I have a friend, Isaiah, who wanted to be a history teacher, he got a degree in history. He became a welder because teaching history didn’t pay enough. There is deep irony in this story, a tension between building the future and knowing the past, and the value our culture put on both.
The only way we know the future is through the past.
Meta Future – The Future of Futures.
I’ve been reading heaps of books about future of technology and culture – how we collectivity approach thinking about the future (listed at end of article). In a mind bending turn I’ve also started thinking about how people will think about the present time in the future. (E.g. Imagine what people in the year 2217 will think and know about the year 2017. You can start by thinking about what you know of the year 1817.)
While thinkers and authors approach the future in different way I see common themes emerging – patterns in how we think about the future regardless of what we think the future holds.
By exploring patterns in our thinking we can change our approach to the future and I hope make a better tomorrow.
5 Future Thinking Themes
These are common ideas I see across all conversations currently happening about the future: (Currently being the last 60 years or so.)
- Our guesses about the future will be wrong.
- Change will happen quicker than we think.
- The speed of change is increasing (The next 150 years will change more than the last).
- Our guess at the future is a reflection of what we find important now
- We are in an important turning point in history, humans are globally connected and augmented by machines, and we have access to more knowledge than ever.
Everyone Reaches Knowing They Can Not Grasp
The authors I’ve read know all these things and still go on to speculate about the various future of their industries. They make informed guesses about what the next 10 years, 20, 50, 200 and 2000 years will look like. I wonder why these smart people who know they will likely be wrong in some regard, still go on guessing.
Creative leaders, future thinkers, and ambition entrepreneurs make guesses about the future because it can bring enormous value to people and companies. They can get ahead of the curve on what they are making. Additionally it can bring deep knowledge about the current state and give people a way to navigate a sea of decision as they try build their own future.
Why Predict the Future
1. Collective Self Awareness.
We want to better understand ourselves. Self awareness is one of the most powerful individual traits people can develop. It allows us to see our strengths and weaknesses and allows us to learn and improve. Self awareness allows us to create goals that are grounded in reality then work against the present.
Thinking about future gives us awareness of what we think now and allows us to know if we are headed in the direction we want to go.
2. Positive Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Many well meaning and meaningless fluff filled business missions will quote Peter Drucker in saying, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” By speaking to the future we start the process of a self fulfilling prophecy.
Elon Musk (in an article about the future I have to mention Elon Musk because he’s basically Tony Stark and he seems to be a nitro booster button on how we actually get to the future everyone talks about…)
Elon Musk embodies the self fulfilled prophecy. Elon Musk shared an idea for the hyperloop in 2012(1). In turn multiple projects and companies emerged to work on the idea outside of any company Musk ran. Then, in 2017, Musk put out a hyperloop competition through spaceX and the winning company produced a pod that traveled 200mph and stopped again on hyperloop tube that was only 1 mile long
The future spoken of became the future realized.
When we speak of the future in detail with thought and passion we can influence the direction the future goes. Whether speaking of cyber weapons, machine learning, personalized drugs, the lose of screens, machines in the zillons or art, speaking of these things in detail we influence our collective direction.
3. Refining Problem Selection
When we look at the future we make a decision about the problems we think are important. In the book Deus Homo: A Brief History of Tomorrow, author Yuval Noah Harari, is aware of specifically how the future we look at reflects what we find important now. What makes Hararis work stand out (among 100 other things) is that he challenges whether the topics we look at now are really the most important. Then Harari pushes us to work on harder challenges; like ending sickness, hunger, and war. For example while tech moguls, like Peter Thiel may attempt to live forever the byproduct of Thiels efforts will hopefully be better medical technology for all.
In 4017 the United States of America may be something else. Maybe in 4017 America becomes Western Hemisphere Alliance (maybe it’s called Alianza del Hemisferio Occidental).
The problems we work on to get to the future are likely not about delivering Amazon products via drone. But, the drone technology Amazon creates will help move us toward solving bigger problems.
4. It’s Fun and Human
Predicting the future is fun. Even when the stakes are high thinking on the future can be an enjoyable and creative process. It’s intriguing to see if we can predict how we will fall and push forward. To see if we can guess what we will hit along the way and to find what may be more important than we intended. Even research for nuclear weapons ended up having positive results for studying the universe and producing power.
Humans have an amazing ability to imagine. It’s a skill we gain as children but can enjoy for a lifetime.
The Next Big Shift
When I was in Rome last year, I read a story about how many Roman emperors visited the tomb of Alexander the Great. I read about how Augustus was so overwhelmed that he broke Alexander’s mummy’s nose while laying a wreath on him (who knows if this happened).
What struck me was leaders in Roman 2000 years before our time were visiting leaders from 350 years before their own time. People in our ancient history had their own ancient history. And at some point in the future the time I’m in now will be 350 years old. (mind blown)
As humans we have more access to look at the past than ever before, the is result we can not look forward further than ever. Many companies, investors and makers now are looking not just to solve problems but how to make the next leap forward.
Odds are that the next big things will be a happy accident that comes out of some great effort. It will be birthed out of the work of many people (even if one person gets all the credit.) We will then move on again looking for what’s next. Human ambition will push us forward. The future will need new futures.
The Future For Tomorrow
As a leader of a product, a company or community you can use these ideas to create the future you want tomorrow. We can apply the wisdom from the past to grounded action today.
You can use these ideas to make tomorrow better by:
- Intentionally selecting problems you think are important to solve. Bring priority and weight to the challenges being worked on. Connect small tasks to the larger future vision.
- Speak the future so others will build it. Speaking of what may seem impossible as already made. Exploring what a future would look like.
- Creating self awareness of where you are in your abilities and allowing people to work in the context of an almost unrealistic future.
- Have fun, we are all human.
I don’t want to know what the year 2217 will look like, I want to know how our view of 2217 will shape what we build tomorrow. I want to know where thinking about the future falls short in myself and culture so we can push forward in a better way. I want to know how I can think on the future to make the future better.
If we don’t do anything the future will still come, but I’d rather be intentional to both surf the wave of the future and direct it.
- Hyper Loop white paper
- Hyper loop winner: Instagram & Tech Crunch
- Alexander History of Alexander the Great
- Deus Homo
- The Industries of the Future
- The Inevitable
- The Second Machine Age
- Rise of the Robots
- Meta Skills
- WTF? (O’Reilly)
- But What If We Are Wrong
Also published on Medium.