Geography is Becoming Relevant Again

Lee’s Note: I wrote this in 2004, at a time when everything I’ve said here seemed to me to make sense. Now, however, with the benefit of a new understanding of peak oil and other resource depletion, catastrophic climate change, and the future difficulty of travel, it all seems hopelessly out of touch. I’m leaving it here, however, to remind myself (and you, if you care), how we can get lulled into a false assumption that what has happened in the past will continue to happen in the future. If you’re interested in my current thinking (and that of my bride), check out our companion site, LettheSunWork.

Technology is bringing us closer together, so close that it is fast ceasing to matter where we are on the planet. This has some profound implications. These implications will be terrifying if we are unprepared for them, exciting if we embrace them.

This is the text of a newsletter I sent out to family practitioners (therapists, financial planners, and CPA’s) in and around my home town of Birmingham. It’s my take on the future of professionalism.

How is the World Changing?

For decades, we’ve repeated the cliché that the world is shrinking. Not any more. In the age to come (let’s call it the Communication Age), the world isn’t merely shrinking; it’s becoming irrelevant. That is, as multi-media communication becomes cheap and ubiquitous, geography ceases to matter. Once we surmount the language barrier, we can communicate with a person in Moscow as easily as with a person on our own street.

So if geography doesn’t matter, what does? Let’s say I’m a carpenter struggling with bi-polar disorder that worsens during the winter months. Instead of asking my friends or my family doctor for a referral to a therapist they know in my town, I might search for one of the small number of people across the world who specialize in BPD (bipolar disorder) coupled with SAD (seasonal affective disorder). I might even find someone who specializes in dealing with these conditions among workers who do manual labor outdoors.

I needn’t limit my search to my home town. The person who can help me most may be in Boise, or Berlin. It doesn’t matter. Do you see where this leads us? Increasingly, the world will pay less attention to physical proximity, and more attention to specialized knowledge. Increasingly, success will come to those who stake out a knowledge niche, an area they know more about than anyone else in the world.

How Will Our Professions Change?

If the world is becoming more specialized, so will we. Those of us in our 50’s and up won’t be significantly affected by this. Those of us in our 40’s can probably get by. Those of us in our 20’s and 30’s will specialize – or we will cease to matter.

That sounds cruel, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be. Who among us hasn’t experienced the joy of developing specialized knowledge – and the joy of sharing it with others? It’s fun to be smart.

How Can We Make Money?

In the Communication Age, more and more of the “routine” data gathering we do in our professions will be done electronically. We who develop specialized knowledge will also develop systems that allow our clients to spend time at their leisure learning much of our general knowledge. Then they will contract with us for tiny portions of our time to answer the question they can’t answer elsewhere. The way I say this to my clients is “Use me only for what only I can do.”

This means we will have more clients, and it means we will deliver our services in tiny morsels rather than sessions that last for hours. Those who are successful will work aggressively to drive down the cost of using their systems and accessing their expertise.

How Can We Have Fun?

Does this sound dreary? It will to many of us, because we’re drawn to relationships where we connect with our clients, where trust blooms slowly and surely from hours of client contact. In the Communication Age, trust will bloom from specialized knowledge – and from systems that help us deliver superior value.

Successful professionals will indeed have fun in the Communication Age, because they will be solving people’s problems quickly and thoroughly. They will be delivering value more efficiently and effectively than we can dream of today. They will work day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, with clients who are grateful for their services and delighted to pay for them.

Successful professionals will have fun in the Communication Age because they will be learning constantly. They will have constant access to the data needed to keep their expertise sharp, organized by intelligent systems that will weed out unimportant details. These professionals will “live” electronically in virtual communities of other professionals who share their interests and who exchange observations with each other, constantly sharpening each other’s skills.

Successful professionals will have fun in the Communication Age because they will make fewer mistakes. Along with their refined expertise will come a precision that allows them to deal smoothly, accurately, and authoritatively with problems that vex others around them.

Successful professionals will have fun in the Communication Age because, together in community with others of like mind, they will make the world a more pleasant place, where ordinary people can afford to solve their problems and move on to full, rich lives. Because they are familiar with the tools of the Communication Age, these professionals will themselves enjoy the fruits of the knowledge of others in their own lives. They will not only use these tools to serve others, they will themselves be served by them.