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Are you holding on to obsolete knowledge?

London has a unique way of licensing its official ‘black cab’ taxi drivers. They have to pass the ‘Knowledge’ – a test that requires you to memorize every street and landmark in central London, so that you can navigate between any two points in the city entirely from memory. This might require several years of personal study before you are subjected to a strict oral test. The system has been going on for more than 150 years.

The intention behind the test was great: well-informed taxi drivers who can get you through London’s labyrinthine streets as quickly as possible. It forced would-be taxi drivers to style up and put in the work. Acquiring this knowledge, and a London taxi license, led to a good outcome for taxi drivers: a secure income in a controlled industry. Cabbies would show this knowledge off with pride, and would use it secure their families’ futures.

And what’s happening these days?

The Knowledge has been rendered obsolete, by something that’s freely available to anyone with a smartphone in their pocket. Google Maps is all you really need to know the best routes for getting somewhere. It even shows you all the expected traffic on your route in real time, and gives you step-by-step options for dodging jams.

Knowledge which used to take years of study to acquire is now a simple click on a cheap, universal device. This has caused upheaval in the taxi industry all over the world. Digital mapping led to the arrival of taxi-hailing mobile apps, which heralded a huge increase in the number of drivers and taxi services. It’s a revolution in convenience and pricing. It’s far, far easier and far more affordable for an ordinary person to use taxi services.

Across the pond in New York, the famed taxi medallion used to cost more than a million dollars to acquire. Because the number of licensed cabs was limited by law, getting hold of a medallion cost a tidy sum. Drivers would save up and get loans to buy the precious medallion. Now, medallions are exchanging hands for less than a fifth of their peak value. Many drivers are being bankrupted by the very loans they took to acquire the once-precious license.

Those cabbies are not alone. Many of us are holding onto knowledge we think is valuable, which we wear with pride, which took us many years and much money to acquire, and upon which we have built our futures. In many cases, I fear that knowledge will be rendered obsolete in the years to come.

I write it often: if you are still talking about your degree or your university decades later, we can only imagine nothing much has been happening for you since.

Knowledge is not a stagnating pond; it is an ever-shifting stream. Don’t be suckered into thinking of it as a one-time investment. That great teacher you had back then; the hours you put in; those great lessons you learnt; the doors that your qualifications opened for you; please leave all that behind. All you got was the opportunity to keep moving. Education is a not a cushion you sit on; it’s a launchpad that gives you a possible trajectory in your future.

The world keeps changing. New norms replace old ones; new technologies disrupt existing ones. Don’t be trapped in prisons created by your own mind and your misguided belief in pieces of paper from the past. Why did London’s cabbies need to memorize streets back in the 19th century? Because there was no other option available! Now that personalized mapping is universal, those rigours are not an advantage. In fact they become a disadvantage, because they make you resist the new ways militantly; and they cause you to underinvest in knowledge that actually matters for your future.

In the not-too-distant future, the taxi driver himself will be obsolete. The end-game of electric and autonomous vehicles is a driverless future. Then, even the ability to drive a vehicle will be superfluous.

How many obsolete forms of knowledge are you hanging grimly onto? Does your customer still need them; will the world of the future value them; is your past investment merely a sunk cost now?

The trick is to keep moving, keep adapting, keep watching the signs. Don’t be a sitting target for disruption. Be curious and inquisitive; stop harking back to better times and days of yore. Keep the windows of your mind open to the winds of change; keep investing in yourself: new skills, new tools, new ways of doing things.

(Sunday Nation, 6 May 2018)

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