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Idea workers prevail; Questlove fraud; unavoidable hallucinations: Newsletter 12 June 2024

Newsletter 48. Knowledge workers are old hat; long live idea workers. Plus, audiobooks grow like mad, Texas court refuses to restore banned fart books, and proof that AI will never stop hallucinating. Also, three people to follow, three books to read, and a chance to register your experience as an author.

The ascendance of the idea worker

In 1966, Peter Drucker defined the concept of “knowledge workers,” that is, workers who accomplish their work by applying knowledge. Digital technologies have spread so far that nearly all of us are knowledge workers now.

Being a knowledge worker was once a ticket to a better, high-paying job. But now, digital skills are commonplace and everyone works with computers. There are countless potential knowledge workers available to work for lower pay overseas, and automation has reduced the need for human knowledge workers. AI threatens to replace even more.

So it’s no longer secure to be a knowledge worker. Instead, workers who want long and productive careers should focus on becoming idea workers.

What is an idea worker? Here’s my definition:

An idea worker is a worker whose job consists of continuous learning, conceiving ideas to solve problems, and contributing to the implementation of those ideas.

For example, an accountant who follows rules to approve accounts payable requests is a knowledge worker, but not an idea worker. But an accounting manager who observes the activities of the accounting department, considers where they could be improved or made more efficient, imagines how new trends or concepts could make the accounting department more useful, and helps implement those ideas is an idea worker.

Idea workers encompass a vast and varied collection of jobs. They include writers; graphic designers; product designers; architects; all sorts of engineers including software, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers; teachers; professors; analysts; managers of all sorts; and executives. Freelancers including writers, editors, public speakers, actors, and of course, “thought leaders,” are all idea workers. Perhaps the most elite of idea workers is the entrepreneur, because all they do all day long is to conceive new ideas, solve problems, adjust to changes in markets, and implement ideas over great resistance.

I’ve been an idea worker for my whole career. I believe it is the best career choice imaginable. Here are some positive qualities of a career as an idea worker:

  • Idea workers spend much of their days learning. They must be curious, avid, and critical collectors of knowledge and insight. Continuous learning makes work endlessly fascinating.
  • Idea workers have a path to advancement. If you accumulate useful knowledge at such a rate that you are more likely to know about anything important than others, that gives you an edge. If you generate useful ideas all day, managers will learn to appreciate that. If you take responsibility, not just for having ideas, but for helping to implement them, you will make a positive difference. All of these things will help you have more opportunities to advance in your work.
  • Idea workers have more options. The world is constantly shifting; there is no longer any such thing as job security. But idea workers learn so much, and are experienced in coming up with ideas, they have options. If you are a software engineer used to solving problems, you might shift to product design. If you are a journalist, you might switch to content marketing. If you are a corporate lawyer used to working with startups, you might become a venture capitalist. Idea workers currently in a company are also ideally situated to become entrepreneurs or freelancers.
  • Idea workers are less susceptible to being replaced by automation. Many jobs consist of understanding rules and applying them. Any such job is subject to replacement by automation. As AI gets better, “understanding rules and applying them” describes more and more jobs at risk from AI. But while AI is at arguably good at learning, it’s terrible at coming up with ideas and worse at understanding how to implement them. So AI will not replace idea workers. Instead, idea workers will harness AI to work better, faster, and more creatively.
  • Idea workers have longevity. Learning can go on until you become demented or die. Even when memory weakens and cognition slows, people who are adept at coming up with ideas continue to come up with ideas. In his 80s, my father, a former college professor and campus executive, was still learning about new things (he was fascinated by AI) and giving lectures about ideas. You don’t have to work forever, but if you enjoy your work as an idea worker, you can keep going a long, long time.

Idea work is not for everyone. If you don’t like change, you won’t be happy as an idea worker. If you are more comfortable doing what your managers tell you, exactly as they tell you, you’re not an idea worker.

But if you want to keep working happily and productively with excellent pay and for a long time, you should build a career as an idea worker. Because in the future, idea workers will become the most vibrant and ascendant class of workers in the economy.

News for writers and others who think

Audiobooks are sizzling hot. According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook revenue grew 9% in 2023, reaching $2 billion. Fully 38% of Americans consumed an audiobook in 2023, and among that group, the average consumer listened to 4.8 books. They didn’t all pay, either: 47% of audiobook listeners said they listened for free to a recording from YouTube or another file sharing site.

People who were buying signed copies of Questlove’s Hip-Hop is History, were duped; the publisher is recalling them because they were “not individually signed by the author.” Were they signed by a machine or a paid assistant? That’s not clear. (Publisher’s Lunch, subscriber link).

Book ban news: According to a federal appeals court ruling, “Government actors may not remove books from a public library with the intent to deprive patrons of access to ideas with which they disagree.” The ruling reversed a Texas book ban, return books to the shelves including They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings; Under the Moon: A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle. However, the ban did not restore several books of butt and fart jokes because they do not “express an ‘idea’ or ‘viewpoint’ in the sense required by the caselaw,” but “only juvenile, flatulent humor.”

Three Singaporean computer scientists published a paper proving that it’s impossible to create a large language model (AI-based chatbot) that does not hallucinate.

Three people to follow

Stephen Shapiro , expert on startup innovation with a new book out, Pivotal.

Katia Walsh, Ph.D. , chief digital officer of Harvard Business School and an emerging AI expert.

Bob Pearson, groundbreaking ex-Dell exec and customer experience expert.

Three books to read

Cheaper, Faster, Better: How We’ll Win the Climate War by Tom Steyer (Spiegel & Grau, 2024). A billionaire looks at creative ways to stop the planet from melting down.

Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide by Alex Reinhart (No Starch Press, 2015). How not to screw up the math in your science.

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods by Michael Wex (Harper Perennial, 2006). Why Jews talk like they do, with historical context.

What kind of author are you? Register your experience

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Now all I need is about 20 minutes of your time. Click here to tell us about your experience (by June 21).

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All your data are belong . . . well, let’s just say, I’d like you represented. All nonfiction authors and prospective authors quality. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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