Skills for the 21st century

By Santiago Hunt

Cover image by Jason Allen/MidJourney

With the advent of Dall-E, Stable Diffusion, MidJourney et al, I’ve found myself wondering about the future. I was one of the many who used to think that “creative” tasks would be the toughest for specific-purpose AI to replace. However, the last years have led me to modify this view. Which has made me ask myself: What are the professional skills that will be useful for my children (and perhaps their children) in the 21st century?

When I was choosing what degree to study in college, Industrial Engineering was “the” mainstream thing. Industrial engineers where so (allegedly) versatile that they could do anything. Nobody I asked recommended I study Computer Science or something in that line. CS would have been the far better choice, at least from a job perspective outlook. But this was the late 90s, so although Internet was around, for many it was still a pipe dream. In the end, I didn’t follow either path, but chose Business Economics instead.

What’s the point of this story? Predicting the future of work is hard. It was hard back then, and it’s likely even harder now. Nevertheless, it’s a good exercise. It forces us to use our imagination and challenge our preexisting notions of how the world works. Pushes us to embrace uncertainty. Makes us think.

The following is a list of what I believe are the top 12 professional skills to navigate the coming years/decades, ranked in no particular order. I am limiting this list to “skills” and excluding “traits”. People with courage, kindness, empathy, flexibility and a long etc. will always add value. But I consider these human traits, not skills, and as such are out of the scope of this exercise.

1) Noise to signal filtering

Definition: The power to separate value adding information from value neutral/negative information.

Why will it be relevant?  “There is no information overload. There is only filter failure.” (Howard Lindzon).

Pairs well with: Effective indexing

Can you spot the signal within the noise?

2) Community gardening

Definition:  The talent to nurture and nudge a community, facilitating its growth and helping it blossom.

Why will it be relevant? In a world packed with multiple tidal forces, those who are able to build and foster communities will stand out. Like an oasis in the middle of the desert, a community with meaning and cohesion will attract people. Be it IRL or virtual, people will strive to find places which grant them a sense of belonging and shelter them from an informationally overloaded world..

3) Memetic crafting

Definition:  The ability to stitch together powerful memes with organic replicability.

Why will it be relevant? “Who controls the memes, controls the Universe” (Elon Musk)

Pairs well with: Bardic Storytelling.

Gotta catch ’em all

4) Effective indexing

Definition:  The ability to efficiently index valuable data, fertile informational nuggets, and deep insights.

Why will it be relevant? This is partially about “How to effectively navigate YouTube/Google/Stack Overflow without falling into a rabbithole”. But it is also more profound. With more information at our disposal, it will be more challenging to index and access it. Particularly when it is information not traditionally structured.

Pairs well with: Noise to signal filtering; Data alchemy.

5) Data alchemy

Definition: To merge, distill and transform data into different constructs.

Why will it be relevant?  As data becomes increasingly abundant to the point where it overwhelms us, data alchemists will stand out. Data alchemy is not only about ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) or data wrangling/engineering. It also includes an “art” aspect. A talent to pinpoint and zero in on those informational transformations which will be of most value.

Pairs well with: Effective Indexing.

6) Human care

Definition: The talent to provide medical/human support to the elderly/ill.

Why will it be relevant? Lifespan extension will likely exceed healthspan extension. This means a greater need for wellbeing across all ages, but especially (though not only) for an aging demographic.

Pairs well with: Empathic touch

7) Math exploration

Definition: The capability to explore the frontiers of math

Why will it be relevant? Understanding biology requires deep chemistry knowledge. Deep chemistry requires deep physics. Deep physics requires…math. Deep math. Be it for space travel, cryptography, life sciences or AI, we will need to go deeper and farther than ever before, and those who are at the frontier of math will profit from this.

8) Bardic storytelling

Definition: To become an extraordinary oral communicator.

Why will it be relevant?  For millennia, human culture was transmitted orally. Only in the last few centuries we have resorted to sharing ideas via written form. With the advent of the Internet, content creation seems to once again have bounced back to its oral roots. Good communication skills have always been and will be useful, and more so if we shift back to being an oral-centric culture.

Pairs well with: Memetic crafting; Empathic Touch.

Human culture is mostly an oral culture

9) Machine polyglotism

Definition: To be able to speak many languages and not only in the traditional sense. In a world where machines will have an even bigger role than today, being able to speak multiple machine dialects will be a competitive advantage.

Why will it be relevant?  This might mean things like designing APIs, teaching inputs to AIs or just being skillful with gadgets and robotics. Who knows what shape it will end up taking – but it will definitely be useful.

10) Discoverer of the unknown

Definition: The ability to answer, but even more importantly, to identify “unknown unknowns”.

Why will it be relevant?  As data availability and abundance blossom, the value of those who are able to solve “known unknowns” is reduced. After all, you’re typically one google search/YouTube tutorial away from the answer. Conversely, those who can seek out and identify the “unknown unknowns” grow in value.

11) Echochamber escapism

Definition: To be able to break free from echochambers and navigate different contexts while incorporating diverse points of view.

Why will it be relevant?  This one is probably evident. Algorithms that are trained to maximize engagement have no interest in showing you diverse points of view.

So obvious yet so hard to escape (Source: NYT)

12) Empathic touch

Definition: In a world which will likely be more “intermediated” (robots, systems, AI, etc.), those who can remind us of our human origins will thrive.

Why will it be relevant?  I hesitated about including this as a “skill”. I believe it is more of a human trait. But although empathy might be the core underlying trait, finding ways to manifest this in a way others can feel it in an increasingly digital world will become a skill on its own.

Pairs well with: All other skills above, but particularly Bardic Storytelling and Human Care.


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