While working with culture, change, leaders, and organizations I notice our VUCA-world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The recent Corona pandemic has emphasized this even more.
Organizations are part of a global VUCA-system. If we want to improve anything, we need to see change at four levels: the global system, the organization or association of organizations, the group or team, and the individual level. Everything that happens in the world at large, matters to you and your organization. Let’s look at how future developments might affect professionals and organizations.
Here’s the first part of a reflection on historian Yuval Noah Harari’s work for individuals, professionals, leaders, consultants, teams, and organizations. This series is based on Harari’s books “21 lessons for the 21st century” and “Homo Deus, a brief history of the future”. What’s happening in the global system around organizations? What influences might there be for you and your team?
The new human agenda
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have pestered humanity for ages: famine, plague, war, and death. Until the last few decades. For the first time in history, fewer people die of infectious diseases than old age (even though we witness a pandemic right now). In 2050, we hope to have nanorobots or better vaccines to kill any germs and viruses, but the battle goes on…
Today, fewer people die of hunger than of obesity, and fewer people die by violence than by accidents. Wars are disappearing: the law of the jungle was broken in the second part of the 20th century. It’s no use to go to war: it’s no longer profitable. Today, the main source of wealth is knowledge. There’s no need to conquer land, physical resources, machines. Cyberwarfare is more likely – and that yields disruption but no longer the threat of total destruction.
We’ll still see famine, plagues, wars, and death – but no longer beyond the control or understanding of humanity.
Death is the only “issue” that science does not control to date. We live in a liberal, humanistic, science-based story that fosters freedom for individuals, ideas, money, and goods. We have the right to choose as voters, as consumers, and as designers of our own lives.
To our ancestors, this must sound like pure bliss. But the wiring of humans is not contentment after achievement. It’s craving more. Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health, and harmony, our next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness, and divinity – says Harari.
The right to life is humanity’s most fundamental value. Since death violates this, scientists are on a mission to solve death.
Before there was science, religions saw death as positive: giving meaning to life, and as a portal to the afterworld. However, since science didn’t find evidence for an afterworld, death is seen as the absolute end. This means that we must find meaning on earth, and stay alive as well and as long as possible to enjoy the earthly pleasures.
While people’s life expectations might be lengthened by science – we should prepare for a different life path: continuously reinventing yourself as you live longer.
- How well do you keep learning?
- Can societies and organizations reinvent themselves with the same leaders?
If the old leaders do not retire as “young” as they do now – will this hamper change? I often see that change is possible after the old leaders leave and new ways of thinking and doing become the habit. The transition is somehow easier with new leadership and new generations.
- How will this change the adaptability in organizations? How can we help humans become better at change and learning?
Epicurus stated that happiness is the purpose of life. That sounds easier said than done, though. Epicurus also warned: it’s hard work to be happy and the pursuit of happiness will make you unhappy. Buddha also warned that the pursuit of pleasure is the root cause of suffering. He recommended training your mind to see all your sensations as fleeting and trivial.
Our biochemistry is geared toward short-term pleasure, away from pain. That’s useful to survive and procreate, but not to live long and be happy. We’re wired to strive for the next level or thing – and we tend to look for pleasant sensations.
- How can you learn to be happy with what you have? How to count your blessings?
Research also shows that you need to live in the right area to be happy. You need effective government planning and infrastructure, economic resources, and scientific research to grant you the right level of prosperity.
Before our digital age began, states and governments had a vested interest in education and health care systems. The aim wasn’t to make people happy, but to make the nation stronger: schools were to produce skillful and obedient citizens to serve the nation as clerks, doctors, teachers, workers, and soldiers. You were needed in armies and factories…
This is no longer true to the same extent. We’re here for us, not for the state.
We find Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) more important than Gross Domestic Production (GDP).
But despite all our wealth, there’s more suicide in our modern societies. The average American uses 60 times more energy than the average hunter-gatherer but is not 60 times happier. Or, as Harari wonders, how do you bring joy to an overweight, bored, overpaid engineer?
Happiness needs more than wealth. We need meaning, fulfillment, achievements. Due to our wiring, we expect more once we’ve achieved a certain level of comfort. More people need a new kick every day – and our expectations keep rising.
Harari wonders if we can re-engineer sapiens to endure long-lasting pleasure? Other questions would be:
- How can we create a new story that values what we have, and teaches us to enjoy when things are “enough” and count our blessings?
- How can you find (more) meaning in your work, your calling? How can you infuse your team or organization with meaning and fulfillment?
- What’s your purpose and contribution to the world?
If we upgrade humans and merge with our tools – we could become more like Gods. Biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and engineering of non-organic beings are likely to be happening.
If that happens, a new story will begin; with even more control of ourselves and the environment. It starts small and seemingly trivial: Every day millions of people grant their smartphones a bit more control over their lives or try a new antidepressant drug. It doesn’t seem a big issue. But this process is likely to change the world beyond recognition in the 21st century.
Can you remember what life was like before the Internet existed? The next shift will be likewise…
Our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed. It leads to faster economic, political, and social changes – we learn more, and it all speeds up. No one knows how to make sense of the complex present.
In the last 300 years, the world was dominated by Humanism that sanctifies the life, happiness, and power of Homo Sapiens.
These same humanistic goals will cause its downfall as sapiens upgrades into superhumans – upgraded people with extra devices and skills built within. The new biotechnology might make ordinary sapiens irrelevant. Even if you think that that goes too far, what might be the implications for professionals and organizations?
- How is your organization using Artificial Intelligence and robotics?
- Do you need to upgrade your knowledge in these areas? What might the implications be?
- What would be the threats and opportunities for you as a professional, and for your team/organization?
The economic and ecological challenge
Last but not least, there’s one big issue that needs to be on the human agenda. The modern economy needs constant growth to survive – without a return on investment, people won’t lend money to others. Without loans, we cannot fund new technology, new ventures, new opportunities, and new research. However, this economic growth, based on science and industrialization, also disturbs the ecological balance. Climate change and the depletion of natural resources, and how to divide the benefits and burdens of our industrialized, digital world are issues that need to be solved fast – at a systemic, global level. They pose a threat to the new human agenda.
- How can you as a professional or organization contribute to solving the ecological challenges? How can you contribute as an individual? How can you collaborate with more others to make a difference?
- How can you add more meaning to your team while working on such a worthy, necessary issue?
I hope the reflection questions inspire you. Let’s not become discouraged or fearful. Let’s find a positive perspective, and activate resilience and creativity. Let’s think about these questions for the future, and see how you can prepare yourself and your team, organization, government, community, and other systems that you are part of.
Positive leadership means leading yourself and others toward a future where we can thrive in a culture of learning, positivity, connection, resilience, and creative solutions.
© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.
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