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How to Prepare for the Coming AI World

Article previously published: Grant Thornton Alumni Portal

girl learning on computer
Nervous about AI? Learn how to learn faster.

“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists,”

Eric Hoffer

social philosopher, author and

recipient of the 1983 Presidential Medal of Freedom

It’s safe to say that this distinction has never been truer than in our disruptive culture. And with a career skillset already proven easy for Artificial Intelligence, it's a concern for me. I consider myself a lifelong learner...but what I learned below had me wondering whether I was doing enough.

The Currency of Today’s Marketplace

I was introduced to the concept of learnability and its importance to the future by Grant Thornton alum Jeff Kavanaugh, now VP and Executive Editor at Infosys Knowledge Institute and author of Consulting Essentials (1). He defines learnability (which earned a full third of the book's volume) as “the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set, in order to stay relevant and succeed. It can also be viewed as the capacity to consistently learn at an accelerated pace.”

“[It’s] the single greatest asset a person can have, he adds. “It enables every other skill, and it allows people to reshape their careers and their lives…Being able to learn is essential to adapt and succeed.”

He’s not alone in his belief. While Lazlo Bock was Senior VP of People Operations at Google, he said that “The number one thing we look for is general cognitive ability and it’s not IQ. It’s learning ability.”

Unless you’ve been living under that proverbial rock, you’ve likely heard stories about AI taking over your job. Rather than obsess over that possibility, improving your learnability is the best action you can take to get ready for all the changes coming your way.

And changes are coming. According to Apostolos Belokas, Managing Editor of Safety4Sea (2), “Up to 65% of the jobs Generation Z will perform in the future don’t even exist yet and up to 45% of the activities people are paid to perform today could be automated using current technology."

He continues, "Certainly, it’s not just technology that’s changing the world but also global economy and changes in demography and longevity; experts predict that by 2020 there will be more people over 65 years old than under age 15 in the world’s developed countries. Family structure, the globalization of talent, and continued innovation in technology subsequently affect the social trends in general.”

Barriers to Improved Learnability

What if you’re not naturally a rapid learner? Are you just out of luck?

Right out of the box, Kavanaugh puts his finger on the pulse of the biggest obstacle to learnability:

“Too many people hide behind the false notion that some individuals are born smart and others are not. Often people develop these beliefs when they are children, so they find it hard to let them go, but in practice, they are a way for people to avoid confronting their own limitations and asking themselves how they might learn more quickly and effectively. Anyone can increase their learnability.”

The first obstacle, then, is fear. And that fear impacts the mindsets Kavanaugh says are required for rapid learning, including:

  • Having a desire to learn more quickly

  • Granting yourself permission to fail when experimenting

  • Adopting a beginner’s mindset (and releasing its enemy: perfectionism)

  • Intellectual curiosity

  • Persistence

  • Confidence

  • Humility (“Unless you’re prepared to admit what you don’t know, how can you learn?”)

  • Understanding the “exponential, limitless qualities of the mind” (a phrase he borrows from motivational speaker and author Earl Nightingale)

  • An attitude of grateful service

Wondering how gratitude makes you a better learner?

Kavanaugh writes, “When we stop feeling that people owe us anything and instead appreciate what we have and what we can offer to others, our power to create change increases radically. We start to find meaning in the journey, instead of simply craving the destination or looking for shortcuts.”

Since I became a serious gratitude journaler almost a year ago, I absolutely agree with this truth about creating change in our lives.

You can see why Kavanaugh believes anyone can improve their learning skills. While these mindsets aren’t always easy to achieve, they level the playing ground away from the tipped scales we believe background or innate intelligence to be. Many of Kavanaugh’s mindsets mirror those that enabled us to learn so rapidly as children. Belokas calls it the “hungry” mind.

Another tendency we have is to accept what we consider to be age-related declines in memory and learning as inevitable. Because age can, in fact, play a factor in cognitive function, it’s all the more important to work on learnability. The brain’s plasticity works in your favor (4) so use it or lose it, as they say.

3 Strategies for Improving Your Learnability

1. Unlearning

Belokas believes a key component of learnability is unlearning, as he illustrates below.

Unlearning is another aspect that may challenge aging brains because we humans tend to get set in our ways. We can resist the very idea of tossing out what we “know.” Refer back to Kavanaugh’s list of learnability mindsets and remember that the beginner’s mindset and humility are vital to this process.

2. Break it down

In his article, Try these 5 steps for learning new skills faster, Sean Kim draws from Tim Ferriss’s DiSSS framework for quick learning (Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes) to show how the big picture and the “parts” can be learned together:

“By breaking your goal down into its component parts, you can actually speed up your learning time. Why? Because many complex skills–from playing a musical instrument to learning a language–are just bundles of smaller sub-skills. By deconstructing the larger skill into all its component parts, you’ll not only be able to chip away at each one piece by piece, you’ll also be able to understand how they all relate."

I'm currently learning how to play the ukelele (my strategy for outsmarting Alzheimers, if not preempting AI). It's my first stringed instrument to play, so every song I learn is an exercise in breaking it down into sections. My goal: Learn 60 songs in one year. The sub-skills? Learning how to quickly form a four-finger F# to a three-finger G four times in a row without breaking a sweat.

Kim’s 5 steps:

  • Set a goal

  • Break it down

  • Think of all the reasons you might give up (I love this one!)

  • Focus on the 20% (where 80% gets done)

  • Focus on one sub-skill at a time

While Kavanaugh, Belokas, Ferriss and Kim use different models, you’ll recognize some themes they have in common, including the critical mindset component. Thinking about all the reasons you might give up before you even start disrupts the natural resistance that will occur whenever you try to achieve something new and allows you to put a plan in place for managing it.

3. Intentionality is Key

Belokas says that improving your learnability requires “deliberately exposing yourself to demanding situations.”

Kavanaugh advises us to treat every scenario as a learning opportunity. But he’s not just talking about the valuable but less useful (in today’s world) “slow steady pace of continuous learning. Going forward,” he writes, “people need to supplement this [style of learning] with periodic, focused bursts as new opportunities and challenges arise.”

That means looking beyond a casual “what lessons can I learn from this situation?” or “what tidbits of knowledge can I pick up from this conversation?” attitude. It’s discerning critical areas you don’t know about and asking “how fast can I learn to speak the language I need to be effective in this conversation or setting?”

This isn’t the tortoise’s world anymore, and slow and steady will no longer win the race.

In order to increase your learning ability, you’ll need to challenge yourself: Set a goal to learn as much as you can about a topic you don’t know well in a specified period of time. Determine your method and strategy, then dedicate that time to “speed learning.”

According to Kavanaugh, it’s not the subject matter that matters here. The foundation you build by improving your speed of learning allows you to then learn exponentially in ways you can’t even imagine, increasing the value that you will be able to offer in the future.



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