Today I attended the first day of the Future of Work Conference by the newly launched The World Post – a collaboration between The Huffington Post and Berggruen Institute (not sure how to pronounce that) – in an effort to meet the demand for global media and journalism. I admit, I wasn’t aware of the incredible line-up of speakers involved (I woke up at 4am and realised I had no idea when or how I had to turn up to the conference and tried to sort out my route through painfully slow Wi-Fi and blurry eyes before heading straight back to sleep again). I managed to turn up to Lancaster House in time for the start of the conference however, although still somewhat bleary eyed. Considering I had no data on my phone and had to use the map outside Green Park station near a screaming woman giving out free drinks, I was pleased. Anyone who knows me will know that my geography is terrible and my sense of direction, even worse. Every time someone tells me to look right, I instinctively look left, and vice versa. It’s a real problem.
I arrived without too much sweat on my back to a lovely foyer filled with coffees and pastries and lots of men in suits. Even though I had already had breakfast, I grabbed some food against better judgement and rushed to the main room upstairs. The whole building was regal in design with paintings and lots of gold plated leafy-looking décor on the walls. Basically, it looked like the inside of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House and pretty much all the buildings at Cambridge Uni. It wasn’t really to my tastes (I prefer simple, abstract decor); nonetheless, it was nice to be in and set the scene for some serious talk on the disruptions we can expect in the future world of work. Funnily enough, while I was sipping away at my overly sweet coffee and trying to eat my pastry in the most civilised manner possible, the Editor of Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive, ended up sitting next to me. We talked about the delights of publishing and what a really small world it is.
After a quick introduction by Arianna Huffington (President & Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post for those of you living in a cave i.e. my sister), Nicholas Berggruen (Founder & President of the Berggruen Institute) and Nathan Gardels (Editor-in-Chief of The World Post), the real stuff started. The first, and by far my favourite talk of the day, was by Professor Andrew McAfee of MIT. He threw light upon the rise of technology and automation and how this is creating, and will continue to create and define, a new world of work. Although it felt a little bit like one of my econ lectures at uni, the content of what he said was really interesting. The good thing is that I didn’t fall asleep, the bad thing is that I can’t actually remember what he said or decipher my notes as I write this – although I know it was something to do with the increase in jobs/work hours over time yet a decrease in real wages. I wanted to hunt him down later to ask a few questions about the fact that technological advancement should surely mean that we spend less time at work instead of more? i.e. shouldn’t it be freeing up time for us to spend more time on leisure activities the way the washing machine etc. freed up time from domestic chores for us to do the things that we enjoyed? I also wanted to ask him about whether we had really exhausted all alternatives to capitalism as he used Churchill’s famous quote about democracy as an analogy (“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.”). I didn’t really agree but unfortunately I was unable to track him down, a) because my short-term memory is currently functioning like Dory’s from Nemo and I struggled to distinguish him amongst everyone in the foyer (even after I had brought up his profile on Google Images and started looking around the hall like a lost stalker), and b) because there were too many people about so it was easier to resign myself to tea and cakes and smiling at passer-bys.
The rest of the morning continued with talks about ensuring that the future is defined by opportunity (‘Boom not Doom’), although Phillip Jennings, General Secretary of UNI Global Union, was rather doomy and gloomy about it all. I actually appreciated his gloomy insights as I felt that they were rather on point and his comment about both work and education being available to all throughout one’s life was particularly pertinent. Mainly because I want this, but also because the idea that learning ends somewhere in our early twenties is something we need to move away from; we need to see learning as part of our everyday life and something that should especially be part of the opportunities provided to us by work/our employers. Other key ideas that emerged included the need to teach young people to be more entrepreneurial and essentially job creators; the need to de-stigmatise unemployment and the requirement for responsible business conduct between employers and employees to be put in place (in light of the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh). Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) also discussed the move towards engaging the workforce through defining a higher purpose in organisations and the benefits associated to this. Today, people want to be a part of something greater, to make an impact; it is no longer enough (not sure that it ever was frankly) to work your socks off so that shareholders of a company can earn higher dividends. Purpose in organisations and purposeful leadership needs to take into account of things greater (and I would add in relation to the self-actualisation of individuals) and move beyond monetary matters. This has a marked increase in engagement, productivity and the wellbeing of employees.
In-between these talks, mouthfuls of muffins, glass after glass of apple juice (I’m assuming this was fresh) and trying to make several phone calls in a quiet space, I ended up sitting in one of the empty fancy lunch rooms at the head of a long table. Every time I tried to make a call however, I was interrupted with interviewers in the process of interviewing Arianna Huffington in the same room. As all of my calls failed to go through, and in an attempt to conserve energy, I ended up sitting and listening to the interviews, and my gawd were they BORING. I won’t mention any names of the media outlets that were asking the questions to AH (because I work in Marketing and rely on PR i.e. THEM), but literally, I’ve seen peanuts with more spark. Considering AH had done nothing but refer to the importance of creativity all morning, it was quite amusing to see these interviews take place right in front of me with anything but. In the end I decided I had more interesting questions in the bag and should get some of Arianna’s insights for this blog, especially since I was planning to write something about the conference anyway. After talking to her Associate Editor and Calendar-handling guru and getting mild/apprehensive responses from them, I just decided to ask her for a quick 10-minute interview myself since she was sitting right in front of me. I’m sure this was a bit cheeky and I’m not sure how long people would normally have to wait to arrange an interview with her, but we bonded over our mutual Cambridge University Alumni-ness – although she attended Girton when it was female-only and essentially waaaay before I was even born. I may have also said this out loud. Oops. Fortunately for me I don’t have to worry too much about damage control as I am not the CEO of a company, unlike many on the guest list. Arianna said that she was happy to do so later during the day, so I was like, ‘see ya later’ and went off to get some more coffee and ended up talking to the waiters/waitresses for about 2 hours. They had equally fascinating backgrounds to most of the attendees and it was great to get an insight into how people sacrificed all sorts of things to pursue their dreams e.g. sticking to a mindless day-job so they could use the money to build the foundations for the entrepreneurial future that they envisioned for themselves.
All the talks kept running over (I’m assuming the organisers were all too polite to stop speakers when there time was up), so eventually when Arianna and I did manage to sit down for a quick chat at the end of the day, I had 5 minutes, and I mean LITERALLY 5 MINUTES, before she had to move on to the next thing on her tight schedule, which her Chief-of-Staff managed with a fine invisible whip. But just like a job interview when everything you need to know about the candidate takes place in the first few minutes or even seconds, 5 minutes turned out to be plentiful.
So the first question I asked her was about what motivated her. She started off by saying that “improving, innovating and making a difference through The Huffington Post and her books” were what motivated her. I interrupted her there; this seemed like something she’d churned out to every reporter. So I pressed her again about her motivations. She paused and said that she was motivated by the “journey to know yourself better” and of course “my children”. I preferred this answer. To know one self better – is a key ingredient to not only fulfilling your potential, but in being able to stick it out, to being resilient in the long-term, because what you do or devote yourself to in light of knowing yourself better, is more likely to work right? You’re more likely to know what turns you on and what makes you want to slam the door. If you apply yourself to your passions you’re likely to be happier, more satisfied and accomplished. Well that’s the theory and it’s what I’m hoping is the case; otherwise I may as well resign myself to a life of nihilism and black holes right now. The journey of self-discovery is naturally a unique one for every individual, and I suppose the assumption that this simply happens as you go through life was displaced for me at that moment in light of the pro-active pursuit of this as a motivator – something that I hadn’t really considered before – and probably helps to explain why Arianna has been so successful in her career. In Thrive, Arianna quotes Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It is easy to go through life and do things and be completely disengaged at the same time. But to continuously re-evaluate yourself, is to re-focus and put things into perspective, and essentially better yourself. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?
The next question on my list was: “Career wise – who has really opened your eyes or influenced your learning?” Arianna didn’t respond with a name here, but rather a piece of advice that we could all use. She said that careers are essentially “a dance between making it happen and letting it happen”. This for me was a beautiful way of framing the problem of continuously questioning and going back and forth in your mind about whether you’re doing the right thing, what you want out of your life/career, what your next move should be etc. etc. We all deal with it at some point, and her answer made me realise that we don’t have to put so much pressure on ourselves. Yes, we can take certain active steps towards the things we want to do, but at other times it is really about going with the flow and letting the universe do its thing. Arianna went on to elaborate further by saying that there were things in her life that she wanted to do and at other times opportunities presented themselves and she decided to take them up. Here she mentioned that very early on in her career she made a speech about the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and a publisher approached her, culminating in the bestselling The Female Woman. For me this is the crux of it really – there’s so much you can pro-actively do and then there are a number of things which just happen, sometimes due to being at the right place at the right time, other times because someone asks you a favour or simply because they just want you to be involved or seeking your advice.
The third question I wanted to ask her was for all you graduates out there who may feel like a slave to a wage right now or settling for something that you didn’t really think you would be doing at all whilst growing up. The question: What piece of advice would you give to new graduates when it comes to pursuing their dreams? Arianna gave a very apt response: careers “are not straight lines”. We need to get away from the idea that after we graduate we will immediately be able to go into something that we love or are passionate about. We should “try everything, try and feel and continue learning… explore.” I think this is a great way to look at things, but it does not really take into account the listlessness and impatience that plagues the millennial generation. We’ve grown up in an era of instant gratification and patience seems to be the one thing we don’t have the patience for. I guess at the early point of our careers it means we should try and master a bit of patience, and just keep trying things we like as we figure ourselves out, and take advantage of opportunities that come our way if they work for us. On reflection, I think I was just asking her questions for things I was seeking easy answers to, and she sort of helped to reaffirm what I subconsciously already knew, that things aren’t easy. You’ve got to work at it, and life is squiggly. Finally, I asked “Give me one word that describes you best?” She gave me two: “Endlessly curious.” We couldn’t have ended on a better note.