How to Think About the Future

Current Status: Trying, but in a roboty kind of way. You see, sometimes this blog is about design. Sometimes technology. Sometimes both. And every now and then, it’s not quite about either one. But it’s always about questioning our circumstances and being mindful of what is and what can be. Don’t Think About the Future is a bit of a joke about how hard it is to imagine anything when we’re distracted by a world cluttered with junk someone else imagined. This week, though, we are going to think about the future. And we’re going to learn to do it right. So like I said: “Trying.”

CB, March 10, 2016

A few days after my wedding reception last fall, I took several bottles of leftover wine and tied a simple label to each one with some string. On each label, I inscribed a date. The first was just a year away. I imagined my wife and I opening that bottle, perhaps right there in the kitchen where I stood. I imagined food cooking. I imagined our dog and our cat, always in the periphery when we’re in the kitchen, standing near us, hopeful for a morsel of something. I imagined music playing. We are happy, just as we are today.

On the second label, I wrote a date five years in the future. As I fastened it to the bottle, I wondered what might be different then. Would we still live here? Would we be more than just she and I? Would we be less? Would our animals still be with us?

On the third label, I wrote a date ten years in the future. Now that I’m in my thirties and can trace back that far and still find myself an adult, I find thinking in decades much easier. Well, functionally, anyway. But, not emotionally. Not yet. Ten years still scares me. A decade, as I have soberly discovered, can pass by quickly. And yet, it can contain so much. Joys and sorrows. Surprises. Ten years from now, whole people who do not exist today could be living and learning and imagining time for themselves. Will be. Some of them might look a lot like my wife and I and call us Mom and Dad. Ten years from now, people who are here today could be gone. People we love. People we think will be with us forever. We could be among them. All in just ten years. This label I tied on slowly.

I wrote the fourth date and stared. 2035. Ten years is sobering but possible. But twenty? I hardly have any frame of reference. Twenty years ago, I was fifteen. Twenty years from now? I can scarcely imagine it. So, I didn’t even try. I didn’t dare. Instead, I tied the label quickly, flinching at the lightning bolt hurtling toward me in my mind’s eye — the imagined punitive irony of my wine-saving hubris brought to swift justice.

What began as a simple idea for celebrating future anniversaries became almost an act of prayer. Hopeful, but frightening. Done alone, in silence, and with fear and trembling. Let there be a future, I thought, but Thy will be done.

And yet — at the same time — I also thought, this is no way to think about the future. To plan and then recoil at the thought because what if it’s too far? and who am I to presume anything? To imagine I might be denied a future simply for having the audacity to dream of one? I don’t actually believe that, do I? No. I don’t. Fear has no place in futurism, other than to withhold possibility. Fearfully is no way to think about the future. I believe that, but I need to be reminded every now and then.

The future is indeed out of our hands. There are things that will happen over which we have no control at all. They will happen with or without us, all around us, and to us.

But there are also things that will happen because of us. Things that only we can make possible.

Both things are true, and we live in the space between them.

And so we must plan for the future while accepting that our plans might come to nothing. But they will never be meaningless. When it comes to thinking about the future, the plans are everything. They are more powerful than even the future itself.

At work, Traction has taught our team the value of goal-setting. In fact, goal-setting is the lifeblood of the Traction approach. We set weekly, quarterly, and yearly goals, as well as envision a three-year picture and a ten-year target. One way of looking at Traction is it teaches you to become addicted to goal-setting. Which means we are constantly thinking about the future. Now, envisioning a week, or a quarter, or even a year isn’t that difficult. Time moves so quickly that the challenge isn’t envisioning a year, it’s getting things done within one. But setting a goal like a ten-year target is a serious challenge, and is so because of the distance. Ten years is a lifetime for a business. So you can imagine that thinking about a ten-year target has taken some getting used to. At first, it was strange — awkward really — like wearing someone else’s clothes. It almost felt childish and ridiculous to share our ideas with one another. Especially the first time, I could sense that we were all holding back, afraid to sound absurd when we described flying around our headquarters in jetpacks. Kidding, obviously. But the fear — of sounding silly, or looking stupid, or being wrong — was there. Yet, as we’ve practiced it — thinking and articulating a specific and measurable scenario for Newfangled-in-ten-years — it’s begun to feel more natural and has done its job of, as author Gino Wickman writes, igniting “passion, excitement, and energy for every single person within the organization.”

Setting a ten-year target is like following the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. When you first set out, you can barely see the city far off in the distance. It’s just a fuzzy, glowing green lump on the horizon. But what you can’t see with your eyes, you fill in with your imagination. In your mind, you see the city in all its splendor. You see the buildings, the roads, the bridges and arches. You see people coming and going. You see every radiant brick. But with each step you take along the Yellow Brick Road, the distance between you and the Emerald City shrinks. The closer you get, the better you can see the actual city. It’s detail replaces your imagination. As you near the gates and the city fills the horizon, virtually everything you imagined is replaced by what is. If the city is the future, the walk is life. But setting a ten-year target is like making the journey and never reaching the Emerald City. It’s always a ten-year target. If we set one this year, it doesn’t become our nine-year target next year, and our eight-year target the year after, and so on until we arrive there, at our target, ten years later. A ten-year target is a permanent ten-year scope. It’s the hazy Emerald City in the distance. The one that catalyzes our imaginations and ignites our passions. The purpose of the ten-year target is the power it brings to now, not how accurately it predicts a day a decade away.

Thinking about the future isn’t an act of management — of knowing things and arranging them and being right — it’s an act of inspiration. It’s about active imagination.

Saving those bottles of wine is exactly how to think about the future. Fearing I might not be around to drink them is not. They’re a symbol of hope for the beginning of a new stage of life, for the endurance and maturation of love, for a future. When I think of them, I think of what will be. Even now, I can picture them stacked in the dark at the back of a low cabinet in our kitchen, and imagine an older me kneeling down, taking one out, dusting it off, and opening it in a world molded by time into someplace I do not yet know. I hope to do that, and I will let that hope shape everything I do from this day forward. But I also accept that I may not.

Whether a future comes to be is not nearly as important as its backward echo; its very possibility shapes the present. And even if it never comes to be, the future that does never could have been without it.

I gave a couple of interviews last week. First, I spoke with Eric Karjaluoto at OfficeHours about how my firm, Newfangled, has changed over the last decade — about what we have learned, our missteps and successes, and where we are headed now. If you manage a firm or a team of digital creatives, this one’s for you.

Then, last Friday, I spoke with Marie Poulin at the Digital Strategy School about design, being a generalist vs. a specialist, the impermanence of expertise, the future of digital marketing, focus in a world of distraction, and learning how to operate our person-suits. That will all make sense in the course of our chat. I do apologize in advance for the quality of my audio and video. It’s not great, especially for a couple of minutes in the beginning, but I think the conversation itself was wonderful and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Big thanks to Marie for the invitation!

Heavy Rotation: You know what, I’m just going to go ahead and admit that after seeing the Broadway production of The Lion King, which surprised and delighted me, I’ve listened to the soundtrack a few times in my car on the way to work. It’s my own filtered version of it — all the pieces unique to the Broadway show and none of the Disney ones. But in light of this week’s theme, I commend to you Mufasa’s song to his son about the living power of the past, They Live in You. I’m not saying it’s not cheesy here and there, but I am saying it’s beautiful.

On Screen: Well, I finished watching The X-Files Season 10. To_the_bitter_end. It wasn’t just that the six episodes were scattered, disconnected, and had virtually no story arc to speak of. It wasn’t just that two of them were named after Hitler’s memoir (what on Earth!?). It wasn’t just that all of them were stuffed with fan-service that made it abundantly clear to fans that Chris Carter does not get X-Files fans and probably never did. It wasn’t just that the characterizations of Mulder and Scully were raped and pillaged in order to turn them into plotomatons. It wasn’t just that they put Skinner in the opening credits and then gave him maybe three scenes and maybe five minutes of combined screen time. It wasn’t just that the season was so bad that even the Darin Morgan episode was bad bad very bad. It wasn’t just that they seem to be making a Season 11 plea by way of millennial versions of Mulder and Scully that have almost negative appeal and no reason for existence whatsoever except to make it seem like the FBI employs maybe five people. And it wasn’t just that the series followed the aging bloat of the American brain by becoming more “conservative,” more paranoid (but in all the wrong ways), and more xenophobic. No, it was all of that. I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for Season 10. I expected it to not be great. But I expected to at least enjoy seeing Mulder and Scully again. And, I was open to being surprised. As it turns out, I was surprised. I never expected it to be as bad as it was. But each episode was worse than the one before it. This is a season that never should have happened, or at least, never should have happened this fast. When Kumail Nanjiani hyped up a possible revival on his podcast, The X-Files Files, I was as excited by the idea as he was. But I never expected it would air less than a year later. But that’s what happened. And so now six episodes, who knows how much cash, and — quite possibly — this show’s entire legacy was spent illustrating a lesson anyone can learn in much less costly and embarrassing ways: haste makes waste. And especially with Chris Carter writing the script. To end with some positives, here are a few stray things that happened in Season 10 that were fun: Krycek didn’t come back, so good going there, guys; Kumail Nanjiani, who publicly worried about being the worst thing about the episode he appeared in, was, by far, the best, and absolutely nailed the paradoxical urgency and ennui of modern tech by offering Mulder iphone support in the midst of a monster chase; Mulder’s psychedelic line dance; Scully is immortal; Mulder has an X-Files ringtone.

In other news, I’m going to be very interested in watching Graphic Means when it’s finished.

Recent Tabs: Can this quiz identify your age and income based solely on the apps on your phone? The answer is no, because, I am (with much gratitude) not “a single guy younger than 32 who makes less than $52,000/year.” But that’s probably because I answered “no” to every app listed but Google Maps and Snapchat! My buddy Chris, the craft brew insider, sent me a link to this video, in which actual Trump clips are used to prove he is your drunk neighbor. It’s perfect. This music machine is powered by 2,000 marbles and the cranking power of a dancey Swedish guy. Douglas Rushkoff talks about his latest book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which is his critical take on the current state of the digital economy. You could worry about that, or you could stare at these levitating, magnetic bonsai. Or watch this Mac eject a disk in space. Banksy has been officially outed thanks to mathematics and geographic profiling. Everyone remembers the first time they saw La Jetée. The inventor of email died last week. How to take a photo with a piece of paper. Gender politics in a two-second GIF. I mean, that split-second smug grin from Wolf Blitzer just says it all. Be kind on airplanes, because someone is experiencing this and it shouldn’t be that way. This penguin swims thousands of miles each year to visit his human friend. Finally, this link is a cosmic black hole designed especially for my Mom. Yes, Mom, I mean you.

Written by Christopher Butler on March 10, 2016,   In Essays

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