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Robots, Poetry, and the Future of Work

There is a great renaissance just ahead for poetry. Here’s why.

A close friend of mine is a technology whiz. I mean more precisely, an MIT–educated engineering whiz. His past work in designing and creating software systems has been amazing. And yet, these days he is all about learning people and leadership skills.

He has delved into the so-called soft skills of emotional intelligence, relationship building, ethical influence, and human collaboration. His reasons for taking his work, career, and life in these new directions are complex and multifaceted, yet his story is helpful in understanding the personal and societal choices we all face. And especially the choices younger people face just starting out.

In our country, we are currently hell-bent for leather to train young people in what is often referred to as STEM education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.

Is this a bad idea? Absolutely not! We need talented and passionate practitioners in all these areas. And yet, there are cruel ironies lurking just around the corner.

It turns out that artificial intelligence (AI for short) is off the charts good at performing any repetitive task. And the tasks performed by AI are growing ever more complex by the day. Some estimates say that as many as 38% of all USA jobs will be replaced by software in the next decade or so.

And not just entry-level jobs, but highly technical and skilled jobs as well, across the entire spectrum of work. That will include many jobs and professions thought to be immune from software dislocation. And yes, even STEM work is at risk!

Depressed yet, team human? Wait. Here comes some good news. If we do this right, which first means equitably sharing the wealth and productivity gains, this could be a great catalyst for claiming more of our own freedom. For taking over our own animating narratives, becoming more human and thriving in the process.

In fact, we have no choice but to turn with more passion, gusto, and focus toward the work and skills that are uniquely human. These are the precise capacities and skills we need in order to customize and recreate freshly and creatively the critical human interactions and situations we encounter everyday in our work and personal lives.

These include the human skills and capacities of connection, creativity, collaboration, leadership, artfulness, ethics, caring, trust, understanding, empathy and most of all building and maintaining community and relationships. Wonderfully, none of these skills and capacities are susceptible to displacement by robots and software.

Now here is where poetry comes in. And by poetry, I mean language that has gotten lucky, living inside well-chosen poems presented in very particular ways. Poetry hitched up to (teaching, demonstrating, and reinforcing) every human skill and capacity mentioned above. Great poems presented with defined protocols that enhance their meaning, impact, and practical support.

For example, take these few lines by poet T. S. Eliot:

Not known, because not looked for 
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

OK, a quick question. Did you feel that last jolting line in your body, signifying yes, that’s the way it is with masterful, fully engaged conditions of complete simplicity? While I’m asking, where else in your own life could you use some complete simplicity?

I once used these few lines with a mixed group of leaders and team members in a large planning session dealing with a very thorny issue that had huge stakes for all in the room. We used these words to ask what the group was not seeing and not hearing from each other and the situation being discussed? We talked about what an elegant and “simple” solution might look like.

The poem allowed group members to explore hard subjects without becoming polarized or defensive. Eventually, there was a breakthrough solution that emerged generating a whole new level of excitement, passion and ultimately success.

Or there was another group I worked with that responded to these wonderfully provocative words by the German poet Rilke (translation Robert Bly). It shifted their entire thinking and perspective and in that new context, the question they struggled with seemed less thorny and more solvable. They realized their goals in past years had been too modest.

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Both groups were working hard and the hard work they were doing was uniquely human, the kind of work that is beyond the scope of software. And I’ve not even mentioned the hundreds of students and audience members I’ve encountered working with poetry over the years. So many have remarked how a particular poem, or few lines in a poem, brought back an idea or feeling that gave them pause, joy, and healing. Plus always a new understanding of their life.

One student I encountered in a course I taught a few years ago commented after a class that poetry often provides the experience she had always wanted from religion. That gives just a whiff of how powerful poetry can be.

In closing, let’s scan the last 200 years of our work (and by association) personal lives. We see that the industrial revolution replaced human muscle functions with the first round of machines. Next, the AI software revolution is increasingly replacing more and more complex cognitive and dexterity functions with different machines. What is left for humans, are the skills and capacities of the heart.

This is why I am on my own hell-bent for leather project to bring the right poetry presented in the right ways to people, groups and communities in both our work and personal lives. We must now have a revolution of the heart. Luckily, we have all the tools needed for building the skills and capacities required for this revolution. It is called poetry, meaning just the right poem at just the right time.

Of course, there are other forms of literature and art we can call on as well in this effort. However, given the compactness of great poetry, its images, metaphors, narratives, sounds, and more, it is the perfect tool for our times and this revolution.

So yes, study STEM, by all means, but let us never abandon poetry, art, literature, and the humanities in general. These are the domains that make us most human. These are the domains that separate people from machines. Also, let us never forget that all change and transformation begins in language. And poetry is language at its best most powerful and transformative.

Finally, if you ever begin to feel these days we are living through are just too turbulent, too crazy, too confronting, just remember these lines from the great poet, Mary Oliver:

Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation / Where, as the times implore our true involvement, / The blades of every crisis point the way. / I would it were not so, but so it is. / Who ever made music of a mild day?

Now, don’t wait. Find some poetry that you love and that moves and engages your heart. Or write some poetry of your own. Then go out and make that music that Mary Oliver is imploring each of us to make. Let me know how you do… (or if you need any support?)

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

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