What is Your Future? How to Apply Foresight to Your Life

I am a professional futurist. I help cities and organizations anticipate the future, whatever it may be. But I’ve never applied “futuring” to my own life. Until recently.

Last year — before my TED talk and The Next Big Things dropped — I wondered how those two events might impact my future. Then my pal Leisha DeHart-Davis asked if I would lead a group of public sector women through a process to apply foresight to their own lives.

So I became my own guinea pig. With a legal pad, the 7 steps (below), and some Voodoo Coffee, I applied strategic foresight to my own life. Take a whack at it yourself, and let me know what you learn (rr[at]nextgenerationconsulting[dot]com).

Step Zero: Caffeinate

Caffeine is good for planning and concentration. (Thanks, science.)

Voodoo Coffee

Voodoo Coffee, Barefoot Coffee, Campbell, CA

Step 1: Frame Your Domain

“Frame your domain” is futurist-speak for choosing the area you want to focus on plus a related time horizon. Obviously you’re exploring your life, but how long? Ten years? Twenty? I chose ten years because:

  • Some research shows that people with bachelors’ degrees top-out on the pay scale at 44 years old. I was 43 when I did this exercise, so I figured the next ten years would be critical to maintaining my income and building my savings.
  • My partner is ten years older than I am, and she’ll be ready to retire in ten years. I might need a new plan after that, but until then, I want to kick some ass.
  • America is in the last years of winter, and by 2020, the Great Recession era will give way to a new period of growth in America. A ten year timeframe takes me through winter and into our coming spring.
  • Several new professional relationships and initiatives are starting in 2016, and ten years felt like the right window to see them come to life.

So my chosen domain: “Rebecca Ryan’s life and career in 2025, when RR is 53 years old.”

Step 2. Identify the forces and trends that will affect your domain

In this step, you’re identifying real, data-based trends and forces. This is not the place for conjecture, hope, or wishful thinking. This is the list of cold, hard facts and trends that will affect your life—your body, your brain, your family, your career — in the coming years. Pro tip: when you identify a trend, include whether it’s increasing or decreasing, accelerating or decelerating.

Use a mind-map like the one below if that will help get your juices flowing. And if you’re still stuck, think about the STEEP trends (society, technology, economy, environment, politics.)

John-Naisbit-Mega-Trends

Here were some trends on my “personal” list:

  • My body is changing. After 40, it is more prone to injury and requires different fuel and care. It takes me longer to recover from injuries.
  • Heart disease runs in my family. Although genetics only account for a minority of health outcomes, this is something to pay attention to.
  • A trend since the recession: I am working more and exercising less.
  • For the last 5-10 years, I’ve been on the road 26 weeks or more. It is taking me longer to recuperate from being gone more than two consecutive weeks.
  • Over the last couple years, I am spending more time with friends and taking annual vacations. This makes my life feel more fulfilling.
  • I notice that my life works better (I feel more calm and make better decision) when I sit zazen (sitting meditation) regularly.

Here were some trends on my “professional” list – trends impacting our business and trends impacting our purpose, to leave the world better for future generations:

  • Social media is increasingly important to develop relationships with clients and fans.
  • The information landscape is getting more dense. It’s harder to “get out of the pile” in a 24/7 news cycle.
  • Climate change impacts are increasing. If we want to fulfill our purpose, to leave the world better for future generations, we have to be in this conversation.
  • The “City Century” – in which cities are the great innovation labs of social and economic innovation – is upon us.
  • The “war for talent” is reheating, as Baby Boomers begin to retire.

In total, I listed about 40 trends. Then I sorted them on an X/Y diagram based on IMPACT to my life and CERTAINTY they these trends would continue. A sample of the X/Y diagram is here:

Screen-Shot-2016-02-14-at-7.23.49-AM

Step 3: Forecast Plausible Future Scenarios

Next, I wrote four plausible future stories about my life at 53 years old. To do this, I selected a few of the major impact/high certainty trends from the upper right-hand quadrant of the chart, and fed them into four scenarios (below.)

Three keys to writing good forecasts: the story must be plausible (it could really happen); it must be relevant to the domain; and it must stretch your thinking.

My four future stories:

  1. If I “watch and wait” and do nothing to respond to these trends, what will my life be in ten years? [Spoiler: this is usually the most depressing scenario, but stick with it; it has a lot to teach.]
  2. If my life has a plausible positive disruption (“My TED talk goes viral”), what will life be like in ten years? [This scenario also ended up a little shitty, because if I just keep defaulting to the “work more” trend — like I have been for most of the past 18 years — I’ll burn out my staff and myself.]
  3. If my life has a plausible negative disruption (loss of income from illness/stock market crash/loss of reputation), what will my life be like? [Ironically, this scenario ended up being pretty cool, because despite the near-term financial duress, it gave me time to reprioritize my life, and also helped me realize that my friends and family are always there, regardless of what my business does. Basically, I realized, I would be okay.]
  4. My final forecast was a “blue sky” forecast: if all the right pieces fell into place at the right moments, and fortune smiled on me, what would my life be like in ten years? [This scenario really underscored the impact my choices, my behavior, and my habits can have on my future. I always tell my clients, “The future doesn’t just happen to you. You also happen to the future.” And this scenario reminded me of that.]

I gotta be honest: writing these four stories was tiring. I wrote the first drafts quickly, and then went back and added details so they’d feel real.

At this point, you may want to take a walk or get another cup of coffee, because the next step is critical, and you want to be sharp.

Step 4. Identify the common levers across all your forecasts

As you survey all of your forecasts – whether they had good or bad outcomes – you’re going to notice some common levers, dials (variables) that could be turned up or down to achieve different effects.

12-33-beautiful-volume-dials

For me, the dials I zeroed-in on had a direct impact on my happiness and resilience ten years from now. They included:

  • The quality of my relationships with my partner, my friends, and my workmates. If I took time to nourish those properly, even the worst case scenario would be okay, because I would have amazing people around me.
  • My zen practice. If I am doing zazen (sitting meditation) every day, even if my TED talk exploded, I would not feel overwhelmed. I would feel that I had adequate time and energy to do what was required of me, and to make wise decisions about where to direct my energy.
  • My health. I have to re-learn how to take care of my body in this next decade, so I can bring my A-Game to life.
  • My role in this work. For years, I made my living as a keynote speaker, all eyes on me. But through this process I realized that I can be more efficient and have longer lasting results if I help train and create a community of futurists and work “at the tip of the spear”, partnering with great cities and organizations who can affect millions of people.
  • The quality of the people around me. If I try to “go it alone” like I often have, there is no good outcome. I must tap into really smart people and a circle of change-makers if I want to fulfill my purpose.

For me, completing the first four steps was revelatory. The next three steps put it all to work.

Step 5. What’s the Vision?

Most of us have some experience with vision statements. What will yours be, for your domain? You can write it, create a vision board, or do an interpretive dance. Whatever you choose to do, this is your way to concretize your vision for your future. DO NOT STOP HERE. Science proves that visioning without action is detrimental.

Step 6. Plan

If you’re a GTD nerd like me, you’ll create a Project for many of the levers you identified in Step 4. For example, this year, we’re launching “Futurists Camp” to train a new batch of futurists to use foresight in their organizations and with their clients. It’s our first step to develop a tribe of change-makers.

[Pro Tip: If planning doesn’t come naturally to you, here’s the GTD natural planning process.]

Step 7. Act

Get to work! One master hack to ensure ongoing progress is to check in on your plans every quarter or so. In our office, we use the Traction process to create 90-day plans and associated goals. And we have weekly meetings to stay on-track.

Peter Drucker recommended tucking your decisions away in a drawer and reviewing them from time to time. The bottom line is that you want to have a feedback mechanism to evaluate progress and success.

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Let ‘er rip! And let me know what you learn.

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