labor workforce. While I am proud to be part of a culture that rewards entrepreneurship and technological innovation, I also see the disconnect between what is desperately needed to “bring us back” and what draws the attention of media and an elite group of influencers – be it celebrities or tech stars.
The icing is off the cake. We’ve licked it off a hundred times over. What we are left with now are the fundamentals, the basics. Just the cake. Let’s use the assets we’ve developed, the advantages we have as a country built on rugged individualism, and become a culture of creative non-routine workers who use their savvy, wit, and ingenuity to transform, not just transmit. This requires actual thinking and true collaboration, not just paper pushing and information sharing.
The real work has just begun; one beta at a time we need to solve the problems that have plagued us for the past decade. We must harness our intuition guided by logic and think about problems not in the context of ourselves, but in the context of America writ large. As recent history has shown in the wake of a global financial meltdown, we are all connected…and now, hyper-connected.
What will you do to be a part of the solution?
One Response to America the basic: a belief in entrepreneurship, education, and effective transformational change
I don’t know about being a paranoid optimist. When Hong Kong transitioned to a SAR after the British reign ended, many Hong Kong Chinese took their money and they fled to Canada and other places. The Hong Kong Chinese who stayed became very wealthy as a result of Hong Kong being a pivot point for entry into China. In the subsequent years, many Hong Kong natives have moved back with the money they have, and find themselves still struggling, as paranoid optimist immigrants, in a land they used to know. Things change. I think your best bet is to stick to what you know, no matter how long it takes you to perfect it. I’ve been called a hustler before, but I think it’s better to be landed. Stay put, cultivate, be so outstanding that people end up coming to you.