It will pay to be creative, nimble in the 'conceptual age'
By Penelope Trunk, Globe Correspondent, 7/10/05
As thousands of jobs go overseas to Asia, the resounding response from twentysomethings is, "Who cares? I wouldn't want one of those jobs anyway." To this fresh-faced workforce tech jobs look boring, routine and uncreative - the equivalent of a manufacturing job to a baby boomer.
Kris Helenek is a software engineer at Student Universe, an online travel resource for students. He's not particularly worried about losing his job to someone in, say, India, because he's involved in discussions concerning product features - something difficult to outsource to someone lacking a deep understanding of the customer. But what about his future? Helenek says, "I'm confident that I'll always be innovative enough and skillful enough that people will want to hire me."
We are entering a new age in economic history, and it will elevate those who are nimble and creative. When we moved from industrial economy to the information economy, jobs became more interesting; coal miners were unemployed, tech support centers hired like mad, and secretaries became small-time database operators. Now we're in the early stages of the "conceptual age" in which data will be less important than creativity, and jobs will be more fulfilling.
Daniel Pink presents this one-minute economic history in his book, "A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age." He says, "Key abilities will not be high tech but high touch," and we will value the ability to make meaning and connections in a world where information is a commodity.
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According to Pink, the people who will do best in this economy are those who don't just take and give orders but also move smoothly between boundaries, like the technical guru who understands marketing or the accountant who speaks four languages. "But," Pink warns, "you cannot get a move-smoothly-between-boundaries aptitude test, so a lot of this is about self-discovery."
Here are some traits you need to develop to do well in the conceptual age:
- Empathy. Think emotional intelligence on steroids. The most empathetic people have the ability to see an issue from many different perspectives. And work that can be done without infused empathy begs to be outsourced.
- Aesthetic eye. Pink says, "Design sense has become a form of business literacy like learning to use Microsoft Excel. Smart business people should start reading design magazines."
- Ability to negotiate and navigate. The conceptual age will be filled with possibilities that point to no single truth. Pink says, "People must learn to do something that is not routine, that doesn't have a right answer."
Bottom line: You'll have to be creative to stay employed. But really, who doesn't want to be creative? It's inherently more rewarding to be creative than to be an information drone.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention," says that, "Being creative is a way in which life becomes richer.
"But if you want to be creative you must learn to do something well. You need to learn a set of skills, and then, once you feel comfortable you can ask yourself how you can make it better."
Those with no patience for climbing traditional corporate ladders, pay heed: Innovation without a basic knowledge in that area is not creativity but dilettantism. Not that dabbling in topics you know nothing about isn't fun, but that lifestyle will not create the kind of value that keeps your job this side of the ocean. To find what you love to do, Csikszentmihalyi recommends exploration.
"A richer life is one in which you have access to different aspects of the world." Sure, you need to find your talents to figure out where you will put your creative energy.
But Pink reminds, "Failure is a part of mastery." So give yourself room for missteps.
This is good news for Helenek. He invested in Cambridge real estate as a way to hedge his technical career. He planned to live in half his duplex and rent out the other half. But after the deal closed a pipe burst, and now Helenek is working on a fixer-upper. Tough work, but the good news is you can't outsource floor sanding to India.
Penelope Trunk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org