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Knowledge Isn’t Enough Anymore

Knowledge Isn’t Enough Anymore

The world around us is changing faster than ever. Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, data science and other cutting-edge fields are constantly growing and showing no signs of slowing down. Many futurists, technologists and academics are now predicting that computing will be taking massive leaps forward over the next 10-15 years. These advances will undoubtedly come with many great benefits to humankind across a huge range of disciplines. But there’s a price to be paid: many of the jobs that we’re currently being paid to do — things that are too complicated or dangerous or novel for today’s computers to handle — will suddenly be able to be replicated by an indefatigable machine.

While some of us may be able to picture robots replacing assembly-line workers or taxi drivers one day, the reality is that this type of AI-driven career dystopia is a possible future that applies just as much to knowledge work as anything else. Computer-driven thought is already creeping into things as complex as search engine algorithms and conversations on social networks (see Google’s RankBrain and the less-glamorous Microsoft Twitter AI as some early examples of this), and long gone are the days when automating thought-based jobs seemed like something out of a science fiction novel. While the human brain is still considered the apex of information processing in our world, researchers’ best guesses have computers becoming comparable with the human brain in as little as seven years.

But computers are already well ahead of us in certain areas, and one of these areas is storing and retrieving information. Even six years ago there were already computers that had four times the ability of the human brain to store and retrieve information. This is a troubling fact if your primary skill at work is being able to recite information on command or talk about a subject without actually being able to apply it to real-world problems. Our near-universal access to the internet has only made this problem even more urgent, as nearly anyone with an internet connection can pull up the same knowledge you have in your head with a quick Google search.

This presents one very important question: How can we protect ourselves against this seemingly-unstoppable technological march forward? How we turn ourselves into what Seth Godin calls “a lynchpin”? I believe the answer is a simple one, but it’s one that requires a paradigm shift in the way many of us approach our work.

We need to shift our focus away from accumulating knowledge and instead focus on having a deeper understanding of what we're doing.

These two concepts may seem closely related. After all, you can’t understand what you don’t know. But they’re actually on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Knowledge (at least in the way I’m using it) refers to how many things you know, and focuses on breadth of expertise. Think of this as “knowing a little about a lot”. Understanding on the other hand focuses mainly on depth of expertise. This is more akin to “knowing a lot about a little”. While this may sound painfully obvious, the reality is that we’re bombarded with more and more information every day and attention and true understanding have quickly become the new currency of the workplace.

True Understanding Is Hard (But Rewarding)

Access to all of this information has come at a cost, and as a society we are now addicted to information. Basic knowledge is cheap and easily accessible. Today, anyone with a smartphone and a data plan has access to a sizeable portion of the knowledge we as a species have ever put down on paper or disk. Anyone with a internet connection and a spare 20 minutes can learn the broad strokes of almost any topic. In a general sense this is a good thing, but only insofar as we’re able to filter and prioritize which information is important.

The key to deep understanding lies in being able to do deep work, which is the ability to focus on a difficult task without distraction. Focused attention is a skill and, like any skill, learning it takes effort. Until we re-learn how to give our undivided attention to something, tuning out so much noise is difficult and can be quite frustrating. It can feel like we’re “missing out” on things, whether it’s learning about something else or connecting with our friends on social media. Many websites, apps, and social networks have entire teams built solely around figuring out how to capture more of your attention, making it harder than ever to focus on a single task for long periods of time.

As we learn to give our undivided attention to a task or project, these feelings of missing out begin to disappear. We’re able to solve problems we weren’t able to solve before. We’re able to take on projects that we previously thought were out of reach. Our value in the workplace increases. But the benefits extend past simply mastering external challenges: Deep understanding is inherently satisfying and promotes long-term happiness. And while the process to get to that point can be difficult and often painful, especially in today’s interconnected world, the reward is too great to ignore.


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