Upon graduating from university, I felt obliged to read renowned sociologist Anthony Giddens’ book — The Third Way — as it had just been published, and he was a lecturer at my alma mater. The book talked about greater egalitarianism by distributing skills and capacities rather than income.
I liked that it tried to reconcile ‘left’ (socialist) philosophies with ‘right’ (capitalist) politics by synthesising economic platforms with social policies. It wasn’t an either/or position, but a sort of ‘middle ground’ postulation of a new way of thinking about society and politics. Supporters of the theory included Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of Britain, who incorporated aspects of it into his New Labour manifesto.
However, the thing about middle grounds is that there are always critics at either end of the spectrum. Everyone from capitalists to anarchists objected to this way of thought, and both Blair and Giddens were accused of being ‘sell-outs’. With my fresh graduate’s optimism, I wondered why people were so incensed at the mere postulation (Giddens) and experimental application (Blair) of a new idea.
Why couldn’t there be Third, Fourth, even Fifth ‘ways’ of doing things? Wasn’t that admirable?
Whilst nothing has exacerbated the proliferation of new thinking and ‘ways’ more than the COVID-19 pandemic, new and adaptive thinking should be the norm, not the novelty. The current and rapid turn of world events not only makes this a necessity to survive, but agile, adaptable thought is also an identified core skill for the future and an essential soft skill to thrive in the long term.
However, to enable agile and adaptive thinking, we must first develop metacognition.
Metacognition is an awareness of your default mindset, and the ability to critically assess the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess understanding and performance. It is essentially ‘thinking about thinking’ and being so aware of thought processes that we can alter and adapt them for different situations to problem solve. Only by being aware can we meaningfully adapt our actions for the survival and betterment of ourselves and those around us.
One example is switching between types of thinking like linear or lateral. For instance, if you know you rely a lot on logic and ‘evidence’ (linear thinking) but are not getting anywhere in solving a problem, you might choose to switch to less process-driven, but more creative thoughts (lateral thinking).
Another example is, if you know you are a visual learner and are bad at remembering people’s names — you might decide to write the names down in advance of encountering them the next time – so that by actively visualising the written names, you remember better.
Metacognition is essentially ‘thinking about thinking’ and being so aware of thought processes that we can alter and adapt them for different situations to problem solve.
Metacognition differs from a growth mindset, as the latter focuses more on effort and learning from mistakes. However, it can operate hand-in-hand with a growth mindset, or be a precursor, empowering us to break out of ‘comfort zone’ thought patterns and reap the maximum benefits of a growth mindset.
This is important for the current zeitgeist because whilst people often refer to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current endemic phase as a period of ‘unprecedented change’ – in reality, almost every stage of human history has exemplified this.
From the building of civilisations to the eruption of wars, the permutations of industrial revolutions and the proliferation of natural disasters, and even other pandemics in times past — humans have always had to quickly ‘adapt or die’ in a bid to survive.
The thing which is different now is the catalysed pace. Technology will account for more changes in the next 10 years than the past 100, and we need to match that speed if we are not only to survive but thrive. If we want to ‘pivot’ and act quickly—we also have to think quickly, and metacognition can help us unlock the key skills of mental agility and continual adaptability necessary for a resilient future.
Twentieth-century scholar and philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Those who speak different languages would easily attest to this, and nowadays, ‘reframing’ has become a popular technique to problem-solve as by expressing a problem with different ‘frames’ of parameters, this can stimulate and create a different perspective and solution.
However, I have found that the simplest of linguistic tweaks can be as powerful and effective. For instance, I once read that successful people think in terms of ‘and’, not ‘or’. Upon trying it, I was surprised to find myself subconsciously optimising and engineering my circumstances to incorporate more ‘and’ activities into my life, instead of the more limiting ‘or’.
As an example — due to my job and circumstances at the time, my default thinking was ‘I can be hands-on raising children or enjoy my job’. However, when I altered this to ‘I can be hands-on raising children and enjoy my job’— I then set about finding a new job that was more conducive (timewise) to both activities. This helped me overcome the ‘tyranny’ of my default binary thinking and belief that I had to keep to the job I academically and professionally trained for or be a stay-at-home parent.
Another example could be ‘I can learn to play the piano or the violin’ versus ‘I can learn to play the piano and the violin’. As learning instruments is time-consuming, the default thinking might be needing to choose between the two — however, if I think in terms of ‘and’, I am then more predisposed to altering my behaviour and setting aside time to practice both.
‘And’ thinking can help overcome the limiting pitfalls of binary thought, empower the accomplishment of things previously thought impossible, and unlock the potential for better application of growth mindset principles. These things can be tremendously beneficial for us to thrive not just personally, but also in the workplace.
‘Reframing’ has become a popular technique to problem-solve as by expressing a problem with different ‘frames’ of parameters, this can stimulate and create a different perspective and solution.
Recently, there has been an overwhelming focus on redesigning the work environment for a resilient and more inclusive post-pandemic future. This doesn’t just mean providing options for hybrid working, but also leveraging the honing of skills rather than business functions.
Given an estimated 25 percent of the global workforce are shifting occupations and 100 million in Asia are transiting jobs — both upskilling and reskilling are proving essential focuses to future-proof both employees and organisations. It is also being propounded that the future of work belongs to generalists over specialists as this maximises employee versatility.
Whilst this might appear to make ‘traditional’ qualifications (whereby we are trained in a discipline and therefore need to pursue a consequent career) seem outmoded or irrelevant — there is a ‘third way’ to think about this, using the power of ‘and’.
Perhaps a ‘middle ground’ approach could be to identify employee transferable skills whilst fostering an environment that encourages their agile and adaptable application. Employees could then fulfill multiple roles, and be the multifunctional workplace equivalent of a Swiss knife.
‘And’ thinking can help overcome the limiting pitfalls of binary thought, empower the accomplishment of things previously thought impossible, and unlock the potential for better application of growth mindset principles.
For instance, someone with a degree in accountancy could also be very good at research given the attention to detail that the former demands. They do not have to be hired for an open accountancy ‘or’ research position — it can be ‘and’.
People in IT, legal, or finance could have overlapping ‘and’ roles in compliance, perhaps heading varying components. A human resources person often performs multi-functionally in any case — with various skills ranging from accounting to counselling to hiring.
In this way, specialists could also be generalists and vice versa, with the more pertinent overall ‘skill’ being adaptability. This is aligned with a ‘re-architecting of work’ talent approach, which maximises combinations of human skills and strengths. It has been identified as one that can help maneuver an organisation from merely surviving to thriving.
This, in itself might require a mindset shift as “surviving” views disruptions as short-term crises to be addressed with the expectation that the organisation will revert to “business as usual” once over. “Thriving”, however, reimagines new norms and possibilities, recognising that disruption is continuous.
A 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report found that the organisations “very prepared” for the COVID-19 pandemic were the ones that were three times more ready to leverage worker adaptability and mobility to navigate disruptions.
As such, if both employer and employee are agreeable to eking out the best of diverse backgrounds, thinking, and skill-sets — with clear terms and boundaries as to which skills to employ when suiting various ‘Swiss-knife’ roles — both parties can stand to gain by future-proofing individual employability as well as organisational resilience.
There is no doubt that as the world debates the future of work, resilience, surviving and thriving — our agility and adaptability in not just action, but thought, are important. Whilst shifting mindsets and constantly adapting and being aware of thought processes can be tiring and challenging, this is arguably countered by the benefits it brings in unlocking opportunities and new ways of problem-solving.
Over time, as using the tools of metacognition and language become second nature, not only can they enable us to keep pace with current rates of change, they can also be the reason we thrive (especially given metacognition has also been proven to enhance overall wellbeing).
As Michelle Obama reminds us in her book ‘Becoming’ — it is a mystery as to why we ever saw ourselves in functional and static positions of jobs or careers as we are always constantly evolving and “becoming” as human beings. With a skills-based future on the horizon to re-affirm this, we now all have the carte blanche to constantly think and experiment in new and adaptable Third, Fourth, and even Fifth ‘ways’ of doing things.
And even then — why stop there?