As one of the ultimate social expressions of the Industrial Age, people have been conditioned to define their entire identities by a single job or profession that they have occupied for the majority of their adult lives. This “gears and cogs” indicator of personal worth and status is so engrained in the public psyche that it has become common practice when being introduced to someone for the first time to ask them, “What do you do for a living?” That question is usually answered with a sweeping characterization: “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’ve had a 40-year career in talent management for a mega-corporation.” Or maybe you have labored for years under the title of “domestic engineer” – easily the hardest and most underpaid job in existence. Regardless of anyone’s chosen line of work, we were taught to equate an individual’s profession with their identity as a person – the pinnacle of a siloed and mechanistic landscape. However, the emerging Age of Opportunity is radically reinventing the long-held notion that success is defined by arranging our lives into the neat and tiny boxes of work, family, or education. In an age of increasing complexity and ambiguity, linear thinking and simple strategies will no longer work. Our highly interconnected world has created an environment where learning and acting from multiple perspectives has become a critical skill for success across every domain.
Put another way, we must now learn how to think and act in “simultaneous multiples.”
The idea of simultaneous multiples can best be described as our collective need to learn a new way of perceiving that has the potential to launch humanity forward at light-speed toward those “grand solutions” that are desperately needed at this juncture in history. The concept itself is certainly not new, but our world of exponential complexity and accelerating change is causing us to reach a critical mass in terms of our need to approach business, governance, education, and social architecture from a perspective that goes well beyond crunching data or searching for simple patterns that are derived from outdated industrial age mental models. Beyond the traditional concepts that have been established over the past century, we are being beckoned to move toward a more holistic, integrated and inclusive way of framing reality.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman has become popular in recent years for a way of thinking that he has coined as “possibilianism.” In this mental construct, we are encouraged to actively explore new and unique possible pathways and to hold multiple positions at one time. Eagleman has noted that such a way of thinking is conducive to greater creativity and representative of the intellectual humility that is necessary in an environment of ever-expanding complexity.
Likewise, moving away from linear thinking to simultaneous multiples means embracing diverse future narratives, world views, alternatives, and possibilities, intentionally letting them reside and collide within the same mind at the same time without a dominant bias for or against certain ideas. In a sense, simultaneous multiples takes us far beyond a holistic way of thinking, encouraging the active pursuit of complexity as a means to pattern development and global resilience. Open-ended possibilities no longer exist as a mental map to avoid, but rather they allow us to create solutions to problems that have confounded us – and to those that do not yet exist as well.
In Part 2 of this series – Mechanical to Organic – it was stated that “the future is ultimately about people,” and this principle is magnified through the shift from singular expressions of identity to a world in which occupying multiple expressions of self, multiple purposes throughout one’s lifetime, and multiple pathways into the future has become a commonplace experience. The sign posts that point to the rise of simultaneous multiples are many:
- In New Delhi, India, youth at a homeless shelter have begun opening two Facebook accounts – one representing who they are today and the other personifying who they aspire to become in the future. They create fake personas in order to connect with people across the globe who mirror the identity they are seeking, thus allowing them to escape the barriers of their small communities and dream of bigger opportunities.
- In noting that humans do not discern the difference between the physical and digital worlds, Dr. Jim Blascovich has stated, “Humans have the capacity to take themselves somewhere other than where they are physically… as a species we’ve constantly developed new technologies to help us do (this) better… Today, there are many parallel digital worlds.
- Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson rejects the notion of tech/life balance and “digital dualism,” comparing that idea to the Cartesian philosophers who believed that the mind was separate from the body. This concept grants equality to the multiple avatars and personas that we create across the many social and technological platforms being created every year.
- Just as Cloud Computing enables the real-time storage, exchange and delivery of data and applications from any device, so likewise emerging trends and patterns suggest the rise of a “People Cloud” where work is shared, collaboration across the globe is instantaneous and “cloud” employees work for multiple enterprises on a variety of projects simultaneously.
- As radical life extension increasingly becomes a focus of health and wellness and lifespans increase, people will be given the ability to pursue multiple purposes rather than one lifelong profession. Already, individuals between the ages of 18-38 years old now hold 15-20 jobs over the course of their lives.
How do we embrace this shift from linear to multiples if we do not count ourselves among the “digital natives,” or even if we simply find ourselves steeped in a world of planning based on the dogmatic, the industrial, the known commodity, and the “sure-thing?” One place to start is by investigating what might be called “transdisciplinary” and “post-disciplinary” models of business, education, and cultural development. Transdisciplinarity is the formation of new concepts and capabilities through the intertwining of two or more previously established disciplines. In our complex and connected world, compartmentalized ideas will no longer serve us; we need to create transformational concepts through the joining of various fields and models. This weaving gives birth to new ideas that extend far beyond the collaboration of distinct disciplines, creating brand new “spaces-in-between.” Going deeper, post-disciplinarity offers us a landscape where disciplines give way to creative destruction, allowing for the freedom to explore new ideas and solutions without the constraints of our overwhelming assumptions and biases. In both models, creating space for the unknown to surface is key to developing long-term viability and success.
The flexible, decentralized and often undefined nature of thinking and acting in simultaneous multiples may seem like a daunting task to many of today’s business leaders and social innovators, and it is certainly a disruptive force to the traditional models that were best suited to a previous age. Nonetheless, the rising complexity that characterizes the Age of Opportunity is driving this new way of operating, and success in this emerging era demands that we trade in the “one” for the “many.”