Following the tumult of the past 18 months, this summer has been exhilarating and unnerving. Krista Tippett speaks of this transition when we’ve taken steps toward reengagement as “a liminal space emotionally, psychologically, physically, institutionally, relationally.” We have experienced and learned so much; now we have to determine how to live into our futures.
The future was on my mind when Margaret Heffernan recently skewered one of my sacred cows. Rather than be dismissive, I decided to open up and listen. Her article on Jim Collins’s Good to Great was my first encounter with this Texas-born, Holland-raised, English-educated entrepreneur, CEO, and author. Having long championed Collins’s book, I was unsettled by how much in Heffernan’s analysis rang true. The linear nature of Collins’s work did not account for the complex and changing world we inhabit. Before finishing the article, I knew I had to read more.
Thankfully, Heffernan had recently published Uncharted: How to navigate the future. Released just before the pandemic lockdown, it nonetheless spoke presciently and wisely as to the uncertain world which came to full fruition in 2020.
Given her background and widely popular You Tube videos, Uncharted could have easily been limited to issues of business management and leadership. And there is plenty to consider for the business, nonprofit, and government sectors. But as I read Heffernan, I was struck by how much her thoughts on what we need to do — and what we need to be — to navigate the future were focused on the personal.
She begins with a section on our “prediction addiction,” where we look to business forecasting, history, even genetics to try and create certainty in an uncertain world. Mentally we are all “time travelers,” she asserts. While we talk about living in the moment, Heffernan maintains that “we can’t, we don’t — and wouldn’t want to. What gives life meaning is the rich and constant interplay between past, present, and future.” That requires our attention as humans. We give up that interplay, for instance, when we turn on our GPS and turn off our surroundings, our memories, and our plans all to focus on our phones.
With examples ranging through business, government, taxi drivers, war, science, even friendships, she examines the characteristics that allow some to successfully navigate the uncertainty of life. Just as her article skewered the prediction addiction of Good to Great, in Uncharted she takes on the bogus Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which has no basis in clinical psychology, as just one out of many examples of the silly and shallow ways we seek to predict future performance.
Instead, she calls for us to recognize that we all inhabit complex systems, only parts of which we can see or influence. Heffernan encourages her readers to think like an artist, with a mind that is “febrile, alert, receptive.” She points to “cathedral projects” as those containing experimentation to navigate uncertainty, but also a clear vision of what one wants to achieve. We are not “condemned to short-term, atomized work just because we can’t see far into the future.” Looking ahead allows us to use the uncertainty as a motivator and to build on generations past for work to be completed by and for future generations. Who wants to live forever anyway, as Heffernan titles one chapter.
If we are to navigate the future we must be able to live with paradox and “reconcile opposites — efficiency and robustness, adaptability and long-term focus, just-in-time and just-in-case.”
“What do we need to do, and what do we need to be, to navigate the future? What we need to do is to hold fast to the gifts we have, and to develop them together. What we need to be is human. The future will always be uncharted but it is made by those active enough to explore it, with the stamina and imagination not to give up on themselves or each other.”
Heffernan has created a masterful book that calls out our humanity and creativity. “There is nothing predictable or predetermined about what we will produce with the ingredients of our minds,” she writes. “We neither forsake our past nor are we mired in it.”
More to come…