Where the Sidewalk Ends: finding the challenges and opportunities in uncharted territory

The world is changing in unpredictable ways. By keeping your mind open and being willing to grow where you are needed, you can take advantage of the upcoming opportunities.

We live in a weird time.

At nearly any other time in history, there were things you could put stock in to stay much the same over your life. If you were a farmer in the year 1200, you would likely be confident that those skills would be relevant to pass down to your children.

A writer in the 1800s would cultivate their skills, confident that the years of practice would be relevant throughout their life. Yes, trends come and go. Empires rise and fall.

But the skills to learn and pass on to the next generation would remain somewhat firm.

This has changed.

According to Gartner, the number of skills required for a single job increases by 10% year over year. Over 30% of the skills needed three years ago will soon be irrelevant. So jobs are requiring more skills, and the particular skills needed are shifting quickly.

A decade ago, you might have needed to know how to use Facebook for your marketing job — now, creating reels is an essential skill for many. A challenging proposition when just last year, most people didn’t know what a reel was. Indeed, I could not have studied reel making in college, never mind developing expertise in it. My grandmother didn’t pass down her sacred knowledge of reel making.

We need to figure this stuff out on our own.

The way we think about learning needs to change.

Across the world and throughout history, our lives have been divided into two parts; a childhood spent learning, and our working lives spent developing that learning into expertise. Of course, you learned new skills along the way and adapted to the changing needs, but these were just small tweaks to your well-honed abilities.

This model is no longer the norm. As we live longer and in far more uncertain times, we can no longer rely on youthful knowledge gain and minor tweaks to stay up-to-date.

I’ve returned to school and entirely switched careers twice in response to changing market conditions, and I’ve little doubt that I’ll do so again. In my opinion, most will do the same. We need to normalize this transition and shake up. We need to make learning and development as typical as work, especially as we grow older.

My 83-year old grandpa has learned to use Instagram and Ubereats to stay connected to the outside world. To remain relevant — not just for work but for your everyday life — you will need to learn constantly and reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like 50.

Unlike our predecessors, we have no guideposts or sage advisors. The tactical advice of our elders is wrong.

  • As a child, I was told never to get into a strangers car.
  • When looking for my first job, I was instructed to speak to the company’s president and ask for a job.
  • Learning to spell and perform long division in my head would be an essential life skill. “Because you won’t be carrying a dictionary or calculator in your pocket everywhere, will you?”
More great advice, thanks grandpa!

Change has always been a constant, but it has never come this fast. It’s too quick for schools to keep up, for common advice to stay relevant, and certainly too much for your well-meaning grandpa.

The best defense to this change is to change yourself.

Be open and flexible to the changing of the tides.

“People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

We cannot predict the future, but we can read the runes and try to make an estimated guess. Even Gartner doesn’t suggest trying to predict the changing times. Instead, it recommends adopting an agile or dynamic approach. This means keeping a keen eye out for where your industries are going and being an early adopter.

In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by core skills but through complementary skills and learning agility. Simply learning a new skill opens up so many options.

Having a broad skill set with hard and soft skills represented is also a good strategy. It’s a lot easier to adapt to new technology if you are decent at other technology. And it’s much easier to pick up marketing skills if you have a solid writing background.

Not everyone can have this level of expertise

The age of the specialist is coming to a close. Yes, there will probably be use for some particular skill sets. I don’t want a neurosurgeon who is a jack of trades. But besides becoming world-class in one skill, success in life and career also comes from having a unique stack of skills that make you indispensable, invaluable, or special. You can utilize those skills to create value in a way no one else can, thus becoming one-of-a-kind in your field. Good at a specific hard skill? Develop your soft skills. But outside of rare occasions, multipotentiality is a safer bet.

How to do this?

  • First, understand your current skill set (and dig deep because it’s likely far more extensive than you expect). For example, if you are a customer support agent, you have a TON of skills! You have technology skills, typing skills, phone/chat skills, conflict resolution skills, negotiation skills etc.
  • Second, identify where you should focus your development. Choose one skill you love using and one that most other people dislike. If you are lucky, these can be the same skill. For example, let’s say you love talking on the phone, and the company just rolled out a new technology everyone hates. Grow your abilities in these two areas. Become to go-to person for callers and get good at the new tool. Don’t focus on getting into a class or reading books on growing your skills (although these are great); instead, focus on using your skills on the job. Find ways to prove your abilities through projects and quantifiable data.
  • Once you feel confident in these skills, then find a similar skill to one of them and branch out. The easiest and most effective way to do this is through experiential earning. Volunteer to be on a project or council. Ask to lead a team or train others on a project. This helps your reputation and builds numerous other skills while cementing your expertise in the original area.

Yes, the world is changing in really weird and unpredictable ways. People unwilling or unable to change with it will be left behind. But by keeping your mind open and being willing to grow where you are needed, you can take advantage of the upcoming opportunities.

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.