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How to set yourself apart in the future of work

It’s not about learning to code, it’s about teaching your brain how to think computationally.

How to set yourself apart in the future of work
[Photo: Franck V./Unsplash]

How do you future-proof your career in a technology-first workplace? At some point, someone probably told you to learn how to code.

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But the thing is, succeeding in the future of work is more about computational thinking than practicing computer science. If you want to set yourself apart from the pack, you need to break down problems and become familiar with the way that machines come up with solutions and sequences. Chances are, you’ll be managing teams made up of humans and machines. That requires grasping the intricacies and complexities of human-tech relationships, which in fact, requires a lot of human skills.

Being scared of AI can hurt us

Many of us harbor paranoid thoughts of a future where “the robots” take over our jobs. Even when I’m working with tech-savvy people in sectors such as finance and professional services, I often hear a version of this anxiety. Many find the thought of AI unsettling, especially when they see how it disrupts jobs that are considered highly skilled, like auditing and technical design.

It’s psychologically damaging to have the mindset that we’re always under threat. If we think like this, we inadvertently program our brains to think in a loss-avoidant way, even when the threat isn’t real. It’s fear that causes the mind to think conservatively, and it’s fear that makes us risk-averse and focus on safeguarding the status quo.

How fear can hurt our way of thinking

There’s no way we can think as quickly, or efficiently, as a computer if the primal part of our brain–the amygdala–directs us toward protectionism. Fear has been shown to impair function in the hippocampus, a vital part of the brain that helps regulate mood and memory. It is also key to creative function. Any negative impact on this part of the brain is bad news for your career and can cause you to limit the very qualities that will be key to career resilience in the future.

The experience of using voice recognition software can feel more sci-fi than AI, but it’s helpful to remember that AI is still pretty narrow. A robot that can perform surgery can’t make you a coffee. Even the most sophisticated AI cannot answer the question “is this a cat?” whereas a human toddler would know in an instant. If you’re still feeling skeptical, google the dog versus muffin test. You’d have no problem spotting the difference. AI might yield better accuracy when it comes to dispensing correct prescriptions or making investment decisions, but it is not as good at differentiating a Chihuahua from a chocolate-studded cupcake.

How we can learn to operate with machines

The human brain is intricate, complex, and to a large extent, still mostly unknown–although advances in neuroscience and 3D brain scanning have resulted in a greater depth of understanding. Many soft skills rely on a complex and integrative network of human thoughts–such as empathy, the ability to make balanced decisions, and synthesizing complex information. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where AI can compete.

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Perhaps the key is not to try and outdo AI, but to strive to become a new type of “super-human.” As we become molded by the machines we interact with, we can also boost our innate strengths. Here are three ways to start:

1) Be conscious of our emotions: In days gone by, we thought of emotions as barriers to efficiency and intellectual clarity. Now, brain scans show us that rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we “select” our emotional responses based on a complex process of pattern recognition and experience. Although this may feel involuntary, it isn’t. Regulating these emotional responses is something we can train ourselves to do, and the more we perceive we are in control of our emotions, the better we are likely to be able to exercise control in practice.

2) Take cues from our gut: AI bases all its decisions on data reduced to numbers and fed into an algorithm. And even these algorithms were designed by humans and are intrinsically biased. We, humans, have far more subtle, complex, and sophisticated approaches available to us. Begin by noticing your gut reaction to circumstances, and see how it feels. We can hone our intuition to override these shortcuts through journaling and reflection.

3) Listen like an optimist: Many of us struggle to compromise and collaborate at work. Aim to practice active listening rather than winning an argument. When we’re locked in disagreement, our brains work against us, “zoning out” areas of agreement and homing in on perceived threats. Good mediators start in the common ground and work outwards, rather than drilling into the areas of conflict.


Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, leadership coach, author, and medical doctor. Follow her on Twitter at @TaraSwart. She is the author of the upcoming book, The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life.

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