Tech Career

Why Empathy (and not AI) Will Be The Most Lucrative Skill of The Rest of The 21st Century

Today, we stand on the brink of what could be one of the most potent technological revolutions that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, relax and relate to each other.

The scale at which this transformation will take place will be unlike anything else humans have experienced in this past.

We are not sure how it will truly unfold and integrate into our lives, but rest assured, in many ways our lives will be much more convenient, while simultaneously, we will be posed with several challenges which cannot be addressed with cookie-cutter solutions and require unique and creative solutions.

What I’m referring to here is the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, in a 2015 article in Foreign Affairs, “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Economists like to categorize phases of human technological growth and development into distinct “Revolutions”, where one or more technologies is replaced by another one in a brief period.

The accelerated growth and application of these innovations cause an abrupt change in society as a whole.

Up until this point, we have identified four distinct industrial revolutions:

  • First Industrial Revolution – where water and steam power was used to mechanize production.
  • Second Industrial Revolution – where electric power was used to power mass production.
  • Third Industrial Revolution – where electronics and information technology were used to automate production.
  • Fourth Industrial Revolution – powered by innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence, today the lines between the digital, biological and physical spheres are being blurred.

What makes the Fourth Industrial Revolution so different from the Third? It is mainly due to three distinct factors:

  • Speed – The rate at which these innovations are growing and being adopted is exponential and has never been seen before.
  • Scope – The innovations are being applied in almost country and every industry, not just electronics and information technology. Today, healthcare, finance, and even law are seeing advancements on an almost daily basis.
  • Systems Impact – The impact and the leverage these innovations have is breaking down old systems of production, management, distribution and governance. The amount of influence and leverage that big tech companies have today is forcing governments to think of new ways to govern them so that they cannot exert their power in unjust ways which are detrimental to society.

Some of the many fields that are seeing constant disruptions are artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, computer vision, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, nanotechnology, biotechnology, wearable technology, renewable energy, etc.

Billions of dollars are being funnelled into these technologies, with no signs of slowing down.

Why is it happening?

As these technologies are emerging as a result of competitive forces in industries, we do not have too much control over how these technologies develop and take shape.

Companies are willing to invest significant amounts of money into R&D efforts to become more efficient, increase profits, and get an edge over their competitors.

For example, companies like Uber and Lyft are pouring billions of dollars into R&D research to make self-driving cars a reality, not because they are “so passionate about pushing humanity forward”, but more so because as of today, one of the most significant expenses for these companies are the wages they need to pay their drivers.

What if somehow the drivers could be eliminated? What if somehow the cars could drive customers to their desired location themselves?

They would keep all the profits, which would have otherwise gone to the drivers.

The above example is getting repeated in different industries in different ways. The cold, hard truth is that it is not going to stop, no matter how many people complain about the fact that several million people will lose their jobs and livelihoods.

Several countries are already thinking of implementing ideas like Universal Basic Income to help people sustain their livelihoods in the era of mass disruption we are going to see.

But before things get too political, let’s get back to you.

As an educated, ambitious individual looking to make the most of this generational shift, all you have to do is get into one of these fast-growing industries, and the rest will sort itself out, right?

Wrong. That’s exactly what I thought, but a little research and introspection have made me change my stance. Let’s delve into this issue a little bit deeper.

What can you do about it?

Although I fully agree that developing specialised skills in any of these growing technologies will be incredibly lucrative, I think the main avenue where real success lies is hidden in plain sight – people.

What do I mean?

Technology like artificial intelligence requires large amounts of data to train models which can make accurate predictions and thus automate tasks.

By definition, that means the job must be repetitive and cannot be truly creative.

While this is a very debatable topic, with people sighting examples of AIs playing and even beating humans at incredibly complicated games like Go, I feel that games like that are still very much bounded and still need to abide by some general set of made-up rules.

I do not think we are anywhere close to achieving human levels of creativity through AI yet, and if we were, it would be called a General AI, at which point, this whole discussion would be moot (since we would not be very far from a hostile robot takeover).

So the obvious way we can beat the AI onslaught is by aggressively focusing and improving the skillsets where AI is the weakest, and the first and most important skill which comes to my mind is empathy.

How well do you think you are able to relate to a fellow human being?

Are you able to put yourself in someone’s shoes and see and feel life as they do?

Can you understand someone’s perspective, needs and desires without them having to explicitly state them to you?

If you haven’t noticed, AI and robots are incredibly bad at this, while in comparison, human beings are naturally much better (although smartphones are slowly levelling the playing field).

We can relate to and build meaningful connections and relationships with other humans in ways no other computer or algorithm can, and this gives us a distinct advantage.

We can use this superpower (because that’s what it really is) to build highly unique, innovative and creative solutions to problems other people have and add incredible value to their lives. And in exchange, they will want to pay us for it.

Who doesn’t love a win-win situation?

The power of empathy

All the popular and successful companies we see today, like Airbnb, Slack, Uber, Canva, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and several others are highly user-centric and embrace user empathy as a core tenet when designing their products and services.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, when asked about what Amazon has done to be so successful, stated: “We ruthlessly focus on the customer.”.

Knowing what people are frustrated by and incrementally solving their problems is critical, if not the most critical factor in the success of any new venture and all successful companies and their leaders know this fact very well.

They are well known for using several techniques like empathy mapping, design thinking, customer discovery, etc. to ensure that the products and services that they build are laser-focused to meet the needs of their customers.

It also does not come as a big surprise that one of the top attributes they are looking for in employees they hire is empathy, because of how important and central it is to succeed in today’s dynamic technology landscape.

So when choosing a company or a role to work at, try to pick one where you will be able to exercise your empathy and creativity.

If for some reason, you aren’t able to at the moment, aim to grow into a role like this, because you can be very confident that such a role won’t be automated through AI and robotics anytime soon.

A few examples of roles like this are product managers, software engineers, executives, salespeople and other roles which rely on human interaction and creativity to succeed.

Trust me when I say developing a growing sense of empathy will give you exponential returns in all the different roles you might play in your life:

  • As an employee – Not only will you capitalize on opportunities other people can’t see, you will also be well-liked by your peers, subordinates and managers. When enough of the good news spreads and your manager is looking for someone to promote to his position, guess who’s name is going to come up?
  • As an entrepreneur – You will be able to quickly identify the pain points of your customers, some which they even might not be able to articulate themselves and build tailored products and services for them. By continually asking for feedback from them, you will be able to pivot and tweak your business model and increase your probability of success. You will also be able to establish deeper and stronger relationships and brand loyalty with them, leaving all your apathetic competitors in the dust. On the business side of things, you will able to build a strong network of helpful, optimistic and encouraging business partners by knowing precisely what they secretly need and giving it to them without being prompted. As humans, we feel compelled to help someone who helps us, so this creates a stable interdependent relationship.
  • As a leader – You will be the leader whom everyone wants to work with because you are compassionate, understanding and appreciative of your subordinates. The reputation this builds for you will attract more opportunities for growth and responsibility to you than paper clips to a magnet.
  • As anyone in society – Before judging your friend or spouse for their actions, you’ll take a step back and look at things from his/her perspective. New people you meet will think you have a fantastic charisma about you just because you are genuinely curious about them and care to listen to them deeply. All the close relationships you’ll build will make you a much happier and pleasant person overall.

I can keep on going, but I think you get my point.

How do I develop empathy?

Before I go any further, I want to make a quick point about empathy. Empathy is only one of the skills in the basket of soft skills that are becoming overwhelming important in today’s world.

The reason I have given it such a central role in this article is that I think it is the most important and often the most overlooked skill to have. 

The real purpose of this article is to bring your attention to the rapidly increasing need for developing soft skills over traditional hard skills like technical ability (where AI will always beat us).

With that out of the way, here are some simple (but not easy) ways you can develop your empathy and other complementary soft skills so that you can get all of the benefits I told you about:

  • Cultivate a genuine curiosity about strangers and people. Don’t be afraid to say “Hi” to a stranger. They’re people just like you!
  • Listen deeply about what other people have to say and be open to sharing yourself too.
  • Use your God-given imagination to put yourself in someone’s shoes before you judge their actions or decisions harshly.
  • Understand your own cultural, experiential and cognitive biases before judging others or making decisions.
  • Travel and explore new cultures and understand why people live the way they do.
  • Get feedback from other people periodically about your relationship skills and work on making improvements based on the input.
  • Do things for other people with no intention of receiving anything in return.

Try out one or all of the above, and I can guarantee your career and life will change forever.

You can thank me later. I won’t mind even if you don’t… I completely understand. Do you?

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