The world is filled with staggering technological advancements, such as food created by 3D printing, emerging carbon capture technologies that convert carbon into fertilizer or energy, and the promise of quantum computing.
While the arc of progress has consistently moved us toward abundance, rapid change also brings growing pains, like political or market unrest and career displacement. By anticipating change like a futurist, you may be better equipped to seize emerging opportunities and mitigate the risks of unanticipated disruptions.
What Is a Futurist?
A futurist is more than a technophile or a daydreamer. Rather, a futurist is someone who sees beyond the here and now, not limiting himself to short-term concerns. He studies how people behave, is familiar with emerging technology, and is attuned to shifts in the market.
This approach to thinking about the future is sometimes referred to as mindful anticipation. Because he’s already thought through which changes might lie ahead (mindful anticipation), he’s able to make careful preparations. Thinking like a futurist by sharpening your skills and challenging the status quo is like possessing the oars you need to successfully navigate the coming change. This deliberate, methodical readying for the future requires strategic thinking. It also demands a certain level of nimbleness and intellectual humility because there will be unknown variables that a futurist can’t fully account for when forecasting.
During periods of disruption, it can be easy to feel like you're on a rocky sea in a dinghy that’s lost its oars. Without the oars, you’re completely at the mercy of the waves’ whims. Thinking like a futurist by sharpening your skills and challenging the status quo is like possessing the oars you need to successfully navigate the coming change.
Prepare and Adapt
The future is comprised of new realities that have emerged from our current landscape. This provides numerous opportunities to thoughtfully develop skills as a way to mitigate risks. The lifelong learner acknowledges the disruption automation and globalization create and finds ways to use it as a catapult into an emerging industry or achieve greater security in their current field. This might look like deepening or broadening one’s professional expertise or refining interpersonal skills.
As we have written previously,
The adaptation to new realities requires resilience. We are living in a knowledge-based economy, and it’s no longer enough to get a college degree and assume your education is complete. Instead, adaptation requires continual learning, updating of existing technical skills, development of new skills, and improving soft skills.
Lessons from the Futurists in Our Midst
Few industries are more poised for radical change in the near term than transportation. With the dawn of electric and autonomous vehicles, rising preferences for ride-hailing over car ownership, and visions of hyperloops, the automotive industry is bracing for massive disruption.
As John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, believes,
We are on the brink of a massive shift in personal transportation, moving away from ownership and into transportation as a service.
If stalled and declining car sales are any indication, the first knell of ubiquitous auto ownership has already rung. In light of this looming shift, it’s no wonder that Ford Motor Company has its own in-house futurist. According to Sheryl Connelly, her main role is to
push back on the status quo and expect the unexpected…[to] consider the physical realities, the economic affect, etc…tak[ing] into account all possibilities and extremes, and try to prepare for a range of different outcomes.
Questioning the status quo and anticipating the unexpected are traits each of us should cultivate when it comes to our careers, businesses, and personal lives. The future is determined by today’s decisions, and futurists are individuals who have learned to harness their existing knowledge and synthesize it with present dynamics to make informed projections about the future.
Curiosity and Imagination
If anticipating change and challenging a business-as-usual mentality are a futurist’s oars, then curiosity is their compass. Walt Disney, known the world over for his unyielding curiosity (which evolved into “imagineering”), is an example of this tenacious inquisitiveness. For Disney, sitting on his laurels was never an option. He once said,
Around here...we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
We can leverage our curiosity to guide us in problem-solving and goal-setting. Doing so helps us avoid the pitfalls that come from merely accepting today’s accomplishments as a professional or personal zenith.
Curiosity, pushing back against the status quo, and anticipating change are critical for those who hope to masterfully navigate change and shape their future. But it’s also essential that we distinguish between what is worth our time and energy and what is a pipe dream.
Science Fiction vs. the Real World
This summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. Soon, NASA plans to go much farther, putting humans and their robot helpers on Mars—something that might be attainable as early as 2030. However, fantasizing about the future in an effort to escape the disappointments and difficulties of the present is neither a wise nor practical solution.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX chimera should serve as a model of how not to futurism. Musk envisions humans colonizing Mars in order to escape the ravages of earth’s changing climate. Yet what of the millions of low- and middle-income Americans getting priced out of housing in urban centers throughout the country? Finding earthly solutions to problems on this planet will help us not only avoid the astronomical costs associated with creating an Elysium but also allow us to support those who need it the most.
By discerning what is feasible rather than investing enormous amounts of energy and capital into flights of fancy, we can prudently devote our attention and capital to solving problems here on earth.
Shape Your Future
If you let the media, politicians, and catastrophists shape your view of the world, you might think we are facing insurmountable problems of which our only choices are unprecedented human suffering, alternate planet colonization, or accepting more government intervention. In reality, we are living in a time of tremendous human progress and abundance. Author Robert Bryce explains that progress, in part, by the work of innovators continually making things “smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper.”
We are far from solving all of the world’s social, moral, and material problems, but according to the Brookings Institute,
2019 will start with the lowest prevalence of extreme poverty ever recorded in human history.
In America, working-class families enjoy conveniences that would have been unimaginable for elites just a century ago. Appreciating how technological progress and human ingenuity are improving the quality of life for billions can inspire each of us to be part of advancing human flourishing.
We don’t have to be blind-sided by unanticipated forces. We are not powerless to shape our future. But it will take anticipation, preparation, and an optimism that we can make the world around us better. Tomorrow will look a lot like the decisions we make today.