As many of you know, I'm a futurist and write about the need for future thinking in my book and frequently talk about it in class. I like to ask participants what they're looking forward to, and part of this can do is change people's sense of what's possible. I like to help people believe that a dramatically different future is possible, for them as individuals, as well as globally. From overcoming optimism bias (thinking your risk is lower than that of others) to unsticking your mind about what can change, being able to imagine futures both positive and shadow (as Futurist Jane McGonigal likes to say), helps us be more mentally and emotionally flexible. It helps us be less surprised by what happens. And that helps us be better parents, teachers, friends, partners, advisors, and citizens of the world.
For example, I've heard financial advisors talk about how robo advisors (which could be not just an algorithm, but some form of social robot + algorithm) will never replace humans because they will never get the emotion part right and emotions are a primary component of decisions about money. Well, what would have to be true in a world where that assumption is incorrect and where there are robos who get the emotion part right? For starters, there would need to be technology that’s getting better and better at that, and that also closes the gap on the uncanny valley problem—the revulsion we have with a robot that’s almost like a human but still distinguishable, which results in a creepy, ick factor. Guess what? We’re on the way, and because we know that, we’re less likely to be shocked by the future or traumatized by the speed of change. We saw the future coming because we looked for it. We trained our minds to look for signals of what was already present, and where it might be going.
Furthermore, technology is being developed that will be able to produce the optics of what we would perceive as human emotions (whether those perceptions end up mapping correctly onto what the humans in question claim to be experiencing is a different question). It’s not soup yet or going to be perfected next year, but in 20 years it might. Anything can change, and thinking as if anything can change is the basis of all creativity and personal reinvention. To create something new, to make any kind of change, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different. You can’t take advantage of rapid disruption if you’re shocked and numb. We need flexible, open minds that are always on the lookout for how things are already changing and can see what’s already possible that most people don’t see. We need minds that are able to imagine the unimaginable. Mindfulness cultivates this openness—this flexibility.
Check out The Institute for the Future for all-things-training and education about the how of future-thinking as well as just how accurate The Institute has been when it comes to predicting the future. For example, Jane McGonigal's EVOKE simulation from 2010 involved 20,000 people behaving as if there was a respiratory virus originating in China, extreme weather and historic wildfires due to climate change, and social-media-driven misinformation campaigns. Included were working from home, mask-wearing, physical distancing, government-mandated quarantines, and a conspiracy theory with Citizen X (2020’s Q) at its center. Guess who was most prepared for the last two years?
Preparation for the Future Begins With Imagining It
We're less blindsided by the future, as McGonigal is fond of saying, when we've already thought about it. When it's already in our brain as a memory because we've pre-experienced it, we're in a state of preparedness rather than shock. There are many ways to prepare yourself for what might be coming, and one of them is to pay attention to the signals that are already present. Clues to what the future holds are all around you, right now. The future doesn't magically arrive, intact—it's being created right now.
Pre-Experience The Future For 5 Minutes
You're going to freewrite for five minutes. This means not worrying about grammar or punctuation. Your topic is waking up in your life, 10 years from now. Where are you? What do you see? How do you feel? What do you hear? Who is with you? What's the larger scenery around you? What are you thinking about?
This can be a positive 10 years from now or a shadow one, and you're going to get as granular as you can with experiencing it in your mind and body. Why would you want to do that with a shadow future? When you remember that the future is being created right now, maybe your shadow future will spark actions you can take or suggest others take, however small, that would either prepare them for that future or prevent it from becoming a reality.
When you think about your future, what resources should you acquire, what knowledge do you need? What do you need to know or do? Five minutes, according to research, is sufficient time to broaden the mind and overcome normalcy bias (which leads people to minimize warnings of threat) and optimism bias.
Whether your future was positive or shadow, what signals can you find, today, that illustrate that future might be on its way? What can you point to right now that's evidence of your future if that evidence continues on a certain trajectory?
What you just did is called episodic future thinking (EFT), and you can read about the parts of the neural networks that are being created and the parts of the brain engaged here.
Have a peaceful day.