It’s obvious – what we do today shapes our future. The actions we choose to take today will determine what our future will look like.
What’s not so obvious? Our future shapes what we do today. How could that be? The future hasn’t yet happened, so how could it determine our actions today? How could this be true if we embrace the opposite view that our actions today shape our future?
As many of you know, I love paradox because it can expand our horizons and drive us to see things that have remained hidden from view. That’s what this paradox can do.
Our view of the future
We all have a view of the future, even though few of us make the effort to articulate that view, even to ourselves, much less to others.
At the risk of generalizing, I would suggest that we generally fall into two camps when it comes to our view of the future. On one side, we tend to view the future as threatening – it’s full of danger and will be much more challenging that the present. On the other side, we tend to view the future as full of opportunity – we will be able to achieve much more impact that is meaningful to us.
Of course, our view of the future can be very complex, involving a mixture of threat and opportunity but, for most of us, one or the other will tend to dominate and will shape our view of what is ahead.
That view of the future will shape our emotions today. If we look ahead and see primarily threat, we will be consumed by fear. On the other hand, if we look ahead and see primarily opportunity, we will tend to be motivated by hope and excitement.
So, our view of the future is shaping the present, in terms of the emotions that we feel today. But it does even more than that. Our emotions today shape our actions today.
If we’re driven by fear, our time horizons shrink, we become more risk averse and our trust in others erodes. As a result, we tend to become very reactive, simply responding to whatever is happening today, and we become more and more isolated, since we can’t trust others. What happens then? We enter a vicious cycle, where our reluctance to act and collaborate with others feeds our fear and our greater fear makes it even more challenging to make progress in the present.
On the other hand, if we’re driven by hope and excitement, we tend to look ahead and act boldly in the pursuit of the opportunities that we see in the future. We also are more willing to ask for help from others. This tends to create a virtuous cycle. The more motivated we are to pursue opportunities with others, the more likely those opportunities will manifest and that in turn will generate even more hope and excitement.
So, the future is shaping our present in profound ways. It’s shaping our emotions and our actions today. Of course, these emotions and actions today will shape our future as well, but let’s not ignore how our view of the future is having a profound impact on what we do today.
The role of narratives
Here’s the challenge. More and more of us in the world today are becoming consumed by fear. Why is that happening? At one level, it’s understandable because we live in a world that is in the early stages of a Big Shift, driven by long-term forces that are creating mounting performance pressure – competition is intensifying, the pace of change is accelerating, and extreme disruptive events are leaving us scrambling to figure out what to do next.
But this fear is also being fed and intensified by threat-based narratives. Those who follow me know that I have a very different definition of narratives than most. Most people view narratives and stories as the same thing. I believe an important distinction can and should be made.
For me, stories are self-contained – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to the story. Stories are also about the story-teller or some other people, real or imagined, but they’re not about you.
In contrast, narratives the way I view them are open-ended. There is no end yet, but there’s some significant threat or opportunity out in the future and not clear how the narrative will be resolved. And the resolution of the narrative hinges on you – your choices and your actions will help to determine how this narrative resolves. Narratives have an explicit call to action.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we live in a world where threat-based narratives are increasingly prevalent. Just look at our news media and listen to our politicians – it’s all about the profound threats that are coming to consume us. Once again, there’s a vicious cycle at play. The more prevalent threat-based narratives become, the more consumed by fear we become and that in turn makes us even more receptive to threat-based narratives.
So, how do we escape this vicious cycle? We need to start by recognizing how limiting the emotion of fear is and the role that threat-based narratives are playing in feeding that fear. Then we need to make an effort to shift our view of the future and craft an opportunity-based narrative.
That requires us to reflect on what has excited us the most in our lives to date. We then need to look ahead and frame an opportunity that has the potential to draw out that excitement and keep us focused on achieving something that is really meaningful to us. As that opportunity-based narrative begins to take shape, we will start to feel the excitement that will help us to move beyond fear.
We need a view of the future to focus our actions today – a positive view of the future will lead to much greater impact today as long as we understand the obstacles and challenges that confront us. Opportunity-based narratives do not ignore obstacles and challenges – they are very clear that the opportunity will require effort and action to achieve. They motivate us to seek help from others – we need to connect with others who are also excited about the opportunity out in the future.
The future matters for business and society
This is not just about us as individuals. Our view of the future is shaping how our businesses perform and how our society evolves. We need to craft institutional, geographical and movement narratives that will help all participants to move beyond fear and take action that will help achieve much greater positive impact. If we get this right, we’ll move together into a much brighter future.
Let’s not be blind to how our view of the future shapes our present. The Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure that is leading more and more of us to adopt a threat-based based view of the future. The paradox is that the same forces that a generating mounting performance pressure are also creating exponentially expanding opportunity. We can create far more value, far more quickly and with far less resources than would have been imaginable a few decades ago. The challenge is that, if we’re driven by fear today, we’ll never even see those opportunities, much less find the motivation to pursue them. How we act in the present is deeply shaped by our view of the future. Let’s come together to evolve a very different view of the future.