The Perfect Stranger

In my career I have seen many people struggling to get out of a job what they invest in it. Most of us devote more than time and energy. Our heart and soul goes into it. We breathe our job 24 hours a day.

While we might not exactly radiate pure joy every Monday morning, we chose to pursue this work-life praxis during the best part of our life. It allows most of us to pay the bills, live a normal life and care for the little things in life, like our parents professed. Even if the job is soulless and stifles our very existence, we religiously stick to this pattern as we believe there is no alternative to lead a satisfying, let alone prosperous life.

We dream of more.  More money, to make our life extra-ordinary, more meaning, to quench our soul. We’re convinced that one day, we’ll have a career that not only gives us fulfillment — money, meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose. Making getting up in the morning a piece of cake.

When we find that job or career, it becomes a big thing. It drives and motivates our life to the point where it defines us. The job or career becomes our identity. We are our job and the job is us. Our dream has become true: we have traded up from money to meaning! Happiness is within our grasp. We have made it. Every second of the day, we’re convinced we’re animating our values in our working life, allowing us to enjoy the little things, as we have the big thing. As we are the big thing. Because the big thing defines the little things.

Is this the dream we need to pursue? Do we need to pursue money and trade it up for meaning?

Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and meaning, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This is not my idea, nor is it recent: Aristotle advised ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’ Maximizing our talents and holding true to our values makes us great nurses or exceptional gardeners, web designers or shepherds, musicians or waiters. Exploring our talents to address true needs will most likely result in a more fulfilling and harmonious work-life than any other ambition or motivator.

Still I’d like to add something to this. It is a fundamental need of every mammal on this earth. It’s something we do naturally as children. Namely play. Chateaubriand wrote over a century ago that become a master in the art of living, you cannot draw a sharp distinction between work and play, labor and leisure. A master of life hardly knows which is which. He or she simply pursues his or her vision of excellence through whatever he or she is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he or she is working or playing. To themselves, they always appear to be doing both.

Getting up this morning, I decided to play. You’re reading the result. Because in the depths of winter, I finally realize that within me lies an invincible summer. I’m just making sure I’m not a perfect stranger to myself.



Your Daily Planet

Warning: this blog will not make you a better or happier person.

The environmental impact of today’s proliferation of impulsive, improvident musings on the political, social and economic front by everyone and their dog is hard to overstate. Thriving on Angst, it has globally led to a poisoned and unfulfilled society, expressing its protest and aggression on social media, in national elections or provocative referenda and ever more politically inspired strikes.

This digital pollution in which every factless opinion is voiced is but a sign of a deeper disconnect. Innovation has never been as pervasive, yet progress for all is hard to demonstrate. The way we work has never been as varied and diverse, still unions stubbornly hold on to dogmas from a lost era. Employers scream for well-educated talent, yet gladly robotize their workforce. Governments understand very well that companies do not pay their fair share of tax, yet persevere in slashing corporate tax in a global race to the bottom. In short, our economic model has created over the last 30 years few but formidable winners enjoying unseen wealth while armies of people have been downgraded to a form of dependency on the nation-state.

When humans are lost, they retrench in an ideology or belief in one form or another. As history reminds us, none of them proves to be the answer. While religion cunningly outsources the solution to the after-life, ideologies continue to profess immediate remedies to the woes of the world, trumping Hegel’s ‘Umso schlimmer für die Wirklichkeit’. Humans willfully negate facts to create memes, stories, movements and short-lived dreams that fit their preconceived mindset. Humans believe what they want to believe, not what is true.

Critical thinking and years of experience do not guarantee that out of the many theories currently circling the internet, you will find a fitting solution for your challenge, whether it is personal or work-related.  Am I adding to this digital pollution? Most probably. Is silence the answer? Likely not. Do my words carry meaning in a world where fiction is mistaken for reality? Not really. How then can I help overcome some of humanity’s natural stupidity?

Today I can’t. Even if I were Clark Kent. Tomorrow, who knows?

At first, I did have high hopes for the artificially intelligent robot. Thriving on unlimited data, able to learn from all sources of knowledge, understanding what is true or false, surpassing human’s cognitive capacity and critical thinking by the millions, outperforming humans on all fronts, I had thought I could trust its scientific insight and judgment, sifting through the garbage and mayhem we mortals produce. A better, braver world awaited us.

But then in a split-second doubt overcame me when I considered the intelligent robot one day would read the following: the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, is that none of it has tried to contact humans. I would have liked to trust the artificially intelligent life-form would have seen the humor of this thought and would have discarded it as irrelevant, as scientifically, our presence on earth is just a blip on the cosmic scale and neighboring galaxies are countless lightyears away, hence making contact impossible. Then it dawned on me that the robot would come to understand that humans are indeed just a blip and that its own life, albeit virtual, in passing data from one robot generation to the next, is potentially endless. Is contacting other intelligent life for AI then just a matter of time? Is the truth out there?

There are things we cannot know. Lies the only real progress in learning to be wrong all alone, as Camus said? Across the universe?


Tin soldier

This is not a blog about Trump or Brexit, even though all over the world people are coming to terms with new political realities. It is also not about the existential Angst fueling this political trend. Whether this brave new world will throw us back to the depressing thirties or propel us to prosperity for more than the happy few, is a prediction impossible to make. Politics might just not matter.

The economic future for most of us answers to a different logic. Twenty-five to fifty percent of all jobs will over the next three decades be replaced, not by immigrants as some might have you believe, but by artificial intelligence, dominating the workplace. It will form with globalization the perfect partner in crime to produce the kind of robots taking the bigger half of the intellectual work out of our hands. Understand that there are no future-proof jobs. Artificial Intelligence will affect all jobs, also doctors, lawyers and financial analysts.

This should not throw us in an existential angst. Future-proof jobs have never existed. What is different now is the speed of change. We need to adapt a lot faster than we are naturally inclined to. Most of us are unwilling to do so. We want to hold on to a world of work we know, where we master a well-defined role with a well-defined salary within a well-defined legal, social and economic setting. This privilege is dwindling and will cease to exist for the vast majority.

Future generations will find in artificial intelligence an ambivalent technology. It has the potential to make all of our lives better. It could also widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

For these generations, we need to fundamentally rethink our education system, how we organize work and reward, what inclusion in the workforce really means and how participation as a valued member of a truly diverse society is organized and rewarded.

But first and foremost, we should let them decide how this brave new world needs to look. We, fifty-year olds and more, remnants of the baby boom, should step aside and give them the keys to the future. This is what this blog is about, not about a tin soldier in a white house.

Where innovation is a sin

Working in Central-Africa and Greece, I cannot help but think that the strongest force shaping the future, is the past and that our current thinking about the world of work is hopelessly outdated. The gap in our global village of work has never been as wide, the exclusion of young professionals has never been as big.

In our post-industrial era, we have to revisit our way of thinking about work, its purpose and how it’s organized economically. The digital era over the next few decades will in the West marginalize many jobs to meaningless minimum wage roles or wipe them out altogether while the exodus from the poverty stricken regions on the planet will increasingly continue in force. More than two thirds of the population will not qualify for rewarding roles in the near future. Exclusion looms on all fronts.

You will argue there will be different and exciting roles, that many meaningless roles will be replaced by robots and that we’ll all live in a sort of Silicon Valley, going to work with our pet, dressed in our shorts and favorite T-shirt.

I fear this will be for a minor percentage of the population. Like for those who work at Uber, not drive around for Uber. Our digital economy seems to be a race to the bottom where the winner takes all and the losers are many.

We all appreciate the value of work differently. We all seek a different purpose in work too. One specific value of the many we extract out of work allows us to be part of a social and cultural setting: money. Excluded from the world of work means for many exclusions on other fronts, from the golf club to health care, from recognition to self-respect.

The powers that be are religiously holding on to the world of work as is, portraying their thinking as virtuous in defense of a culture and a set of values. Innovative thinking, anticipating the challenges of the new paradigm of work, is considered a mortal sin. They are hereby ruthlessly condemning future generations to exclusion. Lifelong learning with strong workmanship might cater for the happy few but excluding the majority of people from a purposeful working life is not a viable policy. I call on all concerned to rethink work in its broadest sense. Where a job rewarded is not based on fighting time. Where a job is rewarded on human value creation, not extraction.

In the picture above, sent to me by a dear friend, I see the dichotomy these guardians of culture face. Defending the virtues of the past against an unavoidable future, powered by algorithms and Wi-Fi. Physically recreating a space back in time is what a museum does. People however live in the real world. Nothing however is so difficult as not deceiving oneself (Wittgenstein).


The illusion of the good old days

True, we lie to ourselves. We do it every day. All the time, our innate capacity called selective memory allows us to retain the good and ban the bad. We rewrite the past with every recollection. Our memories travel back to times when we were young, sexy and legacy-free.

Our future was still to be written. That future is now the past.

For some, the past is a prison. Caught in outdated experience, knowledge and diplomas, it proves very hard to cope with the exponential change at work. Efficiency with digitization as brother in arms has enabled machines and robots to replace human labor. Artificial intelligence increasingly replaces the knowledge worker. Nobody escapes, including doctors and engineers. The half-life of most skills has shrunk to a mere 5 years. The cognitive capacities of the human mind in the world of work have been overtaken by the digital revolution.

Luckily, humans are not limited to cognitive capacities. What moves us determines us far more: passion is the key to escape the past and create the future. This source of endless energy not only fuels our failures, which we strive to selectively forget, but also produces our successes, which we selectively magnify. Passion allows us to reinvent ourselves over and over again. It is the essential life-skill.

Yesterday, I admired products of people following their passion. No, it wasn’t an Apple computer. Yes, it was an old motorcycle rebuilt beyond recognition. Yes, it was a unique product of a happy, passionate creator. Yes, it was better than his previous model. Yes, his next model will be even better. And yes, he will not be overtaken by the digital world.


Common sense

Sea view 3

Many summers ago, I was taking the Thalys from Paris to Brussels after a long week on the road. I was in my late thirties and the gentleman sitting across me was exactly twice my age. While I was trying to catch my breath, he introduced himself just by his first name and asked what had brought me to Paris for the week. Ninety minutes later, I had been lectured on what HR was really about and why he felt companies did not need an HR department but just some common sense.

Clearly I had touched a nerve when I was explaining our modern talent management processes. From A to Z, I advocated our superb development interventions, covering the employee life cycle. I explained why training did not equal development, why succession planning was important, why talent reviews were a great practice and how solid our performance management system really was. I was extremely proud to demonstrate that HR was no longer a personnel department but a real business function, contributing to the bottom line. As my listener underwent my story, he grew older by the minute. When I finished my exposé, he murmured that it all sounded very nice but that in the real world, there was no place for academic HR. The organization itself needed to drive business performance by aligning hearts and minds of all involved: employees, managers, and shareholders, even the partners at home. To do this, all you needed was common sense. Trust would follow automatically. Results too.

I protested. How could he not understand that the business world had evolved beyond common sense? That business success depended on the latest and newest HR practices the HR gurus at the time advocated? That integrated Talent management was vital for the company’s success?

He just shrugged and said: I’ve been in business for over 50 years. Today, I employ more than 500 people in different countries. I’ve built and sold businesses. I never had an HR department, nor have I ever thought I needed one. For example, you talk about development and training. You think you need to organize this through an HR function. That’s for me a step too far. Managers and employees know what they need in terms of development and training if they apply common sense. You in HR think you know. The trick is to sponsor all development for 90% and have the employee pay for 10%, also when it’s in-house training or development. This ensures their commitment, whether it’s an MBA study or just a day of leadership training. You also weed out all ineffective training or development at the same time. You see, just apply some common sense. By giving them ownership and accountability, you make them responsible for their own development.

I struggled to respond, saying that in large companies with tight development budgets this method wouldn’t work. He argued that in large companies bureaucracy and management layers got in the way of common sense. He thought large companies should be split up in independent business units of no more than 400 to 500 people, so you did not need unproductive layers of management, who establish command and control processes paralyzing initiatives and clogging up communication. His experience was that companies with more than 3 layers were inefficient. Getting anything done or undone took way too long.

He continued the common sense theme for another 15 minutes. My brain wasn’t taking it in anymore. All I could think about was getting home, dismissing his stories as ‘entrepreneurial management from the past’. Without really thinking about it, I asked him what he would differently if he could do his business life over. I guess that was then a popular HR recruitment interview question, I don’t exactly know why I asked. It took him 30 seconds to answer the following: I would treat my son differently. Then another long pause. You see, he said, my wife raised my son as I was always on the road or working late. I was a weekend dad at best, never home, never really involved. We hardly ever spoke. By the time he was a teenager, I was a total stranger to him. After his university studies, he wanted me to offer him a job in my company as jobs were scarce and he struggled finding one. I refused. I told him he had to go earn his stripes somewhere else. I would never consider hiring him. I would not hand him anything on a silver plate. There is no such thing as birthright I told him. Family are people you party with, never work with. This is just common sense.

He took a deep breath and then said quietly: I haven’t seen him since. This happened 25 years ago. For all I know he runs a successful business and is married with 2 children. And my wife is no longer my wife. She divorced me right after. She hasn’t talked to me in 20 years. I tried retirement 10 years ago. I sold the business and tried to enjoy life. That didn’t really work for me, so I started another business again. It’s really going well and it’s keeping me young. I get to work with talented young professionals, …and then the train stopped.

We had arrived in Brussels. He stood up, left, not once looking back.