One of the most pressing issues facing business and society is how to adapt to the impact of technology on the economy. Many observers note that the introduction of automation and artificial intelligence is just the latest round of industrialization that began a couple centuries ago. Others speak more ominously of a future where a large segment of the workforce has been replaced by machines, resulting in a stagnant economy and permanent underclass.
Companies such as Accenture and Amazon have announced ambitious efforts to reskill and upskill their employees to prepare them for tech-based roles. Professional services firms are conducting research and analysis on how organizations should prepare for the coming disruption. And governments and nonprofits are exploring policies and programs to support the transition from a traditional economy to a digital one.
At the heart of much of the foreboding is the realization that making this shift will require people to embrace change and reinvention. This is a tall order: as humans, we crave order and stability. When faced with a leap into the unknown, our first response (and sometimes our second, third, and hundredth) is to resist this change.
You can’t blame us. When we’ve put so much time and energy into constructing a status quo, chucking it out the window can seem reckless, shortsighted, and counterproductive. Yet with change an inevitability, standing still isn’t a viable option either.
So how should we get more comfortable with the idea of reinvention and lifelong learning? Winter Olympic–gold medalist Apolo Ohno, who has visited our office to discuss these issues, offers an inspiring path forward.
When he retired from competition after the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver at age 28, Ohno did so as the most decorated US Winter Olympian of all time. But a decade and a half of pursuing the podium with a singular focus didn’t include a carefully crafted plan for what might follow. A victory lap of personal appearances and speaking engagements didn’t suggest a way forward.
And so, he found himself at a place many of us (myself included) have arrived: I can’t keep doing what I’m doing, but I don’t know how my experience and skills could be applied to other endeavors. A growing part of the workforce will face this crossroads, and possibly sooner than they think.
In the decade since retiring, Apolo took on that challenge the way he had approached sport—all in at 100 miles an hour.
A few lessons jumped out from our conversations that are applicable to anyone struggling with what’s next:
Take inventory of your strengths and assets
Ohno obviously had a head start thanks to his celebrity and the doors it initially opened. Yet as he found himself replaced by the latest newly minted Olympic champion, he had to reflect on the attributes that made him unique. His biracial background and ties to Japan offered business opportunities that enabled him to establish himself as an entrepreneur with an international network. These experiences began to suggest he could be a unique voice at the intersection of sport and business.
Act with intention
In a holdover from his competition days, Apolo brought a natural structure and discipline to his search. Every opportunity offered a chance to expand his horizons, and he was very purposeful about what he hoped to get out of it—whether taking on the Ironman Triathlon or meeting with people in his global network to facilitate business deals. This discipline extended to assessing successes and failures as well as cataloging what he could do better.
Remain open to new information
What separates Apolo from many other athletes is his authentic curiosity to learn and experiment without fear of failure. His interest in business led him to enroll in an eight-week executive education course at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Rather than viewing his lack of formal business training as a detriment, he recognized that learning from his professors and fellow participants, many of whom were on executive tracks at their respective companies, would position him to reach out to other corporate leaders.
Apolo Ohno started the past decade as an Olympic legend but began this one as someone who had reinvented himself as an expert in performance, reinvention, and adaptability. It’s a lesson anyone facing change in the digital age should take to heart.
For more on Apolo, visit his website, ApoloOhno.com.