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Thomas Friedman: How to make your way in a flat, fast world

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New OrleansMDRT’s annual meeting started strong Monday morning with New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman. Friedman, perhaps best known for his book “The World Is Flat,” spoke to the thousands of attendees about a series of dramatic shifts that are currently taking place worldwide. 

“The world is not only flat, but it’s getting so fast that we all need to pause and figure out exactly where we are,” Friedman told the thousands of attendees from the main stage. The world is being “fundamentally reshaped right before our eyes.” 

Friedman noted that as a columnist for The New York Times, he needs a framework to understand the world. And back in 2004, he came up with an idea that he thought would serve him for the rest of his career: the world is flat. The basic argument is based on three giant forces that came together around the year 2000:

1. The personal computer: allowed individuals to create their own content (words, data, photos, music, video, etc.) 

2. Workflow software: allowed people to share their content with others 

3. The Internet: allowed people to collaborate with anyone in the world

The combination of these three elements aligned to create an unprecedented global platform where more people compete, connect and collaborate than ever before.

And for a while, Friedman said, his concept held true. 

But around 2011, Friedman said he “started to get the feeling something was changing. My framework wasn’t quite capturing it.” Friedman realized that just seven years before, when he wrote his book declaring that everyone was connected, “Facebook didn’t exist; Twitter was still a sound; the Cloud was still in the sky; 4G was a parking place; LinkedIn was a prison; an application was what you sent to college; Big Data was a rap star; and Skype was a typographical error. All of that changed in just seven years.”

Friedman began to reshape his idea when he read a book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee called “The Second Machine Age.” During the first machine age, Friedman noted, humans were needed to direct machines. But the book’s authors believe we are now in the second machine age, driven by Moore’s Law, which says the speed and power of microchips will double every 24 months. Noting that we just reached the 50th anniversary of this concept, Friedman explained that doubling a number every two years eventually leads to some really high numbers.


To illustrate, he told the story of a man who invented chess and then gave the game to a king. The king loved it so much, he promised to reward the man by giving him whatever he wanted. The inventor said, “Your Highness, I just want to feed my family. Please take a kernel of rice and put it on the first square of this chessboard I made for you. Then put two on the second, four on the next, eight on the next and so on. My family will be fine.” The king agreed, but didn’t realize that if you double something 63 times, the number you get is 18 quintillion — more rice than existed in the whole world. 

Friedman said that when it comes to computing and Moore’s law, we just entered the second half of the chessboard, “where you start to see some really funky stuff. At this point, you start to see computers that can beat any human in chess or Jeopardy and self-driving cars.” Computers are no longer simply a tool that we apply, they are instruments that learn along with us and can increasingly supplant us, Friedman said. 

“We’re at the beginning of an incredible change and it’s happening all over the place,” Friedman said. While attending a conference in Europe last year, Freidman heard someone declare that Garry Kasparov, the great Russian chess master, was the last human chess champion. “I think we’re on the cusp of seeing the last human a lot of things,” Friedman warned. 

Big implications

The huge leaps taking place create both opportunities and hurdles, according to Friedman. On one hand, “it’s a great time for makers,” he said, citing huge technological advances in farming, software and other industries. But it’s also a great time for “breakers” such as ISIS, which recruits using Facebook and Twitter, and terrorists like those in the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, who filmed themselves with GoPro and immediately posted the footage online to recruit others to their cause. 

The world is also becoming a noisier place, he noted, as every citizen now has a smartphone that serves as both a portable MRI into others’ lives and a megaphone that reaches the entire world. “We’ve moved from a representative democracy to a popular democracy,” Friedman said. “Average is over for every country” and a world of order is becoming a world of disorder. 

Your world

On a more personal level, Friedman noted that technological advances mean average is also over for every worker. “Every boss has cheaper, better access to above average automation, software and cheap labor,” he said. “Every job requires more skill, knowledge and constant learning, as more people can compete for it. Every job is being made obsolete faster than ever.” 

And Friedman was quick to point out that he’s not immune. He noted that his predecessor at The New York Times, James Reston, “basically had seven competitors. And he personally knew all seven. When I come to that same office every morning, I ask myself ‘I wonder what my 70 million competitors are going to write today?’ I have 70 million competitors, and so do you. So what do we do?”

How do we deal with it? 

To adapt to this new world, Friedman said we must ask ourselves the following question: 

How do I bring something unique and valuable to this job to ensure it won’t be outsourced, automated or digitized? 

“We are experiencing the biggest change since Guttenberg invented the printing press. But the energy unleashed from his invention took 200 years to play out; this is playing out in 20 years and we’re going to have to evolve and adapt so much faster,” Friedman warned. 

A recent Oxford study found that 47 percent of current jobs will be made obsolete by automation and digitization by mid-century, Friedman said. “So every one of us has to define our unique extra, our unique value add and its particular human dimension.” 

Friedman left attendees with five pieces of advice that he shares with his own daughters: 

1. Always think like a new immigrant:

  • There’s no legacy spot waiting for me

  • Find and pursue new opportunities with more energy and vigor than anyone else

  • Be a paranoid optimist – think it could be taken away at any second

2. Always think like an artisan:

  • Make every item individually, no matter how small or mundane

  • The best artisans brought so much unique value add to what they produced that they carved their initials into it.

  • Whatever job you are doing, bring so much to it that you want to carve your initials into it at the end of the day

3. Always think like a starter-upper in Silicon Valley

  • There’s only one four-letter word: finished

  • “If you ever think of yourself as a finished product, you are going to be finished” 

  • Always think of yourself as being in Beta

  • Continually learn, retool and reengineer

4. PQ + CQ is > IQ

  • Someone with a high passion quotient (PQ) and a high curiosity quotient (CQ) is better off than someone with a high IQ 

  • 10 years ago, we talked about the “digital divide.” Today, that’s nearly gone. Now, the biggest divide is one of motivation. When everyone is on equal ground, what differentiates us is will, drive, aspiration, and motivation

5. Always think like a waitress at Perkins in Minneapolis, Minnesota

  • While writing his most recent book and eating breakfast, a waitress gave Friedman extra fruit. He gave her a 50 percent tip because “that waitress didn’t’ control much, but she controlled the fruit ladle and that was her value added. In her world, she was thinking like an entrepreneur.”

  • Whether you’re a columnist, bartender, or maintenance person, always think entrepreneurially.

See also:

A gathering of top producers gets a new look: MDRT’s Caroline Banks tells all

Here’s how robots might impact 20 jobs in the (near) future

3 traits of qualified entrepreneurs


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