A team of Swiss researchers led by Danielle Mersch painstakingly monitored individually tagged carpenter ants in six colonies over 41 days and discovered something remarkable. They already knew that ants specialised in specific tasks like cleaning, nursing and foraging, but they discovered that 40% of the ants follow a predictable career path as they age. Younger ants start out as carers before levelling up to cleaners and then graduating as foragers. Foragers remain in their role until death, which makes sense because they are older, wiser and more street smart when facing the dangers of foraging. This research teaches us new lessons about these ancient creatures, who have survived on the planet for much longer than us, so perhaps we can learn from them. For this week’s Thursday Thought, I want to emphasise how ants reinvent as their experience changes, evolving as they age and how our mindsets should too after all our bodies do.
This research about role specialisation made me think of stem cells. Stem cells start out as unspecialised embryonic cells and develop into different cells as needed by the organism. During the development of a foetus, embryonic stem cells differentiate into increasingly specialised cell types. The environment signals what stem cells should become, and what they should specialise in. (I am simplifying here)
Our bodies are composed of 100 trillion (1 trillion = 1,000 times one billion) cells working in unison (these figures vary depending on whether you include the gut microbiome, but my point is the figure is massive). Our bodily cells regenerate and renew at varying rates. For example, we shed almost 40,000 skin cells every hour and it only takes a mere month for us to have a whole brand new skin. Cells continually die and renew simultaneously and stem cells play an important regenerative role in our permanent renewal.
To be considered a stem cell, a cell must have two characteristics:
1. the ability to self renew
2. the capacity to differentiate into more specialized cells as required (known as potency).
Now that sounds like preferential characteristics that I would like my friends, family and workforce to develop in a world of flux.
Adapting as the environment change is natural for us, like our bodies, change regularly, and so do our careers, sometimes it happens but we don’t even notice. Take engineering for example. If you are an engineer born in the 1940s or 1950s, you studied vacuum tubes. Shortly after college, you needed to learn about transistors, a technology with nothing in common with vacuum tubes. Then you levelled up to integrated circuits and later moved to the world of computer programming. Then all of this moved to the cloud. You evolved with the times and a changing digital environment. That’s a lot of change in one career, that is a lot of new learning in one career and that demands a stem cell mindset, a learnability mindset, and a willingness and acceptance to change.
Our bodies regenerate every seven years, so do our careers, so do our relationships, and so does our planet. Yet, many of us still resist change. When we resist, we linger in stasis and we start to rot. When we cling to the past, we create a mental whiplash and we straitjacket our potential. Movement, reinvention, and evolution are the only way forward. Our cells live in the present, they are constantly adapting and renewing as needed. We must adopt the same mindset and embrace change or it will consume us like rust consumes metal.
(Inspired by Crab Curves, a chapter from my book Undisruptable – A Mindset Of Permanent Reinvention)
Thanks for Reading
Speaking of Change, get a load of Damon Centola, he is the world expert in the new science of networks. His ground-breaking research across areas as disparate as voting, health, technology and finance has highlighted powerful and highly effective new ways to ensure lasting change.
This is a fascinating episode that debunks many myths of change.