Thoughts & Observations

Essential Skills for the Future of Work

Originally published on Medium

Twenty or thirty years ago, you couldn’t start your own business anywhere in the world with just a couple clicks of a mouse. To work, you had to show up at an office because that was where your typewriter or giant desktop computer was, where your important documents were kept in file cabinets, and where your business phone was tethered to the wall. You were still likely to stay at job for 20 or 30 years and get a pension and a gold watch when you retired.

The way that work looks, feels, and functions is in the midst of a dramatic shift. Every time we have gone through a major shift in work in the past, we have had to learn new skills to support it. We had to learn the work of agriculture. We had to learn how to work on an assembly line. We had to learn to use typewriters and fax machines.

So the question now becomes, what do we need to learn that will help us thrive in this new world of work today and ten, 20, 30 years from now? From my experience, I see three of the main categories of skills as: problem solving, technology, and self-management.

I witness the need for problem solving skills in my current role working with technology startups at NY Tech Meetup, but it is also something I came across much earlier in my career.

Seven or eight years go, you wouldn’t have found me working with tech companies. You would have found me in an engineering lab surrounded by a group of 30 giggling 11- and 12-year-old girls.

At the time, I was doing fundraising and building programs for the Girl Scouts in Southern California, and we were about to head out into the summer heat on a hunting expedition. Notebooks and pencils in hand, the girls weren’t going to be hunting deer, or wild boar, or bears. They would be hunting for bugs. And not just any kind of bugs. Bugs of engineering. Bugs of design.

You see, we had asked the girls to start creating a bug list—a list of design flaws they found in the world around them that bugged them, whether it was the handle on a door being too high or their sneakers rubbing their feet the wrong way. This list would serve as an inspiration for an invention of their own creation that they would build a prototype for later in their summer program.

As they were building their lists, one of the girls said to her mentor, a female engineering student, “I’ve noticed my mom doesn’t have any place to store her purse while she’s driving our minivan. Does that count as a design flaw?”

Her mentor confirmed that yes, indeed, it was a design flaw and that in designing and building the car, that was a feature that had been left out…mostly like by the male engineer designing it.

With that, the girl’s eyes lit up: “So that means that if someone designed the car…I could design the car, and I could design it differently?”

She had never thought that way before. She had never made the connection that the world was designed and built with the idea that there were human beings designing and building it.

This got me thinking about a few key things skills in the future of work: first, the majority of objects we interact with on a daily basis are designed by human beings mostly for use by other human beings, but a huge portion of the products we use and encounter are still significantly flawed and do not solve some of our biggest challenges. All of us should be exposed more often to design and engineering early in life, and we should continue to develop these core skills as a basis for problem solving. We also need to learn how to assess community needs and understand the true needs of someone outside of our own bystander experience.

Another, absolutely essential part to ensure that products and solutions serve our whole population is that the perspectives of those who are designing, engineering, and building the products need to be as diverse as the people who will be using them.

Now, because more and more frequently the tools to solve problems are technology based, we move on to the second area of skills for the future of work: technology skills. The first thing that usually comes to mind in this category is that we have a shortage of developers and that we need more people who know how to code.

While we definitely do need more people with those specific skills, we also need something more. Learning to code is an important core skill, but certainly not the only skill. It is only a partial solution. We also need more computer scientists, more people who can think critically and computationally. We need designers, user interface and interaction experts, project managers, and a generally technology literate workforce as well.

All of the technology products that we need technology skills to build are also driving that third category of skills we need in the future: self-management. Self-management covers everything from self-awareness to how we manage our financial stability on an individual level when we no longer work with a single employer for 20 or 30 years.

With freelancers predicted to make up 40 percent to 50 percent of the workforce by 2020, and all of us as individuals being challenged by technology on a daily basis to maintain attention and focus, we are now taking on more and more personal responsibility for the way that our work impacts our well-being.

While yes, in some cases our employer controls the hours that we work, we now make a multitude of individual choices about how many times a minute we check our email. Whether we sleep with our phones next to pillows. Whether we even take the vacation that has been allocated to us.

When we work remotely, when we don’t simply clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, when a significant percentage of our work is knowledge and creativity based, it means that we as individuals, and companies themselves, have to develop a deeper understanding of how we work best and what allows us to flourish as individuals and as part of a group.

It also means that if we can’t count on our employer to take care of us, to provide some sense constant security, then we have to do that for ourselves, through something that I call individual economic resilience.

Creating this resilience for yourself involves the work of compiling a toolkit of compensatory skills that allow us to move in and out of various types of employment, from freelance to full-time work, while maintaining some semblance of economic stability.

So what does this all add up to?

In the future, we will need a diverse group of technologically literate people, skilled at needs assessment and design thinking, who are effective, economically resilient self-managers.

And because human beings designed all of our current systems of business and work, it also means that the future of work is truly up to us.


Thoughts & Observations

Just Absorbing the World

The act of writing for myself and only for myself is significantly different from the act of writing with the knowledge that others will read what I write.

The act of writing for others shifts the expectations that I have for myself and causes me, in many ways, to observe and interact with the world with the goal of being able to synthesize and reflect back what I experience.

While I would always do a fair amount of that for myself regardless of who I’m writing for, when I write for others, that reflection becomes the focus.

It brings up the question of how experiencing life is different when you don’t have the immediate task in front of you of finding lessons in your experiences and distilling them down for a blog post or a talk.

With a big life moment on the horizon, now feels like a good time for me to give that a try.

For the next couple of months, I’m going to see what happens when I put my creative expectations aside and sit in the space of just absorbing the world for awhile…

Thoughts & Observations

A Different View of Impact

The other day, I noticed a Huffington Post piece about busyness in my Facebook feed. It was penned by Adora Svitak, a young woman who, in addition to being a published author, speaker, and activist, at the age of 13 gave a TED talk about what adults can learn from kids that has been viewed over 3 million times.

As someone who seems to be driven to make an impact, as I read her piece I was curious how she reconciled that drive with the sense of also wanting some white space on her calendar, especially because so many people who work on social good and non-profit causes seem to have a sense that they need to be self-sacrificing in order to truly effect change.

So I asked her…and with her permission, I’m happy to share her wise answer here:

“I try to reframe what having an impact means. I think it’s often an equally valid choice to have an impact on the life of one person close to you, or on yourself–so sometimes I allot me time with the awareness that it’s not necessarily taking a step back from changing the world, it’s enabling me to eventually do that better.”


Thoughts & Observations

Waiting to Be Whole

The challenge with to do lists is that they can give the impression that you aren’t there yet.

That for each thing you don’t accomplish, part of you is missing.

That you won’t be whole until you’ve reached your full potential, and part of reaching that full potential is getting everything done.

The notion of value through accomplishment – through checking the boxes and crossing things off – is our own invented hurdle.

There is no to do list you can complete that leads to completeness.

You don’t have to wait to be whole.

Thoughts & Observations

Supposed to Be Good for You

I could be writing this blog post because it is supposed to be good for me.

I’ve seen countless posts by other writers about how writing every day (or as often as you can) is good for you. It’s good for improving your writing skills. Good for your career. Good for establishing thought leadership.

And those potential benefits are difficult to not have come to mind when I contemplate sitting down to write.

But there’s another part of that thought process, a part that we can often lose when we are too overwhelmed by focusing on the evidence outside of ourselves that something is good for us:

What about what happens inside of us?

When I write, I feel better. I get clarity. I gain confidence. After not writing for awhile, I can feel kind of meh. And sometimes what I write has the benefit of being helpful to others. 

The challenge when we get too focused on the external, “good for your career” type benefits, is that doing the activity can become more about checking a box on the to do list of standard success than it is about living your life in a more fulfilling way.

And when anything becomes about checking a box, it usually brings with it a little friend called guilt. All of a sudden a thing that you could be doing because it makes you feel better, you are doing because you want it to advance your career, and when you don’t do it, your internal dialogue isn’t “Oh, that’s too bad – I’m sad I didn’t get to do something that makes me feel awesome today.” Instead you think “Wow. I can’t seem to do any of the 10 things I’m supposed to do to advance my career. I need to add writing 20 blog posts to my to do list so I can get ahead. This is what all the successful people do.”

There is often a double bottom-line of doing things that are good for you: they make you feel better and they help you accomplish what you want in life. But that double benefit is quickly lost when you don’t connect what you are doing to the benefit of how it actually makes you feel.


Thoughts & Observations

Even Rebels Need Recovery Time

When you’ve chosen to rebel, to stand up for something, to be the champion who fights for what you believe in, the process can be equally empowering and draining.

As the women from Rebels at Work pointed out in a great session at SXSW, especially if you’ve rebelled against a massive bureaucracy, fought an old, red tape-laden system, or stood up to people who didn’t really want to change – and especially if your efforts weren’t totally successful – you don’t usually walk away from that experience immediately charged up and ready to fight another battle.

Yes, even rebels need recovery time. Often you need not just a few days or weeks or months, but a period of time equal to how long you were fighting for change before you feel recharged and ready to be a rebel again.


Thoughts & Observations

Add Add Add


Sometimes when it comes to new ideas, big plans, and long-term to do lists, all we do is add.

With each conference we attend or book that inspires us, we add things to our list. We set new personal goals, new work goals. We get excited about all of the new things we can potentially do.

And this is all great…except that we often forget to think about whether there is anything we can subtract, anything we can stop doing.

It’s like constantly filling a closet with new clothes and never taking out the items that no longer fit or you never wear.

Yes, add all of the amazing new things, but at the same pause for a minute to see what you can subtract as well.




Thoughts & Observations

Everything Else Can Wait

“Everything else can wait.”

I first heard this phrase from a yoga instructor who offered it as we begin the day’s practice a number of months ago.

It is now what I say to myself when I sit down to meditate.

And what I say when I feel my mind migrating towards my to do list at moments when I want to be present with those around me.

It is what I say when I have a million tasks to do and everything feels urgent but I know nothing is going to get done unless I focus.

Everything feels urgent. Few things truly are. And most of the time, everything else can wait.

Thoughts & Observations

How Do You Feel When Others Shine?

For some, watching another person shine is uplifting – it’s a sign of what’s possible, of how stunning human beings can be.

For others, watching someone else shine feels absolutely horrible – it’s threatening, it makes them feel small, feel jealous, even feel angry or depressed.

I’ve often heard people explain this feeling of threat by saying something like “I’m just naturally a jealous person.” But what does that mean?

I don’t think it’s just about the characteristic of jealousy. The more I read Carol Dweck‘s work, I think it’s about something deeper than that: fixed vs. growth mindset.

The people who find watching someone else shine uplifting are the people who are in growth mindset: they believe that we can all continually improve and become better, that one person’s success is in no way a threat to their own.

The people who find watching someone else shine threatening are the people in fixed mindset: they believe that we are born with a fixed amount of intelligence or talent or natural ability and therefore that everyone is ranked on a hierarchical scale (I’m smarter than you, I’m more talented than you).

Everything then becomes about protecting their rank. When someone else shines, it threatens where they see themselves on the hierarchy. And because they believe that effort is something that you only exert if you don’t have natural talent (and that effort doesn’t really change the natural talent you have that much), they don’t react to that threat by feeling motivated to work harder. They just get angry and depressed.

It’s not a pleasant way to experience the world. And it can lead to things like lying and corruption (see Enron), as those who are in fixed mindset try more and more desperately to protect the world’s view of them.

But for many people in fixed mindset, they begin to see that there is something harmful about their way of viewing the world – they aren’t growing as much as they’d like to or they’re tired of feeling jealous all the time – and the good news is that those who find themselves in fixed mindset can shift to growth mindset. It just takes a little effort.

Thoughts & Observations

Monologue to Monologue

Arianna Huffinton pointed this out at the Wisdom 2.0 conference and I’ve noticed it in one-on-one conversations, in meetings, on panel discussions: instead of truly having dialogue that is responsive to what someone else just said, we simply trade monologues.

One person says their monologue and the other person, instead of truly listening, is simply rehearsing their monologue in their head, waiting for their turn.

In communicating monologue to monologue we never get the chance to actually hear each other or to then truly deepen the conversation and move it forward.