I have found that those of us who have the privilege of spending our days thinking about the future tend to have a complex relationship with the title “futurist.” While it’s useful when introducing what we do to others, the title can also be a bit exclusive – as if “futurists” are the only folks who get to think about the future. That couldn’t be further from the truth though. People often focus on the tools, methodologies, and frameworks that facilitate a systematic, considered exploration of the future. These are indeed important as they help us consistently apply an analytical rigor to the practice that wider audiences demand. They can also make thinking about the future feel out of reach.
In fact, everyone can and should be a futures thinker (and likely has been at one point.) Plotting where to go on a bucket list, making a mid-career change to something brand new, or thinking of what you wanted to be when you grew up; if you’ve ever dreamed wild dreams, you’ve been a futurist.
For most of us, we probably did some of our best futures thinking as kids, before adult notions like “reality” and “practicality” buried our imagination and sense of possibility. And make no mistake – futures thinking, for all of the rigor and research and analysis required, is about imagining what could be possible and exploring how we might get there. Gazing into the distance without looking around just shows you where you’re headed, not all the places you could be.
So below are three suggestions for how to nurture your inner child dreamer to be a better, more well-rounded futures thinker.
Feed your curiosity
Kids incessantly asking flustered parents “but why?” makes for great comedy. Society treats it with slightly less amusement when adults do it. However, tapping into that inner toddler is a hallmark of any good futures thinker. Finding yourself deep in a rabbit hole, wondering how you got there, starts as a rite of passage and quickly becomes a way of life.
This comes with the territory. Because futures thinking is built on systems thinking – seeing our world as a set of interconnected, complex systems – the best exploration of the future relies on connecting a wide array of disparate dots. I often find myself wondering – or rather, needing to know – how those dots connect and where it might lead. It’s that child-like drive to discover, to dig, to understand that helps us understand why the world is the way it is, and how it might change.
Know your limits
One of my favorite memories of a friend’s kid was when he was two years old and insisted on buckling himself into his car seat. He screamed bloody murder while I buckled him in and would not stop – I had to unbuckle him to let him try. After about twenty seconds, he looked up at me. “I can’t,” he said, and shrugged.
Thinking about the future, with all of its complexity, can be daunting but it is still important to try. Accepting how far we can get in that endeavor is equally important. “You can’t predict the future.” While I’ll joke that this is a convenient explanation for anything I get wrong, it is actually cold, hard fact. Thinking about the future requires an approach that is rooted in humility; there’s too much complexity and uncertainty in our world to be able to know for sure how the future will unfold. Rather than pretending we can, futures thinking requires us to accept that we cannot.
The acceptance of this limitation is paradoxically liberating and empowering. Instead of trying to control the future, we can focus on making the best decisions possible to influence how the future unfolds – knowing full well that even the best plans cannot cover every possible eventuality.
Embrace the unknowable
There is apparently a point in childhood where kids are likely to “drop out” of participating in art. This happens when kids begin shifting towards realism. Prior to this, kids happily produce joyous works of unintentionally abstract art that every parent must at some point proudly and publicly display. However, as they begin to judge their work more harshly and see their drawings don’t look “right”, they become self-conscious and stop drawing.
Right or wrong, drawing was fun. But as we age, right becomes more important than fun. In the context of futures thinking though, there’s a danger in trying to be right about the future. When someone is trying to be right, they’re invariably also trying to not be wrong. It’s a mental model that is limiting; few of us like to be wrong. If instead we accept that we cannot know for certain what will happen in the future, speculating about what could happen lets us prepare for anything that might happen. Like kids drawing and telling stories about a fantasy world of their own dreaming, good futures thinkers love to dream up possibilities, unencumbered with being right or wrong and embracing how fun the unknowable can be.
There are obviously a lot of practices, characteristics, and habits that can help you elevate your futures thinking. Giving yourself the space to resurface these three familiar, but possibly long-forgotten, approaches to processing all the wonders of the world is a great place to start because rediscovering your inner child is the start of nurturing your inner futurist.