Positive Outliers

Your Irreplaceable Mind

What if there was something you could do to make yourself irreplaceable? What if there were skills you could learn that made you immune from irrelevance and redundancy?

In the context of recent history and the current chaos, these are more than philosophical questions. Many of us end 2020 with a genuine fear for our future work.

What Engages Students?

I was talking with a friend recently who is a key influencer in global education. He asked me what my views were on how to engage with students across the globe.

Speaking from purely anecdotal experience, I suggested that it was a different proposition to students in different parts of the world.

We have begun to see a shift from going to the office, so that office work as a term is likely itself to become … redundant.

As a broad generalisation, in developing countries, students are eager for a better life, and they see education and the qualifications and status it brings as a means to bettering themselves and perhaps their communities. Whereas in the West, one of the non-conscious narratives behind the thinking of a lot of young people is that they will soon be replaced by AI. And so there needs to be a compelling benefit to students about the purpose of their chosen career path and how they equip themselves for it.

Desk Work

I believe this is also reinforced by the way we have treated desk work in recent history. I call it desk work because the various lockdowns across the West have begun to see a shift from going to the office. White-collar work might never look the same again. So the term office work is likely itself to fall from literal usage.

The time and motion approach of Taylorism from the assembly line was applied to the office. This persistent drive for efficiency has brought increasing automation of tasks previously performed by humans. People in manufacturing and offices were treated in the same way, as resources, and fungible ones at that: Oh, that assistant has left? Replace them with another one. Call Human Resources.

Once, what began as meaningful desk work has been significantly eroded by automation. If a specific role has not been made completely redundant, it is more about being driven by automated systems.

We are invited to become serfs to the machine. This is not a very compelling pitch to young people. They see it in the drivenness of the white-collar older generation and are not sure they want that for themselves. What, though, is their alternative?

For many, the fear is that, if our white-collar career is not about to be overtaken by AI, then at best we will become serfs to the machine.

However, there is hope.

I see three levels of desk work:

Three Levels of Desk Work

The Clerk

Following the industrial revolution, most developed economies saw the growth of armies of clerks. They swelled the ranks of the middle class in Western economies. These clerks were often women, who would be simple information processors, routinely processing paper.

As a graduate in the mid-1970s, I remember how I still had access, even then, to typing pools. Any organisation of any significant size had them.

This is the type of career that is most immediately vulnerable to redundancy through AI. We do not need this kind of routine work done by humans anymore. For example, at that time, I would dictate my correspondence by cassette recorder to be sent to the typists. Now an app will do that for me on my phone, without me even needing to transcribe my own voice.

The Knowledge Worker

We use the term knowledge worker for any work that requires higher-order analytical thought. We thought that accumulating knowledge and applying knowledge skills will exempt our work from long-term automation. It may not. Google, Wikipedia, and a host of other services prove this to be the case.

For example, armies of academics, writers, editors, proofreaders, and technical editors were employed in producing Encyclopaedia Brittanica. (If you wonder what that was, then I invite you to look it up… because you can!) Where are the knowledge workers of Encyclopedia Brittanica now? They either had to reskill to higher-order work, which became more challenging, but probably more meaningful. Or else they became office serfs somewhere else. Or they too were made redundant.

The Creative

There is a higher level of desk work, which requires key skills of reflective writing and sketchnoting, divergent thinking, integration, synthesis, systems thinking and the courage to innovate. People who distinguish themselves in work through these skills are the creatives.

The creatives use their skills to a level of mastery to strategise, to cross specialist niches, to innovate, and to bring the world something new. They see patterns. They synthesise and connect apparently-unlike ideas, media, metaphors and people, which yield all kinds of breakthroughs. The creative helps us see the world differently, introduces the impossible to the possible. So this kind of worker becomes irreplaceable.

No AI will ever match the creative’s mind. No algorithm can replicate the human process of discovery and illumination.

Despite Sci-Fi myths such as Blade Runner, Terminator or The Matrix, no AI can match the creative’s mind. I believe no computer ever will. No algorithm can replicate the human process of discovery and illumination. The creatives are the irreplaceable ones.

Creatives are more like Captain Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise, who “boldly go where no one has gone before,” (even to the point of not caring about splitting infinitives.)

We might first think that creative work is only for the artistic types: the painters, the choreographers, the composers, authors of fiction. However, there is something innate in the mind of the artist that is open to us all, providing us, even in the context of our current, a route to innovation. We can become artists in our own field.

If you have read this far and tracked what I have been saying, that includes you, dear reader.

In the main, the traditional education industry has not valued these thinking skills. Education has tended to value knowledge-centric examinations. Now we should look again.

Education has tended to value knowledge-centric examinations. It should look again.

Creatives understand that their work is not linear. It is often a diligent walk of faith, but they are alert to those moments of illumination that are denied even the knowledge workers in their target-driven, high-stress working lifestyles. True entrepreneurs are creatives. Leaders should be creatives, with some element of visionary thinking. Designers, engineers and architects all become masters as they learn that creative process. Teachers and physicians also excel when they rise above routine and drivenness and learn to work on their work, rather than in their work.

We told we should think out of the box. When we do, we discover that there is no algorithm to replace us out of that box. We become irreplaceable.

These are the people I choose to encourage and inform through coaching and mentoring. I create with them to become the bright spots they can be, the examples of what we can all become. They are the positive outliers, the hope-bringers for the next generation.

A Shift to a New Kind of Desk Work Economy?

We have seen in economies like that of the UK a huge shift from manual work towards the service industries. This rise of the middle class seems a concern to some economists. However, if we create value then a smaller industrial workforce is not an issue.

In the same way, if we can equip the next generation so that they can choose to become a creative, offering unique value, then the demographic profile of the future desk work population could look something rather more like this:

A future of desk work demographic profile

As we learn to be comfortable with being creatives with our irreplaceable minds, owning our creative process, then there is hope, not just for students, but for the world.

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Life in the Way

We plan, we organise ourselves, we budget, we set goals.

But sometimes life just gets in the way.

For much of what I write and teach around self-leadership and personal productivity, I use myself as the laboratory. This approach seems to me to be the way of integrity. As someone once claimed, “We eat our own dog food!” I understand that.

Silver Sofa Surfers

Over the last eleven weeks, my wife and I have been in transition, moving from Oxfordshire to Kent, about two hours’ driving distance from each other. We left our old place on 2nd August, a home we had lived in for more than 28 years, without regret, but with thanks for many happy memories.

However, the purchase of our new home fell through. Such is the way of things quite often in the English housing market. We did not let this distress us, so we set about finding a new home, and so we did. Within a matter of 24 hours, we found one we liked very much, put an offer in, and it was accepted. However, it will not be until next week that we will finally move in.

That will make 11 weeks altogether. We were not dismayed. We are blessed with wonderful children and generous friends. So we have spent the late summer and early autumn moving from home to home.

One friend described us recently as ‘Silver Sofa Surfers.’ I like that. We’ve been learning in this odyssey, learning about ourselves and others. For example, each new home we’ve moved into, we have found we had to adapt to their unique environment and constraints. It’s amazed us how different people’s kitchen storage and waste systems are, for example.

Not having a permanent residential address has created its problems as we engaged with some agencies. It seems that their systems cannot cater for our situation.

All the while I’ve attempted to publish articles on this site where and when I can. Finding places to work undistracted and uninterrupted was a challenge. In Leading Yourself online I explain ways high-performers order their private worlds, so I have sought to live this out, even on the move. I have continued to prioritize using my daily MIT technique. During this period I have calmed myself by reminding myself, “This is only temporary. When we move in October …”

All was going well, until…

Last week, though, uncertainty in our lives reached new levels. My wife’s back gave out putting her into the most extreme pain and immobilising her for several days.

We cancelled a short holiday we were about to take in Mallorca, visiting more remote members of our family. The flight we should have been on was with Monarch Airlines. Forty-five minutes after our scheduled take-off, Monarch Airlines ceased trading! Explaining all this to our travel insurers became very interesting.

Dealing with Extreme Uncertainty

So what am I learning in, what is for me, extreme uncertainty?

It’s at times like this that I am brought vividly to face reality that ‘life’ is lived with one’s body, soul, and spirit. There is a verse in the Psalms that has come to mean a lot to me:

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but the Lord is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:26

When Routine Fails Us

We all need to accept that in extreme situations, even tried and trusted personal workflows will be interrupted and fail us. We need to dig deep.

We need to look into our spirit and find what is unchanging.

I’m fascinated, for example, by the concept of the fulcrum, in leading change. We all need to find the unchanging, the fixed, the certain. Everything else can change around us, but one thing needs to remain fixed.

What Matters Most

Ultimately it comes down to what matters most. What is my one priority at this moment? That is always a valid and clarifying question. For me, I’m very clear on that right now. It is my wife.

I’m learning that I must trust God in navigating through these times. I cannot advise people with this methodology or that technique when they are in such circumstances, or worse, in extreme uncertainty. Ultimately it comes down to a matter of faith and meaning.


What are your experiences in such situations or worse ones? How did you find meaning in the storm of circumstances? I’d be interested in your thoughts below.