I have seen the light and I am changing my ways. There, now that I’ve gotten your attention: I’m talking about learning and developing a positive attitude about lifelong learning.
I’ve spoken here about the difficulty of keeping up with this crazy era of technological innovation, that sometimes being an older dog learning new tricks was exhausting and I wanted to cry uncle. However, one book has opened my eyes to the importance — nay, absolute necessity — of evolving with these quickly changing times. We may run the risk of being constantly breathless and perhaps feeling a bit behind the eight ball all the time, but the alternative is to be left standing at the dock while the ship leaves without us to sail the modern seas.
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, has been hailed as “a field guide to the 21st century.” As one reviewer puts it: “We all sense it — our lives are speeding up at a dizzying rate. Thank you for Being Late exposes the tectonic movements that are reshaping the world today and explains how to get the most out of them.” The forces are technology, globalization and Mother Nature — chiefly climate change and biodiversity loss.
I think this book is mandatory for anyone who wants to understand our times and thrive today. For the purposes of this column, I’m going to focus on the technological aspects of change.
Once again, I recall — with a shudder — my reluctance to ditch my flip phone for a smartphone, even as my own children quickly embraced the revolution propelled by Apple in 2007.
“I don’t need all that power, leave me alone, I’m happy with what I can accomplish with this device,” I told them. I did not want to learn a whole new way of making phone calls, something I’d been doing my entire life. How mistaken I was. In these pages I wrote about my new friend the iPhone and how it had completely overturned my world for the better.
Why didn’t I embrace the smartphone revolution sooner (and as a corollary to that, why didn’t I buy Apple stock when my kids clamored for the iPod, yes, way back then?) Both my missed opportunity at getting rich and my archaic attitude are long since water under the bridge. Today I am a different person and especially after reading this book, I am completely convinced that the ability to embrace change is vital not just to thrive, but actually to survive.
“Drinking from the fire hose” is a colloquialism that describes feeling overwhelmed by a situation, that it’s impossible to keep up. I think of it in terms of trying to absorb information or learn new things; one cannot possibly drink fast enough to keep up with the volume of water gushing from the fire hose.
Well, baby, that fire hose is no longer large enough to keep up with the huge quantities of information produced and shared more quickly than we ever could have imagined. That fire hose is now a veritable fire hydrant of news and information, and there’s not just one, but many and more springing up every day. It is impossible to keep up.
So the real trick is understanding the limitations of being human, as opposed to a creation like IBM’s Watson, and understanding how to sort through the noise to figure out what is important.
This ability requires context and an ability to see the bigger picture. It’s been said that in the future, it won’t be about knowing all the answers, because that would be impossible; it will be more important to know the right questions to ask to elicit the right answers.
This brings me back full circle to the top of my column — that it is no longer an option to stop learning — that all of us, no matter what age, have to keep retooling our knowledge to keep up with disruptive technologies that are emerging with breakneck speed. It’s not just enough to study for the test and be done. New tests will keep coming, and our mindset has to be ready to embrace the challenges that roll our way.
It’s not comfortable. I was trying to teach someone how to use Netflix so she could access new worlds of entertainment. After listening just a little while to my patient coaching, she declared, “I don’t want to learn this; I already have enough to watch and I don’t need anything else.” She’s 87. That’s a prerogative that comes with age and believe me, I often feel that way myself.
But here’s today’s reality, rooted in the lessons of the prehistoric Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was a meteor that killed his existence by changing his environment. Poor T-Rex simply could not change his ways; he could not adapt with the times, and as a consequence, not just he, but all the dinosaurs became extinct. New creatures sprang up in this void, powerful and resilient because of their ability to adapt.
It’s a lesson we can all take to heart, both as lifelong learners and adapters ourselves, and as parents who want to prepare our children for the realities of the new world emerging right before our eyes.