Future Thinking for Students

This is is the second post in a thread for students on the basics of strategic thinking

In my first post, I argued that university students should get a better introduction to strategic thinking. That it is a key skill set. Now we get to work, unpacking what strategy is and how to “do it”.

Strategy is what we do in order to position ourselves for the future.  I will unpack the “what we do” idea a bit later on. But before we do that, we might ask why we need to do anything? What is it about the future that gives us trouble? The conventional answer is that students are not ready for the real world. They don’t know enough. They need more knowledge. Is this really the problem?

If it were the problem, then life would be just a matter of absorbing knowledge. Like filling the gas tank of a car. Unfortunately, knowledge alone does not solve problems. It doesn’t get anything done. And the future is about what we get done. Not just what we know we should have done. So we might start off our quest for strategic insight by reflecting how the future comes about. What humans do to make the future happen.

Put on your seat belt for some bad news. Research shows that humans are really, really bad at thinking about the future. If you want to get into that idea, check out Dan Pink’s book “To Sell is Human” or Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Decisive”. When we close our eyes and try to visualize the future, what we see is not usually what we will get. And we rarely anticipate the future consequences of what we do now. We are far more focused on the “now” part. In other words, when it comes to creating a future, we are “flying blind”. Like a pilot flying over the ocean at night, we need instruments or tools to help us see where we are going.

This does not seem like an earth shattering statement. And yet, it is. It is because research also shows that we think just the opposite. We think that we are very good at predicting the future. Indeed, we seem to need the feeling that we are in control of what is going on. And so we assert that we (as individuals) are far more important than the events taking place around us. Pop culture is full of this story line. Sadly, research shows that we are way overconfident in our ability to see the effects of our decisions. While we assert our identity in the here and now — and invest our emotions in the here and now — we generally ignore what is coming. This is a human bias that we all need to recognize when we look in the mirror.

There is a bit of good news here for you, as a student or recent graduate or as a person trying to figure out what life is all about. The good news is that you don’t need to blame yourself if you find yourself unable to figure it out. It is not your shortcoming. We all suffer from the above. It is part of what makes us human. So if you are bummed out that you have made some bad choices or are stuck, let it go! This feeling is pretty normal in life, at least for part of the time.

These shortcomings would not be a huge problem if the future would be pretty much like the present. Which, btw, is what most people tend to believe. Party on, dude! And it is not surprising that we believe it will be, because for the vast majority of our time on the planet as humans (at least 200,000 years) things really didn’t change that much from generation to generation.

Here is a factoid worth remembering — Rapid societal change is a radically modern phenomenon. One that we are still adjusting to as a species. You can think of it this way –  our intellectual toolbox includes our pre-modern belief in our ability, indeed our need, to “be in control” in the present, along with our modern experience that the changes around us are pretty much out of our individual control.

This is disjointed, to say the least. And perhaps the disjointed nature of our modern consciousness (supposedly in control, but out of control) explains why some of us  seek to squeeze so much out of the present moment. It seems like all we have. And so we revel in it, even to the point of self-destructive behavior and violence. But keep this in mind — as we demand more and more from the present, our sense of the future and appreciation of the opportunities it may bring atrophies. Given our human tendencies, we can easily become prisoners of the present. Nicht gut!

Strategic thinking helps us get out of this prison. And that is why we want to master some basics of strategic thinking. There are essentially three parts to it – seeing more clearly what is going on, making decisions, and learning from what we do. that is it. So let’s consider that first step – seeing more clearly.

Some good news – we are already doing it here. The first step is to step back from the rather arrogant pose that we know it all. That we don’t need any tools to get better at strategy. We do. Consider this — In most aspects of life, we are not in a position to understand fully why things are the way they appear to be. Our consciousness takes in but a limited amount of data compared to the amount of data that is around us. Based on that very limited sample, we decide that we “see” what is going on.

James Burke makes this point about what we see and know in his TV series (made into a book) called “The Day the Universe Changed”.

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth.

The point is that it would have looked exactly the same. When we observe nature, we see what we want to see, according to what we believe we know about it at the time.

This is called  “confirmation bias”. We tend to see what we want to believe. It is a form of intellectual laziness that we all suffer from. As Dan Kahneman brings out in his great book “Thinking Fast and Slow” we have to really make an effort to suspend our beliefs and analyze things. It is hard work just to step back, slow down and see things. And that applies especially to seeing ourselves in the context of our lives.

So how can we be more constructive? Just admitting our limitations is a start. Seeing human nature as inherently arrogant  puts that arrogance into perspective. And that is a step in the right direction if we want to think strategically. But we can and should take a further critical step in our view of the future before we get to work building strategies. That step is to “pre-judge” what is going on in light of some very important principles.

Ready to take that step? It is all about attitude. So far I have been talking about perspective – who we are as humans. We also need to adopt a certain attitude about what we do. This is not inherent in being human. We have to make the decision to adopt this attitude. Famous venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen talked about this attitude issue the other day. He was discussing how a young guy, Palmer Luckey was able to come up with a virtual reality (VR) headset.

A couple of years ago, Palmer is in his garage tinkering around. And since he’s 17 at the time, he doesn’t know that VR’s “not possible,” right? But he does realize that a smartphone screen is amazing, and that new graphics cards and chips and new interconnection technologies and new gaming engines are all amazing. And he thinks, You know what, I don’t see why this couldn’t be made to work! So he puts together a prototype [of a video-gaming headset that places a gamer in an all-encompassing VR world], sets up on Kickstarter to raise money, and a whole generation of kids who didn’t know this was “impossible” say, “Oh, that looks like a great idea!”

In other words, the mystery sauce that gave Palmer the opportunity to change his future was his attitude about what he was doing – a belief that anything is possible. Nothing is impossible. Anything can be figured out and created if we make the right investment now for the future.

This is so simple, we think it must be easy. Wrong. It is simple but it is not easy to maintain this frame of mind while we do stuff day by day. To the contrary, a little voice in the brain will keep telling you the opposite. Tell it to “cut it out!” This attitude is not optional. It is the strategic equivalent of breathing. So when people say that “self-confidence” is the key to the success of great achievers like Steve Jobs, this attitude is what they are talking about. Not an insane belief that success is certain, but the attitude that anything is possible if we focus on bringing it about. Btw, that is why Jobs was so obsessed with the idea of “focus”, something we will talk about later.

One more word about attitude. We don’t know the future, but we know what we want from it. We want to be unique and special. We want our lives to have meaning. We need to hold onto that belief (that we have a “lucky star”) no matter what. Successful people do this. Winston Churchill was one such person. No matter how great the disaster he suffered — and he suffered many — he believed that he was destined still for greatness. It may be that this sense of uniqueness is essential to generate the self-confidence that we need to face the future.

Think about it. Do you have a lucky star? Or if you prefer, do you have confidence in your future? And if this idea of confidence interests you, check out Sir Kenneth Clark’s fantastic TV series called “Civilisation”. It is an amazing dash through European art history from the fall of the Roman Empire to the 20th century. And it has a great finale. Drum roll please! After all of that history. Clark says quite directly that no civilization can long exist without confidence in the future. And that means you too need that confidence — no matter what!

Looking back at my own experience in university, there is no question that I suffered from the above confirmation bias. I thought I knew a lot more than I did and I was on lookout for stuff that confirmed it. And I thought it was normal to pretend that I knew lots of stuff that I really didn’t know. I assumed that this was what smart people did. They impressed people, right? I didn’t realize the strategic value and beauty of not knowing. Of seeing reality with fresh and young eyes.  I had not heard yet why Socrates was the wisest man in Athens – because he was the only man who knew that he knew nothing. To put it in zen terms, Socrates understood that the best place to be is at the starting point, when all things are possible. And btw, from a strategic perspective, any and all moments are starting points. Looking back, I wish I had thought more this way.

And my attitude? I had a pretty strong belief in my own cleverness. And I felt that I had some innate good sense to deal with crisis (like cramming for exams). But to be honest, I did not have a strong belief in my ability to make things happen. Ooops! I did not think that anything was possible for me. No one told me that! And so I questioned my own judgment about why I was doing stuff and how well I could do it. That made me less decisive. In turn, this narrowed the scope of my vision. My overall self evaluation – I could have used an attitude adjustment. Ah well, I came to realize these things later. Ooops!

So step one to rev up your strategic thinking –  remind yourself each day not to assume that you understand what you see. You don’t see what is behind the surface and that is ok. Real understanding is an ongoing quest to go beyond what you see, which means plugging into processes. At the same time, you must believe that anything is possible if you apply yourself to bringing it about. And you are unique! Special! Drum roll please! Doing stuff breeds creativity, not the other way around. This is what John Wooden called the “winning attitude” and it is the posture that is essential to open the door to future thinking.

Step two? Seeing the context is a good start, but at the end of the day, strategy is about making choices. Not just random choices, but investment decisions. How do we do that? That is next!


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