The Future of Work
This Y Combinator alum and former IBM Watson strategist believes the market value of one particular capability will soon outpace EQ.
On the walk back from her high school, Max drops by the corner bodega to pick up a NeuroStim pill, a prescription neuroplasticity stimulator. She’ll pop it at exactly 10 a.m. tomorrow as she sits down to take the “AEI.” NeuroStim will accelerate her brain’s ability to create new synaptic pathways, helping Max quickly learn new behaviors and spot new connections when exposed to rapidly changing stimuli. The AEI is a standardized test, implemented 10 years ago, in 2035, to replace the SAT. It has become a globally accepted metric for aptitude and projected performance in the modern workplace.
Colloquially called “the Qs,” the AEI tests three variables:
- Adaptability quotient (AQ)
- Emotional quotient (EQ)
- Intellectual quotient (IQ)
While each “Q” matters, the AEI weights AQ the most. Strong scores in adaptability mean that you’re eligible for the “salaried track,” which leads to a three-year contract with an employer that commits significant sums toward your retraining every one to six months.
With lower scores, you must rely on the “gig track,” which can mean more flexibility and higher near-term rewards, but only short-duration contracts and no supported retraining. There is no inherent safety net if you bet too long on the wrong gigs in dying industries instead of continually refocusing on emergent needs.
Welcome to the future.
Why Adaptability Will Soon Matter More Than Ever
It’s no secret that technology is changing at an exponential rate, requiring us to learn faster than humans have ever had to before. The behaviors we’ve honed for decades will become obsolete in a few short years. Our off-the-shelf “neuroplasticity” might not be enough for us to succeed in a 45-year (or, likely, longer) career, where each year’s work dramatically differs from the last’s. As a result, our “adaptability quotient” (AQ) will soon become the primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.
In the late 1990s, we witnessed an emotional intelligence boom, with scholars and psychologists led by Daniel Goleman arguing that we’d been over-indexing on IQ instead of prioritizing the “people side” of smart. In business, the concept of EQ was course altering, taking even Goleman by surprise, “particularly in the areas of leadership and employee development,” as he reflected in 2012.
But while EQ is important, it’s only one leg of the stool. I subscribe to psychologist Carol Dweck’s “growth mind-set”: IQ and EQ aren’t fixed properties but can be developed through dedication and hard work. I believe AQ works similarly: Some of us are born with more potential to adapt, but each of us can get better at it over time. We all have that friend who loathes change and another who thrives on new experiences. We’re already aware that AQ exists and varies from person to person, but we’re not talking about it enough–and don’t have a compelling way to test or improve it.
To help fix that, it’s worth looking at a few examples of how AQ plays out at societal, organizational, and individual levels.
National AQ: Sweden Versus The United States
The New York Times published a fascinating article last month on Sweden’s approach to automation and the impact to their collective livelihood. Times reporter Peter S. Goodman interviews Mika Persson, a remote mine operator who tests self-driving vehicles to replace truck drivers.
Persson doesn’t fear automation because of Sweden’s strong social safety net; the government provides healthcare and free education, and employers finance extensive job-training programs. As the Swedish employment minister tells Goodman, “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.” Plus, Swedish unions “generally embrace automation as a competitive advantage that makes jobs more secure,” Goodman writes.
He notes that the U.S. healthcare system, by contrast, is largely dependent on employers, so “losing a job can trigger a descent to catastrophic depths. It makes workers reluctant to leave jobs to forge potentially more lucrative careers. It makes unions inclined to protect jobs above all else.” Goodman cites a recent Pew survey, in which 72% of Americans report worrying about automation, alongside a European Commission survey finding 80% of Swedes feeling positively about it. If the AEI test existed today, I think Sweden as a whole would receive a higher AQ score than the U.S.
Organizational AQ: IBM Versus Kodak
According to a 2012 report by Innosight that crunches almost a century’s worth of market data, corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in those upper ranks had narrowed to 20 years, then fell to 18 years in 2012. It’s now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, writes AEI’s Mark J. Perry about these findings, about half of S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years as we enter “a stretch of accelerating change in which lifespans of big companies are getting shorter than ever.”
IBM, my previous employer, is among the 12% of companies that made both the 1955 Index and the 2016 Index. Why has it succeeded for so long? I’d argue–and I’ve seen it firsthand–that IBM has a strong organizational AQ. On Day 1 of my corporate training in Herndon, Virginia (mandatory for every U.S. employee), I distinctly recall a slide about IBM’s core competency: IBM is not a hardware company, nor is it a software company, it harped–IBM sells innovation.
Innovation naturally evolves, thus IBM has well positioned itself to ride the shifting tides over the years. From 1880 to 1924, IBM sold tabulating machines; in 1933, electric typewriters; in the 1960s, it was one of the first on the market with mainframe computers. Since then, IBM has profited on everything from PCs to scanning tunneling microscopes to software and management consulting. While at IBM Watson in 2014, I worked with a partner who was one of IBM’s top machine-learning experts. Fast forward to 2017, and his LinkedIn profile now reads “Bitcoin & Digital Currency Industry Expert.” IBM changes course quickly, always in the direction of the money.
Contrast IBM’s trajectory with Kodak’s–the nearly cliché case study in failure to adapt. Starting in the ’90s, Kodak began a steep decline in the face of mobile technology and, eventually, social media photo sharing. Its business model was deeply rooted in photographic film, which proved to be a dying art. The company struggled to capitalize on new revenue streams and was slow to adopt relevant products like digital printing and digital picture frames. Unlike IBM, Kodak was not organizationally adaptable enough to survive, and was ultimately forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012.
Individual AQ: Yangyang Cheng
In 2003, Yangyang Cheng was a recent college graduate and CPA working as an auditor for Ernst & Young in Hong Kong. By 2007, she’d moved across the globe to teach Chinese language and culture as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, while taking improv lessons at the famed Upright Citizen’s Brigade at night.
In 2009, Cheng parlayed her cross-cultural understanding into a role as the host of Hello! Hollywood, a TV show filmed in L.A. but aired in mainland China. The show was a hit; 300 million Chinese viewers watched Cheng bring the “Hollywood lifestyle” into their homes. In 2012, despite her success, she pivoted for the fourth time to create “Yoyo Chinese,” an educational video platform to help English speakers learn Mandarin online. Yoyo Chinese has since delivered over 12 million lessons to over 300,000 students worldwide. In my favorite video below (viewed more than 48,000 times), Cheng teaches Mandarin through the songs in La La Land.
Cheng is clearly highly adaptable, not only because she’s navigated four successful careers in under 15 years, but also because of the growth mind-set she’s shown at each step. She is motivated by curiosity–hence the nightly improv classes–and able to see future themes across her experiences, tying threads between her professorship and entertainment roles into a big vision for Yoyo Chinese.
IBM, Sweden, and Yanyang Cheng are enough to convince me that we might be well on our way toward a future of high-school AQ tests and NeuroStim pills. But before any of that happens, I expect these other things will:
- As a society, we’ll agree that adaptability is an important indicator of future success for which we need a solid metric: AQ.
- We’ll seek new ways both test to test our AQ and improve it over time.
- A sizable industry will emerge to boost our AQ, from pharmaceuticals to training, games, and media–and maybe even a TV show hosted by Yangyang!
No matter what, though, the future is fast approaching–and we’ll all need to adapt to it.