Is being a Futurist lonely in the wilderness of present day conceptions?
From time to time we respond to questions about the future sent in via email by readers. We don’t have a lot of time for this, but when a question seems especially interesting we offer our thoughts.
QUESTION from Robert Ostergaard:
Do you find, as a “Futurist”, that it is lonely in the wilderness of present day conceptions?
I have found that most people have a planning horizon extending from this afternoon to some time tomorrow, and this is maddening.
I tend to plan things (define “things” as: finances, investments, educational goals, my children (4), careers, domiciles, travel, system integrations, self-education efforts, personal and professional projects, et alia) on a six month, one year, two year, three year, five year, ten year, twenty year horizon.
Flexibility and adaptability are built into these plans, yet I always seem to astound the people I deal with on a “daily” basis with my “vision.” Fine.
That’s the problem.
- Work arounds. There are always roadblocks, take them into account.
- Education. Teach people that today is not necessarily the object of the exercise, and why. Extend their vision. (I hate that word, but what else have we got?)
- Get involved in politics and put programs in place. Hmmmm. Distasteful.
I’m open to any suggestions at this point. I’ve tried options one and two, above, and still feel stymied. What do you think?
Robert B. Ostergaard, BA, BSci, MA
“May random chance and possibilities
favor your endeavors.”
Response by Glen Hiemstra, 2000
Yours is a difficult question. Let me tackle it in several ways. There is research within the organizational literature that attempts to quantify the time horizon of those who work in organizations, and there is some correlation with position in the organization. Those with greater responsibility tend to have a longer time horizon, though where cause and effect lie is not clear.
In addition, you are probably familiar with the various approaches to assessing personality types. There are various models, but in many of them certain types are associated with a “future” orientation or perspective. In my own case, for example, such profiles tend to lump me with those oriented to the future. These types tend to occupy only about 5% of the general population. If you are one of these types, then it is not surprising that you might feel a bit lonely.
More generally, it does seem true that people today have less interest in the long term future, and less faith in it as well, when compared to past generations. This is difficult to verify. The Founders of the United States were frequently clear that they were doing something “for posterity” by which they meant succeeding generations. Today, I cannot tell you the number of times I have audiences or clients say something like “I don’t care, I’m going to be retired,” or “I don’t care because I’m not going to be around anyway.”
What is sad about this is that most of the time these people are serious, and seem to feel no obligation to future generations, or to future employees in their own organizations.
Your question takes the issue to a level beyond mere concern with the longer term, to an interest in having a vision and a plan. Your practice is unusual in its scope. The set of people prone to think in this way is limited even further, because it requires a goal orientation and a certain motivation to work toward a desired future. Most people are content with adaptation, though as you note even being vision driven does not mean that you are not adaptable and flexible.
Now, what is to be done? Your suggestions of work-arounds and education are reasonable starting points. I do think it is urgent that people learn to engage their human capacity to anticipate and dream the future, to extend their horizon as you put it. Fortunately this can be learned, though dedication to the endeavor may vary according to those types I mentioned. My experience is that if given the time, and just a bit of instruction on how to think about the future many people can not only do it, but grasp the opportunity. But we are rarely given or take the time, and it does take more than a quick hour or two.
Extending one’s time horizon can also be aided by reading science fiction. I suggest to all audiences that they read at least one such book a year, to stretch both the length and the breadth of their imaginations. There are many other techniques which can be used individually or in group activities. My book on Strategic Leadership [link] provides an outline of some group activities, while Tracie Ryder Hiemstra’s book How Can It Look So Good [link] is full of personal tools for becoming future oriented.
Good luck and have patience with those more content to let life happen to them. Remember that the future is not something that just happens to you. The future is something you do.