Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Need-To-Know: Generation Flux, Start-Up of You, Technology Heartbreak

Need-To-Know is a monthly 99U column where we round up essential research, insights, and deep thoughts on idea execution and the future of the creative industries.

1. Generation Flux: Pioneers of the New (& Chaotic) Frontier of Business

Are you ready to disrupt… yourself? In a meaty new cover story, Fast Company editor Bob Safian profiles “Generation Flux,” a new breed of unsentimental, risk-taking, self-reinventing creative professionals who are comfortable living – and thriving – in chaos:

Despite recession, currency crises, and tremors of financial instability, the pace of disruption is roaring ahead. The frictionless spread of information and the expansion of personal, corporate, and global networks have plenty of room to run. And here’s the conundrum: When businesspeople search for the right forecast–the road map and model that will define the next era–no credible long-term picture emerges. There is one certainty, however. The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos.

To thrive in this climate requires a whole new approach, which we’ll outline in the pages that follow. Because some people will thrive. They are the members of Generation Flux. This is less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates–and even enjoys–recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it. This is no simple task. The vast bulk of our institutions–educational, corporate, political–are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

2. Groupthink: Why Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work

Proust Was A Neuroscientist author and 99U fave Jonah Lehrer debunks the efficacy of brainstorming in an excellent New Yorker article. (It’s subscription only, but you can check out key takeaways here.) According to Lehrer, while creativity continues to become an increasingly collaborative process, reams of research show that ideation is more effective when practiced alone:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated with positive feedback. Typically participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

The first empirical test of [BBDO's Alex] Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

3. The Secret of Life from Steve Jobs: Poke It

The RSS ether-waves have been flooded with excerpts, sound bytes, and video clips of the wisdom of Steve Jobs since his passing last October. Of them all, the post that struck me the most was this 1995 interview dug up by Brainpicking’s Maria Popova, in which Jobs describes one simple revelation that changed everything for him:

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

4. The Startup of You: Old Premises, New Realities

Entrepreneur and blogger Ben Casnocha co-authored a new book, The Start-Up of You, with Reid Hoffman that offers clear-eyed, career-building advice to the next generation of start-up entrepreneurs — and really anyone entering the professional world in the 21st century. Here are a few of the principles from a recent post on new career realities:

Old: Ready, Aim, Fire…Retire
New: Almost-Ready, Aim, Fire, Aim, Fire, Aim, Fire.
Classic career strategy is Ready, Aim, Fire. Ready is mental, introspective (e.g. pondering “what am I passionate about?”). Aim refers to crafting a long-term career plan. Fire means executing on the plan. Ready-aim-fire (and then retire) no longer works. You can’t plan your life or career like you used to. These days, the better approach is almost ready-aim-fire-aim-fire-aim-fire. Entrepreneurial career strategy involves learning while going, executing while planning, finishing while starting, aiming while firing. There are no clear start and finish points; no designated “ready” or “set” phase followed by a “go” phase. Still, despite the need for constant recalibration, you can be disciplined about how where you choose to direct your energies and how you choose to adapt to unpredictable changes.Old: Network Your Way to the Top
New: Build a Network of Allies and Looser Connections
Because loyalty is no longer flowing vertically from you to your employer and vice versa, direct your loyalty horizontally, as Dan Pink suggests, to your professional network–to friends, current and former colleagues, and allies who may work in different companies or industries. Those are the people with whom you want to maintain authentic lifelong connections even as you move from company to company. We’re all now cynical about “networking.” Yet, despite our cynicism about networking in a self-serving, “what can you do for my career” sense, online social networks are huge. And one’s professional network still matters more than almost anything else. Building a valuable network of allies and weak ties is a different project than classic networking.Old: Risk is Bad, Minimize Risk
New: Risk is Unavoidable; Proactively Take Intelligent Risk
Risk wasn’t a relevant concept in the days of the career escalator. The idea was to avoid risk, and avoid “high risk” career moves like freelancing. This is exactly opposite of how winners think today. Every opportunity contains downside risk. To effectively exploit opportunities, you have to be take on the right kind of risk, and manage it prudently. In so doing, you build resilience to the seismic industry and competitive changes that destroy professionals on a more brittle ”low risk” path. There is an entrepreneurial approach to intelligent risk taking, and you may be surprised at how different it is from the stereotyped bet-the-farm, throw caution to the wind approach that people tend to think of when they think of entrepreneurs.

5. Why Technology Makes Holes in Our Hearts

Via the ever-insightful Kevin Kelly, I stumbled on this thought-provoking rant from a disillusioned Gizmodo reporter delivered from the floor of this year’s CES technology buffet:

There is a hole in my heart dug deep by advertising and envy and a desire to see a thing that is new and different and beautiful. A place within me that is empty, and that I want to fill it up. The hole makes me think electronics can help. And of course, they can.They make the world easier and more enjoyable. They boost productivity and provide entertainment and information and sometimes even status. At least for a while. At least until they are obsolete. At least until they are garbage.Electronics are our talismans that ward off the spiritual vacuum of modernity; gilt in Gorilla Glass and cadmium. And in them we find entertainment in lieu of happiness, and exchanges in lieu of actual connections.

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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