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Expanding Human Potential

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Rebooting Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift

Despite being perhaps the most used and abused term in contemporary discussions, an often overlooked point in Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” is likely the most valuable in today’s ecosystem of exponential technology.

Not to sound pompous, but its sad when the public gets their hands on a concept you love, such as “paradigm” and “paradigm shift”, dumbs it down and covers it with marketing sauce. Then folks that have spent about 1/10.000th of the required dedication to understand the nuances and profoundness of the original work proceed to abuse it until its almost devoid of content, and you are suddenly the grumpy puritan holding onto a utopia. Sometimes though, the cliché interpretation won’t suffice, so we’ll have to start here by rubbing the genie lamp and hopefully bringing a crucial concept of this expression back to life.

The term paradigm shift exploded into scene with science historian Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one of the most influential and uproarious books of the 20th century and possibly the most cited academic books of all time. In Structures, Kuhn illustrates the substitutional nature of scientific progress which moves, according to him, from paradigm to paradigm instead of the traditional view of a linear progression by accumulation of “theory-independent facts” (the view, that is, that older theories give way successively to more inclusive and accurate ones). Kuhn notes that while from the perspective of the observer inside a given paradigm, a “development-by-accumulation” of knowledge seems, correctly, to advance the accepted scientific hypothesis, from the perspective of a science historian studying a long enough time period, one cannot but notice a cyclical pattern where, time and again, even the most household scientific paradigms, alongside their publications, experiments and chieftains, are eventually substituted altogether. Needless to say, this enraged countless members of the scientific community, and most reviews and critics have focused understandably on this questioning of the irrefutability of scientific progress.

Yet this discussion by academics has not interfered with the basic concept of a paradigm change (nor its applicability in so many other fields) that with sufficient understanding by the public has escaped into mainstream and taken on a life of its own. However, with peers focused on the scrutiny of intellectual progress, the “paradigm” escaped without a core component, indeed without what could be considered the “second half” of the concept, which we’ll explore here.

The key difference on the use of the term “paradigm shift” by the mainstream public and by Kuhn is not, ironically, what it describes (i.e. the concept of a paradigm shift itself) but rather what it leaves out: the role of the surrounding context where the paradigm is inserted in changing the paradigm itself, and what this implies.

For example, many of the greatest scientific breakthroughs were proposed well before their time. Aristarchus anticipated the heliocentric model of the solar system in the 3rd century B.C., eighteen centuries before Copernicus, theories of combustion by absorption from the atmosphere were proposed in the 17th century by Rey, Hooke and Mayow, well before Lavoisier’s revolutionary papers, as were 18th and 19th century propositions for a relativistic conception of space, before Einstein. Yet in each case, the historical setting of their time and the precision of their instruments (or lack of) did not require a new paradigm; as Kuhn notes, there were no needs that their insights might have fulfilled, and these ideas were neglected, buried in time until the moment had arrived for their renaissance. In short, it is the external environment that gives context to, and permission for, the growth and fruition of a new worldview.

The implication? First, if our mindset and instruments are the filters through which we allow new paradigms to emerge — and with them the discoveries and innovation they bring — then by logic there’s an entire universe of unimaginable possibilities of which we explore only a fraction. Take science itself, the most “impartial” and empiric of fields: As Kuhn explains, we first select what experiments should be made and appropriate measuring tools built, we delimit what gamut of the results will be analyses, we then define which results inside this spectrum are acceptable inside the standing scientific theories and which will be followed-up with further investigation; everything else is essentially discarded. Yet scientific history is filled with groundbreaking discoveries, Oxygen, X-Rays and nuclear Uranium fission to name a few, made especially difficult to recognize precisely because those who “knew” what to expect chose tests aimed at the wrong elements, and the breakthroughs that did eventually take place happened only because some audacious individual decided to look through a radically different perspective. As F. Duncan Haldane, the 2016 Physics Nobel Prize co-winnerfor his discoveries on exotic properties of matter said ”If you can’t imagine something marvelous, you’re not going to find it… The barrier to discovering what can be done is actually imagination”. The exact same can be said of technology and business today, as we shall explore in our next posts.

Second, if there is a connection between the current paradigm and the context where it is inserted, them the more this ecosystem changes, the higher the pressure on the traditional paradigm. What may have seemed appropriate in one environment becomes increasingly out of context in a radically new ecosystem. Thus both the creation of tools, such as the telescope and the internet, and the fruition of new postures and ideologies, such as environmental awareness and social responsibility, are key aspects of the changes in standing paradigms.


Foto by Kit — Flikr — Pressure

The irony, if I may? No matter how many times the cycle is repeated, every moment of history, including the one we are in now, has its incumbent organizations serving as “paradigm gatekeepers”, convinced that their perspective, their paradigm, is the “one true God” and the best (or only) solution to the challenge at hand. Furthermore, we as a society seem to be as defiant to changes in paradigms as we are oblivious to our previous inflexibility once the paradigm has finally changed; Once convinced otherwise, we proceed to act as if we’d never been wrong. Or as Max Planckfamously put it: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” In our stubbornness to recognize our previous misconception, in our lack of humbleness, if you will, we quickly conclude that whatever paradigm now stands should be set in stone. This behavior holds us back form letting go once a new vision is required, and from gaining the fluidity necessary to operate in an environment of constant change. And change, today more than ever, seems to be the only constant.

Finally, the challenge: As if changing beliefs were not hard enough, this is far from a purely intellectual discussion. With time, individuals, organizations and with them entire societies become heavily vested in the existing paradigm. Full lines of products and services, of studies, indeed entire carriers and entire industries are founded on the principles of a given paradigm, as we shall study ahead. Much like the Catholic Church was vested towards a geocentric vision of the universe before the renaissance, current organizations are conferred to given rules of conduct and (perhaps most seriously) heavily vested financially in the current state of affairs.

Hence it is understandable that, as with in any early stages of such a shift — before the new world vision sets in — resistance from incumbents can be expected to be high. In fact, it can be expected to never lower until they are extinct. As Ervin Laszlo describes in an explanation about systems theory: “every time you have a systemic change, the change comes from the periphery…. the center doesn’t change, the center dies out… as long as it can maintain itself, it will try to do so, but when you get to a critical point, change is very fast.”. Unfortunately for incumbents, the change ahead is not just fast, its exponential.

Singularity University‘s Salim Ismail in his book Exponential Organizationsdefines the concept of a Iridium Moment (named after Motorola’s failed investments in a satellite project of the same name) as a crucial strategic decision based on the wrong assumptions, and elaborates further: “By ironic coincidence, the extinction of the dinosaurs was revealed by an Iridium layer in rock formations; this time around, the destructive agent is an Information Comet. What if we are having another, collective Iridium Moment? One that doesn’t just involve a single giant corporation that has failed to recognise the revolutionary nature of technological change taking place around it, but an whole species — indeed the dominant species — of large corporations in the modern economy. What if they are all facing the same fate as Iridium?

The future will tell how much these organizations will adjust to an environment of accelerated innovation. Yet the same changes that are threats to some are opportunities to others. So much depends on how willing we are to proactively embrace these current changes and their corresponding mindset; a subject we’ll explore further in our next posts!

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The Good Side of Ruthless Competition from Global Freelancers and Robo sapiens

A disruptive technological revolution is coming to life through our very hands whether we want it or not. Here’s how we protect ourselves and why this is a good thing.

Apparently I’m going to lose my job to some algorithm soon, or a robot, or a new hybrid cloud big data neural network self-learning machine. And not to worry in case Frankenstein comes a bit overdue, there is always some on-demand contractor nearby anxious to get the job done, and just in case a few extra international freelance platforms adding millions of hungry competitors in developing markets who are willing to do the task at a fraction of the cost, and that’s without weighing in the exchange rate. This of course considering my whole industry won’t be engulfed altogether by some new startup, so I can also rest assured my employer is frantically on the lookout for the first opportunity to complete my task at a lower cost. Now if by some miracle I survive all these obstacles, the skillset taught by my expensive graduate education will apparently be applicable for another 10 seconds. So I have to start learning again, non stop, forever.

Its like that scene from Star Wars where Han Solo, Luke and Leia are stuck in the Death Star’s Trash Compactor with an invisible monster lurking in debris-filled waters and we never know from where it will strike. We never know for sure which industry or profession will be swallowed up next. And oh yes, the walls are closing in; either my sluggishness or someone else’s hyper speed will soon make me obsolete.

So my 9 to 5 profession, which guaranteed my paycheck and gave me peace of mind and time to enjoy the rest of my life, is on serious quicksand, whatever skillset I have today will be outmoded in this new ecosystem creeping up, where I basically compete against the world. How on earth is this supposed to be a good thing?

Here’s how:

Talent Quest —Whether or not you have a spiritual inclination to believe you came to earth for a reason, the truth is you do have a given set of characteristics, be them talent, genes or brain wiring, that would allow you to do a specific task in a unique way at a far greater speed and quality than practically anyone else. And now you have to find it. If you think that is a bold statement, or a cheap motivational tag line softening you up for an infoproduct sales pitch, you are likely thinking in black and white as we so often do, when our true talents are hidden in the shades of grey.

All too often we discard our personal traits in order to fit into work slots created by third parties. With very few exceptions, this structure by definition undermines our full potential, and so much of what we could bring to the worldwide conversation stays dormant. Yet somewhere at the intersection of our natural talents, our passions and our experiences is a unique blend of attributes which, if we find a way to cash-in on, brings us a blue ocean of possibilities. Many people love cats, but how may people love cats and are tech-savvy and super funny? How many mathematicians are also great storytellers and love kids? How many accountants played chess and developed strategic thinking at a young age and live in Budapest and speak english? In this exclusive intersection, your uniqueness shines through, and the more you learn to capitalize on your exceptionality, the less competition you have.

Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, explains on an interviewhow he checks-in on his productivity: “I ask myself if what I’m doing could be done by someone else. If it could, I’m wasting my time”. Until now we have all had the luxury of not asking this question, but it seems like the future towards which we are heading is one in which more people will have to do just that, and that is a good thing for the diversity of the economy and for us as individuals, as we shall see next.

Finding Fulfillment — I recently sat with my laptop by the beach when a girl stopped on her bicycle and asked if I had a wifi connection. We talked and she ended up telling me how she used to be a lawyer but gave up everything to travel the world by bike and live from writing (which she does). She said the hardest part was convincing her father:

“What do you mean you are going to quit? You have a great carrier, a great salary and a great position at a great law firm, what more do you want from life?”.

“Um, dad, I want to be happy”.

She’s not alone. After a few post world-war generations, diligently and wholeheartedly dedicated to success, many people are realizing that professional and financial accomplishment, though important, by no means equates to personal fulfillment.

Now here is the interesting part: Our natural callings and inclinations are a great compass for what will bring us fulfillment, for putting us on a path where we feel we are living our full potential and, in the process, for activating the ingredients of success. It’s the drive you have deep inside; its that common theme behind your favorite books, sites, documentaries, posts and conversations with friends. Its the reason which would keep you up from 7pm to 2am to get the ball rolling, to continue learning and evolving at the speed required in face of global competition, and its what activates what Paul Graham from Y Combinator calls the key ingredient for entrepreneurial success: Persistence. The path to fulfillment brings the motivation for endless persistence, for eventual success and, ultimately, for happiness.

Buckle-up for Natural Selection. Meritocracy is only bad for who is profiting from inefficiency. If you can get the job done better that anyone or anything (creepy) then you have a lot less to worry about. And the same changes that are tearing down market entry barriers are bringing the tools of person empowerment and environment meritocracy. You don’t have your comfort job anymore, but by George you have an endless array of possibilities to crush it with your talents and true interests. Whatever that may be, you can now start building some form of business around it. Create related products, broker or sell related products, create content, interview practitioners, trainers or authors, create a YouTube channel, make an app, start a course for kids, start coaching, start networking, find a team of complementary professionals that need your help, start a crowdfunding campaign, build a like-minded community, start generating leads, start mixing and mashing your previous know-how with this new subject, the list is endless, but make the move and chances are you will do this with more passion, more drive, more efficiency and better that any job you’ve have before.

So as the ponds of comfort are melting into one common ocean of transparency and meritocracy everyone is swimming in open waters. What do we do then? We do as they do in nature: we specialize, keep our heads up, and get to work, and that’s a good thing.

Adding Value to the Ecosystem. The first great leap of evolution in our planet happened when single-celled organisms started to collaborate and complement one another, each bringing their best specialization to the “community”. Some cells digested better than others, some had better movement skills, sensory skills, transport skills and the likes, and they started working in symbioses with other cells in a community which eventually led to multi-cellular organisms. Fast forward about 550 million years and we have human beings made up of perhaps 40 trillion complementary cells or more. Now we’ve created a global network with devices which should soon connect everyone on earth (admittedly with challenges) and we too start to complement each other in an amazing array of possibilities.

Here’s what’s cool about that: in an interconnected system, your value lies on your contribution. Try removing your liver cells, or hemoglobin, or collagen fibers or muscle cells, nerves, endocrine cells, you name it. Every kind of cell and organ has a critical role in the whole, they have added value to their ecosystem to the point where they have become indispensable, and only by doing so will they remain indispensable. The more value you add, the more crucial you become. As Tim O’Reilly observes, capturing more value than you create (the win-lose approach of old school capitalism) is unsustainable in the long run.

Automation-Proof Skill Sets — Technology has for decades already stagnated the worldwide number of jobs in manual routine work and cognitive routine work. Now machine learning, big data, neural networks and robotics is allowing for the automation of non-routine manual and cognitive work. In other words, we are seeing the rise of autonomous software agents which will increasingly be able to perform decision making, managerial, diagnostic, creative and chirurgical processes, amongst other, better than humans. If we are to protect ourselves in a world where machines can substitute more and more of our work, we’ll need to develop skillsets that are less subjective to automation. What can’t computers do? What is it hardest to automate? Right off the bat we’re going to have to become less habitual, routine-like, less reactionary, and more authentic, creative and unbiased. We’ll have to develop our subjective human qualities of empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence, systemic intelligence and spiritual intelligence (finding meaning and purpose) – precisely the human qualities that are hardest to automate. This is why teachings like meditation, mindfulness and self-development are on the rise and will likely continue to grow: they stimulate precisely the qualities that give us the speed and fluidity necessary to operate in a high speed, hyper-connected environment. They also happen to bring out the best in us, inciting what is called our “higher self” as opposed to the frenetic, disequilibrated, negative lower selfthat so often takes over, and that’s a good thing.

In the preface to his book Things That Make us Smart — Defending Human Attributes in the Age of Machine, Don Norman observes how:

“Society has unwittingly fallen into a machine-centered orientation to life, one that… compares people to machines and finds us wanting, incapable of precise, repetitive, accurate actions. Although this is a natural comparison, and one that pervades society, it is also a most inappropriate view of people. It emphasizes tasks and activities that we should not be performing and ignores our primary skills and attributes — activities that are done poorly, if at all, by machines… The result is continuing estrangement between humans and machines, continuing and growing frustration with technology and with the pace and stress of a technologically centered life. It doesn’t have to be this way”

Indeed it doesn’t, yet we have been able to avoid the issue for as long as machine performance was safely sub-par with humans for the majority of jobs, and our competitors were oceans away. But as we reach this critical inflection point in the homo vs robo sapien relationship and a global meritocratic competitive economy, we have to identify and incite what makes us human and what makes us unique, and that’s a very good thing.