Four Keys to Thinking About the Future

In his recent article for the Harvard Business Review blog, Jeffrey Gedmin shares his observations on how some people are more keen to be foresighted than others. Though born from experiences in the corporate world and not directly related to the field of higher education, his advice on how to improve your ability to think about the future and make informed descisions can apply to anyone. The exerpts below are the four things you should do to become more prescient.

1. Enhance Your Power of Observation

For starters, be empirical and always be sure you’re working with the fullest data set possible when making judgments and discerning trends. Careful listening, a lost art in today’s culture of certitude and compulsive pontificating, can help us distinguish the signal from the noise.

2. Appreciate the Value of Being (a Little) Asocial

“Thinking outside the box,” is one of the most well-worn clichés in any business or creative endeavor. We all prize it. Yet how do you actually do it, when life and livelihood generally depend on operating inside a box? Curiosity keeps us learning and helps us, like the virtue of patience, to see the hidden, or understand the unexplained.

3. Study History

Do this not because history repeats itself, but because history often rhymes, as Mark Twain put it. The rhymes may be about social patterns, the impact of technology, or how nations tend to adapt. I think you study history to study human nature, the human condition, and human behavior. This is the realm of patterns, but also — frustratingly and fascinatingly — of infinite complexity and unpredictability. Apart from the intrinsic beauty, power, and simple enjoyment, it’s why reading great fiction is to be commended.

4. Learn to Deal with Ambiguity

Whether it’s nature or nurture, most of us seem hard-wired to sort the world into simple binary choices. Alas, there’s often lots of grey out there.

Thinking about the future, here’s a final reading tip. It’s the 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. I’m fond of this passage:

In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds.

Consciously attempt to act on these four pieces of advice and I think you can only get better at anticipating the big things (and small things) that will come next.

Of course, the wisest among us will always hedge our forecasts with qualifiers such as “will likely” or “is apt to.” Life is seldom linear and best estimates frequently become undermined by those eternal “unknown unknowns.”  But don’t let them stop you from preparing for an uncertain future by learning more from the past and present. Think long, think deep, think laterally — and brace yourself. 2014 is nearly upon us.

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