succeed in digital age

In the first part of this essay series, “A Brief History of the Cool Thing to Do,” we explored how humans have alternated between humanism and empiricism as the guiding principles of work and life. This essay explores what we know about the skills people will need to succeed in a world increasingly dominated by “brilliant machines.”


Humans are underrated

In his new book, called “Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will,” Geoff Colvin, senior editor of Fortune Magazine, observes that automation and robotics are going to take over most transactional and manufacturing jobs in the not too distant future. And, he is not only talking about store clerks or steelworkers.

Consider this: Computers are already doing a better job in the discovery phase of lawsuits than lawyers do. And the stock markets of today are the playground of super fast computers, not the bumbling individual investors of yesteryear. All those traders you saw gesturing and hollering their bids on the floor of the exchanges? They are gone forever. Your portfolio may be determined and managed entirely by computers, no humans need apply. And, we are not very far from the day when the all-knowing IBM supercomputer, Watson, makes the diagnosis of whatever used to take you to the doctor?

As Colvin sees it, in an interview with Dan Schwabel of Forbes, “at an increasing rate, employers are replacing workers with technology in new ways, some of them quite surprising….Technology is moving into fields it previously couldn’t handle, including highly intellectual and highly physical jobs.”

And here is the most illuminating statement:

“The most endangered jobs are those that don’t involve any deep, substantive interaction with people”.


How to succeed in the digital age

So what would his advice for today’s “graduate” be?

“They can and must become champions at the skills of human interaction – empathy above all, social sensitivity, collaboration, storytelling, solving problems together, building relationships. And then they must be sure that their work demands these skills. The reason is that we’re hardwired by 100,000 years of evolution to value deep interaction with other humans (and not with computers). Those wants won’t be changing anytime soon”.



What Colvin is talking about is what Daniel Goleman called Emotional or Social Intelligence, and what psychologists call empathy. In other words, it is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes). Dr. Margaret Cary addressed this problem in the context of medicine in her articles Is Your Doctor Emotionally Intelligent? and 12 Steps to Emotionally Intelligent Healthcare.

Can you learn empathy? The answer is yes, but not via a course or lecture. You learn it by experiencing it. How do you do that? There is actually an old fashioned way that is well grounded in neurobiological science: Read fiction! Surprised? Dismissive? Read on.


Your brain on fiction

As reported in, a 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers. Researchers compared the brains of people who read after they read fiction to the brains of people who didn’t read. The brains of the readers (they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii: A Novel over a nine-day period at night) showed more activity in certain areas of the brain than those who didn’t.

Specifically, researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory region, which helps the brain visualize movement.

When you visualize yourself scoring a touchdown while playing football, you can actually somewhat feel yourself in the action. A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book; you can take on the emotions they are feeling.

A PLoS ONE study delved into the mechanism of increased empathy related to reading fiction. They specifically looked at the extent the readers were ‘transported’ by the story (quantified by self-reporting on a scale of 1-5), or specifically, the degree to which they identified with the protagonist. What they found was that self-reported empathic skills significantly increased over the course of one week for readers of a fictional story by fiction authors Arthur Conan Doyle or José Saramago.

These are the first empirical studies showing, under realistic conditions, that empathic skills are related to fiction reading. Although previous studies have pointed towards these effects, the investigators show that reading engaging stories relates to how people sympathize with others, are able to take multiple perspectives, and feel for unfortunate others. An increase of empathy is important for people because empathy is positively related to creativity, performance at work, and prosocial and cooperative behaviors.


The jobs of the future

All this is not to say that kids should not learn coding and other computer skills. The jobs of the future are going to demand both skills, technological as well as social. We are moving from an economy of “knowledge workers” to an economy of “relationship workers”.

So do yourself a favor. Pick up a good book, curl up under a warm blanket, maybe with a nice glass of wine, and get transported. It will do you, and possibly your career, lots of good.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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