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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2018-10-10 09:31

Cathryn Barnard



Two summers back, before heading off on holiday, my daughter and I were on a last-minute dash around Tesco, picking up some groceries. En route...


Two summers back, before heading off on holiday, my daughter and I were on a last-minute dash around Tesco, picking up some groceries. En route, Erin snuck a learn-to-knit magazine into our basket, proudly announcing her intent to learn to knit. Not wishing to discourage, I took a deep breath (how much do these magazines cost?) and said magazine was acquired. 

As soon as we were settled in France, she unpacked the kit that came with the magazine and set about knitting a toy cat. Imagine my dismay when within the hour she came to me, needles in hand - she was stuck, and could I help? 

At the time, I’d recently read Mindset by Carol Dweck. Its core premise, backed up by research, is that how you approach learning significantly impacts both your ability to learn and your ability to succeed in life.  

Because of the book, I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t knit, in spite of the sinking feeling I got when I looked at the instructions. I wanted to be able to model the growth mindset Dweck says is so important to lifelong learning and development, and so the challenge to knit a cat was on. 

Bluntly, it was painful. My ’knitting’ was full of dropped stitches, unpicking and starting again; I made so many mistakes. But the kids were eagerly watching my progress and so I persisted. Bit by bit, the constituent pieces of Boobycat amassed. 

While the project was far more an effort to role-model a learning mindset than anything else, I can’t describe my sense of accomplishment when I finished. Boobycat (so-named because the final product was so hotchpotch, it would only ever win a booby prize), was, for me, a major achievement - I’d taken something I had no experience of and given it my best shot. While the results might not look aesthetically impressive, the ’feelgood’ that came from completing something complicated is hard to understate. 
I tell you this story because I think it’s relevant to the subject of lifelong learning. 

The future of work narrative is accompanied by a sub-narrative highlighting the need for mass re-skilling. As automation transforms the workplace, we humans will need to radically adapt and learn new skills so as to remain relevant. The pace of change before us is unprecedented, with many suggesting that life in the future will render us all perpetual newbies.  

Collins Dictionary describes lifelong learning as: 

"The provision or use of both formal and informal learning opportunities throughout people’s lives in order to foster the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfilment." 

I don’t consider lifelong learning necessarily as a set of ’learning opportunities’, rather than as an attitude towards learning that incorporates a growth mindset. This means having the belief that through commitment and focus, abilities can be developed and enhanced. 

Most of us have been on an uninspiring workplace training course. Most of us too can remember the boredom of school. Those who actually enjoy learning are probably in the minority; there’s something about the way learning has traditionally been delivered that sucks the joy out of it. 

And yet lifelong learning is about to become the new normal.  

But here’s the thing. We all have the potential to dig in and persevere, even when new stuff seems super complicated.  Learning obviously becomes much easier when we have an underlying interest, and whilst certain learning objectives in our emerging and future workplaces might be borne of necessity rather than desire, if we can assume a growth mindset, workplace learning will become much easier in the long run. 

One of the best ways to learn is by getting things wrong. We retain far more detail about our mistakes; remaining mindful of our errors helps us avoid making the same mistakes later on.  If I’d knitted Boobycat without having to unravel and restart bits that had gone wrong, I wouldn’t have learnt half as much.  And in effect, my most significant learning takeaway was that I can get to where I want to be with a bit of determination. 

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed explores how learning from failure can yield transformative results. 70% of learning comes from trying things out and we should acknowledge that aiming for "right first time" is both unrealistic and exhausting.    

Knowing that our work lives are about to become increasingly disrupted can feel acutely stressful. When we re-frame this however and embrace the notion that ’perpetual newbie’ brings with it a cascade of opportunity to learn new things and do things differently, then, in fact, the future of work can be seen as a transition away from the routine and mundane towards a new world of growth and personal development. 

Mindset will be all important in the future of work. Our ability to accept instability and continuous change and to embrace learning will determine our success. If I can do it with Boobycat, then so can anyone! 


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1.     Dweck, C. (2006).  Mindset - How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, New York: Random House 

2.     Syed, M. (2015). Black Box Thinking - Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance. London: John Murray (Publishers)

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