Changing the Approach to Work with the Advent of AI Tools
“You do not want to compete, you want to be a market of one.”
“Spend your time doing only what you can uniquely do.”—Naval Ravikant
I sense uneasiness permeating the knowledge worker community with regard to job security.
Perhaps it’s just me. But I don’t think so.
This is a deeper concern than simply worries about a softer economic environment coupled with a regression to the mean (in terms of hiring levels and valuations) of technology-based businesses.
The Potential Impact of AI on Knowledge Work
Those of us working in digital roles (i.e. not making / delivering physical items or providing a lot of direct consumer value through human interaction) are wondering about the impact of AI on our livelihoods.
Will I have a job in three or five years? Will there be further pressure to reduce salaries in the interim?
We have learned recently that things that happen on the margins (e.g. some supply chain disruptions around oil or food availability) can be massively disruptive.
After all, computing (even when highly CPU and energy intensive) is a lot cheaper than a human—computers don’t have families to feed, houses to pay for, vacations to take, and goods to buy.
For context, while I am not a total ‘fanboy’ of all new technologies, I am thankful for how technology has materially improved the standards of living for people across the world. Thus, I am generally supportive of technology advancement. I believe the positives will outweigh the negatives, over time. For starters, AI tools will increase the quality and speed of output for most of us, particularly in areas which are not our strengths or where we are still learning.
Nonetheless, the current incarnation of AI-tools which are readily accessible to consumers (ChatGPT uptake among users is the fastest in history of any software product released for mass consumption) feels like a public notice of a big coming change to the world of work.
I have been wondering for some months now….how should I change my behavior (in the workplace) to account for continued advancement in AI and what would I recommend to others in knowledge work.
This came to me earlier this week while walking my dogs:
‘Do Things That Don’t Scale.’
Isn’t Scalability the Core of Business?
Doing things that don’t scale sounds counterintuitive. A basic principle of business is to make processes and systems as efficient as possible allowing the organization to lower prices for customers (increasing consumer surplus) and increase value capture for the owners / shareholders.
The scalability advice has even permeated the ‘creator economy’ (one of the major investing themes of the last half decade in venture capital.) I have read about and talked with others about ‘productizing’ ourselves—doing the work once and selling it a potentially infinite number of times (e.g. paid newsletters/podcasts, paid classes etc.) Ironically enough, given my lead-in quotes, this concept of productizing oneself is a recommendation from Naval Ravikant.
Where Scalability Still Matters
From the perspective of the individual (each of us in our personal lives) here are two use cases where scalability still matters and should be pursued.
- Investing Our Capital: When we invest our capital for retirement or future large purchases, it makes sense to find the most efficient options for our risk appetite. Take advantage of software-enhanced tools such as Betterment, Wealthfront or Ellevest.
- Using Our Capital to Outsource Tasks Related to Consumption: When we use our capital to outsource tasks we could do (e.g. cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, ironing clothes etc.) but are not the highest use of our time, we should still seek out efficiency. Without taking advantage of the small business owners providing the service. But as many of these tasks are largely commoditized, we should over-index towards efficiency while still paying some premium for trust, quality and personal relationships.
Doing Things That Don’t Scale by Leveraging Our Unique Strengths
Each of us is unique—both uniquely talented and uniquely flawed.
In an era where large-scale AI will raise the bar of ‘the average performance’ and automate the basic contributions of humans (spreadsheets, writing, design, coding etc.), the scarcity value of our unique mix of skills becomes even more valuable.
Activities We Can Focus on that Don’t Scale As Easily
I have no idea what technology (software and robots) will be able to do in the future. Future use cases will likely include things I have never considered. With that caveat, here are some ideas of things that don’t seem to scale well. These are things that knowledge workers should seek to add to their value proposition.
- Combine a mix of seemingly unrelated skills. The most in-demand people are those who combine two historically unrelated skills. Such as creativity (designing, branding or writing) combined with numeracy (data analysis on what appears to be working and providing a return on investment.) Spend time brainstorming on how you can do that. Even if the immediate demands for those skills appear limited.
In the world of work, I believe it is better to compete in a smaller marketplace where you are a more differentiated resource.
- Explore new frontiers. AI today is skilled at taking the vast canon of human knowledge, finding patterns that repeat, and using those patterns to create content in response to queries. Thus any new frontier or lightly studied areas will be poorly served by AI. Exploring new frontiers requires some level of expertise. But can also be uncovered by asking ‘what if..?’ or ‘what can’t we do it this way?’ questions.
Put another way, dedicate time each day to simply thinking. And imaging a potentially different and better future.
- Integrate the digital with the physical. This means leaning into people interactions, leadership skill development, and management opportunities. Empathy will gain further in importance. Being able to motivate and teach people in a manner that suits their individual learning styles and personal drivers will differentiate those who are just ok from those who excel.
Don’t Be Afraid to Give Away Your Formula
It might seem tempting to guard our knowledge and charge for access. However, the best practitioners (in the realm of knowledge work) are willing to give away their formula. Or at least some short-form version of it. Here is what Matt Mochary, whom many consider one of the most successful Executive Coaches in Silicon Valley has made available publicly.
By sharing your thoughts you establish credibility.
I also believe that we actually have an excess of ‘good ideas’. The scarcity value is earned through putting in the hard work and executing well against these ideas.
If more people know about your skills there will be more demand for your time. And then you can choose where you want to focus attention and monetize the scarcity value of your unique skills.
The magic lies in taking the formula and customizing it for each situation.
I wish all of us, and particularly my children and all those just entering the workforce, good fortune in adjusting to the new world of work with AI playing a central role.