Living in the Future(s)

Published by Boardroom Labs on

Living in the Future(s)

Being a futures designer often isn’t easy. Here’s why and how we handle it.

Humanity is capable of great destruction and incredible kindness and compassion. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures 1.6 million square kilometres and contains over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. This swirling vortex of human waste products is more than three times the size of Spain, weighs more than 79,000 tonnes, and injures or kills 100,000 marine animals per year. The Camp Fire in Paradise California was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California to date — burning 6,453 homes and killing 29 people.

After nearly a decade of research, Dr. Jonas Salk pioneered a vaccine for polio in 1955, which would kill 500,000+ yearly. He chose not to patent it, which cost him an estimated $7B in lost income. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown caused an estimated 1,600 deaths and is the second-worst nuclear disaster in history (after Chernobyl).  Workers attempting to control the disaster were facing extremely high levels of radiation. A group of 200+ retired volunteers offered themselves instead, believing they should bear the risks.

Imagine an alien species visiting Earth and merely observing us. They would see factory farms and pollution rendering many city’s air unbreathable. They would also see people loving their family, tending to their communities, and fighting for what they believe in. What conclusions might they draw about us?

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.” – Lao Tzu

Time and scale are immensely powerful in shaping how we think and feel. There are even names for some of these feelings and, like any emotion, they can be positive or negative.

  • When we dwell on a past we can’t change, we can feel powerless and dejected. While when we fondly remember what’s behind us, we feel warm, nostalgic, and grounded in history.
  • If we live solely in the present, we can lose perspective and are surprised when things change. But it’s only in the present we can act and feel comfort in motion.
  • When we dwell on a future we can’t control, we’re more prone to anxiety and worry. But when we expect the future will improve on the present, we feel hope and confidence.

Being a futures designer often means looking at people and the world from up close and afar. It’s incredibly hard. Activists and other changemakers routinely suffer burnout and exhaustion. People feel guilty about their roles in vast challenges, like climate change or poverty. As Bessel van der Kolk explores in The Body Keeps The Score what we do and feel matters for a long time. Resilient organizations (and people) balance these three time horizons (and feelings): they appreciate the past, take decisive action in the present, and have a guiding vision for the future.

“If we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life. —William B. Irvine”

I’ve had panic attacks and dealt with anxiety because of work. When you spend months studying things like automation or climate change it takes a toll. “I don’t want to eat some mornings. I wake up with my mind buzzing with intrusive thoughts about work. My weekends are framed around the Sunday Scaries — or anticipatory anxiety about returning to work.” That’s something I wrote a few years ago. Futures design is hard. You can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Like you should have done more when things inevitably go wrong.

It’s also tough on the ego. Imagine an elder planting a tree for the next generation to enjoy. There’s something exceptional and rare about being able to knowingly sacrifice something in the present when the only immediate benefit is hope that tomorrow will be brighter than today. There is never any time other than now, yet as futures designers we must envision and plan for worlds that may never be. There’s also diffusion of personal impact. Unlike a craftsman or teacher, who’re deeply connected to the individual artifact or person they’re shaping, futures designers shape better worlds. That often means working at a scale where we may never see the immediate impact of our work. The Stanford marshmallow experiment only asked kids to wait for 15 minutes to get the extra marshmallow. How many of us would wait if it was 100 marshmallows ten years later? Who would want to?

In his book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance author Johnathan Fields describes Certainty Anchors, which is a “practice or process that adds something known and reliable to your life when you may otherwise feel you’re spinning off in a million different directions.” It’s rituals, routines, or habits that anchor us. For me, it’s journalling in the evening or having breakfast when I wake up. Many of our certainty anchors are tied to our biological rhythms, like sleeping each evening or eating at midday.

While I sincerely believe that living true to one’s purpose is worth it, it’s often hard. Inspired by Fields’ certainty anchors, I’ve developed are some approaches that can help us not just live but thrive in the future(s). They draw from Stoic philosophy, positive psychology, Zen Buddhism, and behavioural economics:

  • Immersion: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” In Braving The Wilderness researcher Brené Brown suggests that people are lonelier than ever. Being a futures designer means immersing ourselves in the experiences and beliefs of the world around us. We can only shape what we understand and engage with. Embracing this immersion, whether it’s cultural customs or just closeness is crucial.
  • Collaboration: The Marvel movie Black Panther was a pioneer in one interesting respect. It was the first big-budget movie featuring Afrofuturism. In society, typically those who are most powerful shape the collective narrative we all experience. Is it any wonder then that in our plutocratic society led by industrialists, technologists, and financiers that the future we see ahead is (at best) a capitalist techno-utopia? Nothing about us without us is an appropriate rallying call for involving all stakeholders (where possible) in designing our collective future.
  • Lean: When Christine Miserandino was trying to explain why it was so hard living with Lupus she invented Spoon Theory. Essentially, most people have more than enough spoons to go through their personal and workdays without having to consciously ration their energy. For someone with Lupus, they need to be much more thoughtful. In the business world, strategist Navi Radjou calls it Frugal Innovation (i.e., doing more with less). Even if taxes were infinite, institutions were perfectly efficient, and we made the optimal choice every time, there will never be enough time, energy, or resources to solve every problem. Only by accepting that and rationing the spoons we do have can we find joy in what we achieve, rather than guilt in what we don’t.
  • Play: In Man’s Search For Meaning World War II survivor Viktor Frankl told a deep, personal story of suffering in service of meaning. The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that life has inevitable suffering. While this may seem morose, it isn’t. Suffering is not sadness. Suffering is merely an experience. When we approach suffering, whether it’s pain, negative emotions, or challenging events as lessons and mere occurrences, they pass right through us. We do this by playing or living in what psychologist Paul Bloom calls The Sweet Spot.
  • Curiosity: In 2006, psychologist Carol Dweck published Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in which she explained the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. People with growth mindsets are lifelong learners, they live with wonder, and don’t take moments for granted. When you live in the future(s) it can be easy to lose touch with the day-to-day. By cultivating a spirit of curiosity, we can stay grounded and mindful.

These aren’t just ideas but lived approaches I’ve developed and use every day to stay joyful, focused, and at peace with my life and loved ones. Being is becoming and we are always changing both the world and ourselves. When we live in the future(s) we need to be thoughtful about how we tend to our bodies, minds, and souls. It can seem overwhelming but personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is the fourth article in the Lead The Future series, which will continue exploring the design of products, companies, and movements that shape a better world. Would you like to be notified when the next article’s launched? Subscribe to the Boardroom Labs’ newsletter in the sidebar.