One of the interesting facts uncovered by psychology is that people suffer three times as much from losing something they had as they enjoy getting something they didn’t have before. There are all kinds of convincing explanations coming out of evolutionary biology why this would be the case, but in the modern world, it easily creates a mindset where many try to hold on to the past instead of embracing the future.
In many ways, deciding to rely on the proven ways of doing things is of course a perfectly defensible strategy. In the financial space, many seasoned investors can’t resist a smile when new entrants in the field claim that “this time it’s different” only to be proven wrong a few months or years later. Whether it’s the dot-com bubble or the subprime mortgage crisis, the basic, fundamental principles in the market don’t change or change only very slowly. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The problem in a digital world is that all the opportunities are created at the edges. It tends to be those who can see the potential of new technologies and use these to create value that benefit from the first-mover advantage. Of course, being the first mover is a risky strategy and there are many examples of the second or third mover winning the game, but entering late into an established market is a recipe for failure. I wrote about this earlier, in relation to virtual assets.
In a world where the pace of change is only increasing, we need to proactively overcome our more conservative tendencies. Especially for those of us who’ve been around in the industry for a while, it’s increasingly easy to discard new concepts and ideas based on new technologies as the emperor’s new clothes. Over the years, we build up habits not only in our personal lives but also professionally. Also, when further into a career, the daily workload tends to be such that it’s very difficult to even find time to explore new ideas and technologies and understand these in detail.
To address this, I believe we all need to employ at least three strategies: create time, exhibit purposeless curiosity and intentionally break habits. First, Jeff Bezos famously said about his senior managers who were complaining about a lack of time that they were the ones who had the most freedom to allocate their time as they wanted. They should just take the responsibility to do so. This is, in fact, true for almost all professionals. There’s no end to the number of urgent, but not terribly important, things that can occupy our minds and fill our calendars. If we don’t explicitly make time for the exploration of new ideas and technologies, it will simply not happen. So, the first strategy has to be to create time.
Second, we need to foster a habit of purposeless curiosity. Many tend to start from a problem and then start looking for solutions to address it. However, the most interesting and novel insights and connections are those where you weren’t looking to solve anything but rather just explored a topic out of curiosity. As Søren Kierkegaard said, you can only understand your life by looking backward, but you have to live it going forward. Exploring topics out of curiosity without the goal of solving anything allows for the serendipity of novel connections to appear that add real value.
Third, as I wrote in rule 2, humans are habitual creatures and we easily spend most of our time following the trigger-action-reward model of habits we’ve built during our lives. The danger is that these habits aren’t automatically updated when the world around us changes. This is where our rational and reflective mind comes in and needs to take responsibility.
In earlier posts, I’ve used the quote by Gandhi as to how our beliefs lead to thoughts, words, actions, habits, values and, finally, our destiny. It works the other way around, too. As we humans are post-rationalizing in our behavior, our habits cause us to think about the world through the lens of these habits. For instance, many software engineers initially have a hard time understanding machine learning as they’ve been primed to think in an algorithmic fashion where they first need to understand how to solve a problem, then specify the solution in a sequence of steps and then code it. Machine learning asks for a model and a data set and trains itself to figure out how to best solve a problem. Consequently, we need to frequently break some of our habits with the intent of forming new ones that are more in line with the current world.
Although we’re not all the same and some of us are more open to new experiences and others are more conservative, by and large we tend to be more conservative than what’s helpful in a rapidly changing and evolving digital world. To address this, we need to ‘lean into the future.’ We can operationalize this by creating time, using this time for purposeless exploring of new ideas and technologies guided by our curiosity and, finally, intentionally breaking habits that are holding us back. In the end, the future is where we spend the rest of our lives, so we better get ready for living the best life possible over there!