A New Kind of Techno Optimist

Automation may force us to be better, nicer people  women-at-work-hugging-jpeg

A debate about whether rapid technological advances in artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, biochemical and cyborg engineering, and robotics are overall beneficial or detrimental to society has been raging in the media.

“Techno optimists” assert that advances in these areas will mean far more benefits than losses to society, because they will solve human problems and free humans from having to do boring and dangerous tasks. These folks believe that any jobs lost to automation will be replaced in the long run by newer, better jobs and that, in any case, technological innovation will make everyone’s daily lives healthier, safer, and happier.

“Techno pessimists” believe that relentless technological advances in these areas will mean radical changes to the economic order and massive unemployment and inequality. They believe that new jobs will not replace enough of the jobs at risk for technological displacement and not nearly fast enough to avoid major societal upheaval and chaos. These changes are dramatic and imminent enough that Bill Gates says the government should already be making plans to tax robots in order to fund more human jobs in teaching children and elderly care—jobs that are currently in high demand and for which humans are particularly well suited, but that are not so high paying or prestigious at the moment.

Then there are those who think the whole thing is overblown—that technology won’t change that much, that soon.

In our book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Intelligence in the Smart Machine Age, my co-author and I take the pessimistic view of job displacement largely as a given and that the following recent predictions from researchers at Oxford University, McKinsey & Company, and the White House among many others are more likely to happen than not:

  • Tens of millions of human jobs in the United States will be displaced by automation in the next 15 to 20 years, including both traditionally high- and middle-skilled cognitive work (accounting; insurance; law; marketing) and traditionally low-skilled manual work (factories; trucking).
  • The majority of people will soon be working on a freelance, part-time, or contract basis.
  • Peer-to-peer, on-demand commercial transactions such as those through Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Uber will replace the corporate-centered model across many different industries, thereby massively blurring the lines between professional and personal relationships.
  • Occupations safest from automation include human interaction in the areas of managing and developing other people, healthcare, education, and community service.
  • Job activities least susceptible to automation include the higher-level and flexible thinking involved in expert decision-making, planning, and creative work, and the managing and care of other human beings.
  • The skills at which humans must excel in order to find and keep work are critical, creative, and innovative thinking and social and emotional engagement with other human beings, because those are the unique human skills that complement and cannot be easily replaced by technology.

She is my favourite nurse

All of that is scary to consider, but here’s the thing: if technological displacement means that jobs involving the “care of other human beings” become more valuable and sought after, then I, for one, think that’s a good thing. If the prestige level of and demand for teachers, nurses, and elder care workers rises as the need for lawyers, accountants, and hedge fund managers falls, then I think society will probably be better off for it.

In a world in which AI can outsmart us, we must get better at doing what makes us human: being creative and caring. As we explain in the book, to be employable and master the skills that humans will still be needed to do, we must tap into our evolutionary instincts to connect to and collaborate with our fellow human beings and become more humble, open-minded, and better at listening than our individualistic and competitive, zero-sum culture often encourages us to be.

Call me a techno optimist, but I think all of that is a very good thing.

High Self-Esteem is OUT; Humility and Self-Compassion are IN

Little girl cartwheeling in meadow

When my daughter was 6 years old, she really wanted to master a cartwheel.

One particular morning, I watched from our living room window as she struggled to land on her feet, while her best friend cartwheeled with perfectly straight legs all over our front lawn. I could see the disappointment and embarrassment on my daughter’s face at her relatively poor performance. I noticed the water welling up in her eyes and then the cursory goodbye wave she gave to her friend before running into the house in tears.

AccidentThese moments feel so loaded sometimes. It seems that how we react to these minor events as parents will have major impact on our children down the road and either set them on a path to success or weaken them somehow. Strung together this might be the case. But the guiding principle to avoid screwing up is pretty simple: teach and model humility and self-compassion.

Armed with this wisdom, I went over to her and said, “To be honest, honey, your cartwheel isn’t great right now. I can understand that that is disappointing, especially since it seems to come so easily to your friend. Other things come easily to you. But most of us have to work really hard at the things we really want to do. Do you want your cartwheel get better? If so, let’s figure out how to make that happen. Because I know you can do hard things. Remember when you couldn’t do the monkey bars?  Now you can do them two at a time!”

Just kidding. That’s not at all what I said.

What I really said was, “Your cartwheel looks great! And anyway, to heck with the cartwheel, you’re devouring chapter books while half of your friends still can’t read!”

Not my finest parenting moment, but I knew she was feeling terrible, so then I was feeling terrible! I just wanted her to feel better, to feel special in her own way, and to not lose confidence.

I’ve since learned that playing to a kid’s ego and self-esteem is not a long-term strategy for their wellbeing or motivation. To really get them to bounce back and work hard, you have to help them learn not to think about themselves so much at all and to learn that when they do think of themselves, they should do so with acceptance but accuracy. On the surface these don’t seem like radical concepts, but in our culture, they really are.

Having an accurate sense or our own strengths and weaknesses and not thinking about ourselves much at all runs very contrary to the focus on boosting self-esteem that was just starting to become popular when I was an elementary school kid in the early 1980s.

The problem with high self-esteem
Over the last few decades, Western psychology has promoted self-esteem—a self-evaluation of self-worth—as the marker of psychological health. The main reason being that evidence has shown that low self-esteem leads to depression, anxiety, and depleted functioning. Thus, the reverse was assumed to be true—that high self-esteem would lead to high functioning. The problem according to psychologist Kristin Neff  is that to have high self-esteem, particularly in U.S. culture, we have to feel “special” and “above average” in comparison to others, and that doing so is logically impossible to do all the time unless we constantly puff ourselves up and/or put others down.

It’s a struggle to maintain “high” self-esteem, which inevitably leads to pendulum swings.

Moreover, this requirement to feel that we are better than others in order to feel good about ourselves–to constantly puff up our egos–is what leads to ego defensiveness, cognitive biases, and closed-mindedness towards different perspectives or even facts that contradict what we already believe. All of that undermines continual learning, critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and collaboration—the most important jobs skills for the 21st century— as my co-author and I explain in Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.

Constantly evaluating and managing how you measure up to other people is exhausting and distracting. It’s a roadblock to collaboration and to listening well to others—which forms the foundation of open-mindedness at the heart of critical thinking. Psychologists have shown that to think at a higher-level we need to listen to others, because we’re bad at seeing our biases and faulty thinking on our own. We need the perspectives and viewpoints of other people to expose these faults, but because of our biases, self-absorption, and ego defensiveness, we often tune other people out, form our answers before another person is finished talking, and filter them and their ideas through our own self-enhancing biases. All of this stems from focusing too much on puffing ourselves up.

The power of humility and self-compassion
By contrast to high self-esteem, humility and self-compassion (which can be viewed as complementary concepts) are reflected in stable self-esteem, self-acceptance, and relatively less concern with self-evaluation or comparison with others.

Humility is a psychological concept that includes:

  1. An accurate (not under- or over-estimated), stable sense of one’s abilities and achievements
  1. The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations
  1. Openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice
  1. Relatively low focus on the self or a tendency to “forget the self”
  1. Appreciation of the value of other people

Neff describes self-compassion as having three elements: (1) self-kindness, (2) mindfulness, and (3) a sense of shared humanity—an understanding that suffering and feeling personally inadequate are part of the shared human experience and not something that just happens to “me.” Researchers have found that those with more self-compassion have more emotional intelligence and resilience and higher well-being. Self-compassion is also positively associated with intrinsic motivation and failure tolerance, both of which are keys to persevering when we hit a snag or fail, which is inevitable in the process of learning, creating, or innovating. High self-compassion is associated with more reflective wisdom, curiosity, initiative, and exploration. Conversely, unstable self-esteem (fluctuating between high and low) in children is associated with less curiosity and interest in school activities and less interest in challenging activities.

Self-Esteem, “smarts,” and gender
It seems particularly key to understand the difference between high self-esteem and humility and self-compassion when raising girls these days. Research shows, and all those Dove commercials tell us, that girls’ self-esteem starts to plummet as they reach puberty and middle school. That’s when they start to compare themselves, particularly in looks and popularity, to other girls. There are lots of reasons for this, and of course all those airbrushed magazine covers are at least partly to blame.  Now a recent study published in the journal Science, suggests that girls start comparing themselves unfavorably to boys in terms of intelligence even earlier in childhood.

According to the research, both 5-year-old girls and 5-year-old boys tend to believe their own gender smarter than the other. By the age of 6, however, girls are already succumbing to gender stereotypes and self-selecting out of activities designed for “really, really smart” people. By contrast, 6-year-old boys still think they are smarter than girls—a belief they tend to continue to hold as adults, according to many other surveys. The study suggests that it’s this insidious implicit bias that leads girls to opt out of so-called “smart” careers in math and science and to other pernicious gender gaps. The argument then becomes that we all need to be better about telling girls how smart they are.  We need to prop up their confidence and self-esteem.

But what if what we really need to do is help the boys not think of themselves as smarter than girls?  What if the problem is focusing on who is smarter or better in the first place? What if instead of advocating for everyone to feel that they are special or better than others, we focus our girls and boys instead on developing self-compassion, embracing their strengths, improving their weaknesses, and then not thinking about themselves and comparing themselves to others so much at all?

What if we said that the key to a good career was a willingness to try, fail, and challenge ourselves past our limitations and definitely does not rest on some notion of innate “smarts.” Thanks to the research of Carol Dweck, we now know that this is actually the case—that those who have a “growth mindset”—who believe that intelligence is not fixed but something that can be improved with effort—do actually learn and achieve more.

Moreover, in the very near future, no human stands a chance in terms of “smarts” against artificial intelligence and smart machines. As we discuss in Humility is the New Smart, to stay relevant in the Smart Machine Age, humans must instead accept their weaknesses in amassing, retrieving, and analyzing knowledge in comparison to technology and instead play to their strengths: critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and collaboration with other human beings.

Humility and self-compassion are key underlying mindsets for all of those skills. High self-esteem may actually be a detriment.

Why Humility Is the Key to Smart Machine Age Skills

“I feel coming on me a strange disease—humility.” —Frank Lloyd Wright


Falling Water shows more humility in its deference to nature than its designer’s famous larger-than-life persona.

Frank Lloyd Wright, famed mid-century architect of such iconic buildings as Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum and more than 500 other structures, made this comment at the age of 83 while accepting the Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He would pass away just a few years later in 1959. Prior to this, Wright’s only other reference to humility was much earlier in his career when he denounced it as superficial. Echoing many a public personality’s unapologetic admissions of hubris—from Napoleon Bonaparte to Kanye West—Wright said, “Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasions to change.”

In many ways, Wright, whom many consider to be the greatest architect of the 20th century, represents a quintessential American success story. He was a visionary of modern and functional styles of design, in stark and controversial contrast to the rigid Victorian-era aesthetic that dominated at the time. He was talented, outspoken, and self-promotional. Wright had a larger-than-life personality, refuted convention, and persevered through numerous financial, professional, and personal setbacks.

The combination of his creative genius, arrogance, and tumultuous personal life has fueled a Ken Burns documentary and plenty of biographies. His originality and unapologetic belief in his own greatness despite criticism early in his career served as the inspiration behind Ayn Rand’s ideal man and protagonist in The Fountainhead—her literary ode to individualism over collectivism. Like other American heroes that Ken Burns has documented on film—Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Teddy Roosevelt—Wright was committed to honoring a uniquely American way of life informed by the country’s rebellious founding and philosophy of trailblazing and personal freedom coupled with rugged self-reliance.

It seems to have taken Wright a lifetime to realize the value of humility. Even then, he was—as we can speculate from his referring to it as a “disease”—a bit perplexed by it. With all that is going on politically and socially at the moment, I venture to guess that anyone reading this might be perplexed by and suspicious of the power of humility as well.

Unfortunately, unlike Wright, most of us don’t have the luxury of waiting our entire careers to develop humility. The Smart Machine Age will demand that we learn this lesson much earlier, because as my co-author and I explain in Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, humility is what underlies all the skills necessary for humans to maintain relevance and succeed in this transformative new age.

Advancing technologies will take over much of what humans are currently paid to do, istock_000016741093smallup and down the socio-economic spectrum (The best research to date from Oxford University and the Bank of England indicates a high probability that technology will replace 47% of US jobs or displace as many as 80 million U.S. workers within the next ten to twenty years). The consensus view is that in the foreseeable future humans will be needed to perform those skills that either complement technology or constitute what machines can’t yet do well, and that list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration. Most of us aren’t great at these skills because we are naturally biased in our thinking, emotionally defensive, fearful of mistakes and failures, and we focus on ourselves entirely too much.  It’s a problem of human nature and our culture. Having more humility would help us overcome those obstacles.

Humility: The Unsung Hero of Higher Level Thinking and Learning
When we first came to the conclusion that all the research we had done on (1) the increasing displacement of both manual and cognitive work by smart machines and artificial intelligence; (2) the future of human jobs and skills; and (3) the science of human learning, thinking, and relating all pointed to humility as the key to human success (not just being modest and nice to people, but actual Gandhi-would-approve humility), we thought, well, no one will believe us. With the global economy more competitive than ever, and amid all the other popular advice to expand our social networks, market ourselves, and “lean in,” we’re going to suggest humility as the key to business skills? We’re going to tell people to take their feet off the gas pedal of self-promotion, step back, and quiet down in order to get or stay ahead?

Everything I myself have been told and shown up to this point indicates that in many ways the exact opposite of humility is necessary to succeed in our fast-paced, competitive, modern, (post-factual?) world and that to stop believing in our own greatness and to stop self-promoting and instead acknowledge and accept our weaknesses is itself a weakness.

I went to a competitive law school and worked in cutthroat climates in corporate America. I see the increasing professional pressure to broadcast ourselves on social media. In these environments, I admit to some short-term advantages of self-interest, assertiveness, confidence, and, yes, a little bit of arrogance. The world of work is changing in fundamental ways, however, and the march of technology is reaching a point at which none of us can rely on the old rules of success and sacrifice long-term planning for short-term strategies.

What we are getting at in Humility Is the New Smart is that a belief in a new kind of smart that isn’t based on how much you know but on how well you think, learn and collaborate with others; that an understanding of the need for a Big Us rather than a Big Me mentality and a full-scale behavioral change that enables everyone to stop obsessing about themselves and start opening their minds and focusing outward and on others is tantamount to survival in the Smart Machine Age. Only then can you truly prepare yourself to engage in the more expansive thinking, learning, and human connection that everyone will need as individuals and in order for organizations to thrive.

The Psychology of Humility

Humility has not received nearly the attention and focus in the social and psychological sciences as other psychological constructs and personality states and traits. Part of the problem is that the true meaning of humility is so confused in common parlance. While we often equate humility with “lowliness” or low self-esteem, most interested theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have a much different take. Psychologist June Price Tangney defines humility as having

  • An accurate (not under- or over-estimated), stable sense of one’s abilities and achievements;
  • The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations;
  • Openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice;
  • Relatively low focus on the self or a tendency to “forget the self”; and
  • Appreciation of the value of other people.

There has been a recent and growing focus, on defining, assessing, and measuring a universal concept of humility and a growing body of psychological literature that correlates humility with higher physical and psychological well-being and intrapersonal and interpersonal advantages, particularly in the context of intellectual concerns, metacognitive abilities, leadership, and relationship building.

All of that goes to the heart of our uniquely human advantages over ‘bots and algorithms.

If humility is a strange “disease,” let’s hope it’s very contagious.