Remembering the Future

Opening

Hi I’m Cecily, and I am a futurist. Though I have not brought my crystal ball, I can prove to you my power of foresight by predicting the very next thought that will pop into your heads: “What the hell is a futurist?” No point denying it; my mother asks me the very same question every time I see her, and I have been at this for more than 13 years.

It seems fitting that as I stand before you at this TEDxWomen event that I should take a moment to extend a much overdue apology to my mother for failing to land on a career she can make sense of. Heaven knows I had my chances: I have been a professional dancer, a chiropractor, a college instructor and a branding consultant—all professions my octogenarian, super-smart, super-groovy artist of a mom might easily have bragged about to the other ladies in the yoga studio. But a Futurist? Imagine her consternation when asked after the final shivasana/morning meditation, “But what is a futurist? What does she actually do?” or the one that makes me laugh, “How many of them are there?”

Truly, Mom, I’m sorry. The work of a futurist is inherently hard to grasp, since it deals, by definition, with the unknowable, with the focus of this conference: the space between. Futurists are much like electrons in an atom, whizzing and zipping around, here one gazzillionth of a second, there another, and somehow everywhere at once, seeking to make meaning out of apparent chaos. The point of all that zipping around is to bring disparate areas of study together for a fuller, deeper, broader understanding of how our ever-changing world works—and then get people unstuck from their natural permanent present modes of thinking so they can be ready for the changes heading our way.

-        Crystal clear, right?

Okay, let me back up. In order to understand what a futurist does, you have to understand two things: first, how the outside world works and then how the inside world works--in other words, how our brains process information, and generate ideas and insights. As for the outside world, I use an examination of what I call the Four Forces of Change—resources, technology, demographics, and governance—as a predictive model to help clients see what their particular piece of the future will look like as they prepare to meet it. That involves a lot of digging and research, and luckily for you, my allotted time is too short to put you through that much manual labor tonight.

Instead I’d like to focus on the work of a Futurist that deals with how we think—and to do that, I’d like to take you back to the tiny sunlit dance studio of Madame Ferrar in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, where, as a six-year-old aspiring ballerina I lined up at the barre alongside my fellow dancers in pink tights and black leotards—a uniform which Madame also wore, along with a black wrap skirt, and a heeled ballet slipper. She also carried an important prop: a cane. She used that cane to pound out rhythms on the floor, and to pound into our heads what good posture and correct line in a leg extension should look like. In other words, she was pounding out of us the proper perspiration.

Perspiration was the key; more than a century after Thomas Edison said that the innovative process is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, I’m continually surprised that so many people still believe that creativity is a gift: either you have it or you don’t.

I knew better back in Madame Ferrar’s studio. Day after day, I followed the same routine: plié, tendu, pique, pirouette… Then, as I grew beyond that studio and began dancing professionally, the routine was expanded: ballet class in the morning, and rehearsals in the afternoon where we worked on new works of choreography, ultimately culminating in performances, then—always-- back again to the barre. Even when I was faced with a bad performance or an injury, the drill continued: learn, create, produce; learn, create, produce. Our creativity was a structured process of perspiration.

It is this core principle that I would like to communicate to you: What it takes to produce original work, then bring it to the stage or to market—what we call the creative process—owes far more to a the discipline of continuous exploration and refinement, than it does to some kind of magic muse or inherited genius. Most important, is this: the creative process can be taught to anyone; it can be scaled for groups of all sizes; it follows a clear, replicable structure; and, in the end, a lot of hard work, not magic or even the right DNA, is what wins the day.

But here‘s the catch: that work has to be productive, and because of the wiring in our brains, we all tend to work unproductively. Here’s why:

Remembering the Future

According to the most recent brain-imaging research, the same neural networks we use to envision the future are also used to recall memories. That means that most of us can only imagine what we already know.

SLIDE:
Brain scan

fMRI.jpg

This fMRI shows that the same areas of the brain that light up when subjects were asked to remember their favorite birthday—in full detail for 10 seconds—also lit up when they were asked to envision a future celebration.

SLIDE:
Our memories are the material from which we construct, simulate, elaborate, and predict future events in an ever-changing environment.

In an evolutionary sense, this drive is useful and efficient. It helps us stay alive. However, it is a death knell to any enterprise that relies on making sense of our changing world. In other words, it’s a problem continually addressed by futurists.

The brain is constantly memorizing data concerning the people you meet, the places you go, and the things you hear, feel, see, touch, and experience. That way, when you encounter something similar, you can pull from this vast store of data and say, “Ah, I know how this goes.”

SLIDE

·        30th Birthday

·        Island Vacation

·        Children’s Literature

·        Science Professor

·        Bangkok Thailand

For instance, when you hear familiar terms like “30th Birthday,” “Island vacation,” “Children’s Literature,” “Science professor,” or “Bangkok, Thailand” specific scenes and associations come to mind. Even for those of you who haven’t had your 30th birthday yet, or for those whose nearest experience of Bangkok is an order of Pad Thai, your imagination still fills in those “spaces between” with very specific images and feelings.

This is what your brain does every moment of every day:  it makes predictions by pulling from your unique store of memories to cast assumptions about what’s next. It’s how we make decisions large and small, conscious and unconscious. It’s abundantly clear when we see people who suffer from dementia or amnesia, how much we rely on our memory to function in the world.

SLIDE:

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
- Albert Einstein

You see, a problem is simply a situation that we don’t yet fully understand. We don’t have the knowledge or perspective to see an obvious solution. We are stuck in what I call the permanent present, futilely trying to solve future challenges by looking backwards.

Getting Unstuck

Einstein’s insight was abundantly clear to me in my 20s when I decided I’d had enough of ballet and wanted to try modern dance. I cut off my hair, tossed aside my pointe shoes, and joined a modern dance company in Chicago. Though I had spent more than 15 years mastering the perfection of the turned-out leg and pointed toe, the erect spine and lifted carriage, I was totally useless as I was asked to flop and slide and run in modern choreography. After one particularly frustrating rehearsal, I all but collapsed at the barre, where the male dancer next to me gave me the once over and cooly pronounced, “You’ve never done anything but ballet, have you?”

Nope.

This moment describes the limits of expertise. When we go outside the range of its specific applications, it’s not very valuable. I only had one vocabulary to pull from when I was trying this new language, and it showed. In other words, I was stuck.

So how do you get unstuck? Like I had to do in that studio, you have to start from a new beginning. Technically, what you have to do is create new memories. Sometimes this is exhilarating but, just as often, it’s uncomfortable.  In fact, being a beginner is often frustrating and hard on the ego. But know this: it’s definitely doable and ultimately exciting because doing so is what opens your world.

Insight

So, again, how do you get unstuck? How do you create those new memories?

We need to watch My Chemical Romance concerts on the iPhone and attend Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera; we need to listen to lectures by prominent stem-cell researchers and watch Real Housewives of New Jersey; we need take kite surfing lessons, and see Tornado Alley and attend the upcoming Body Worlds exhibit. Each new scent, sound, taste, view, touch, movement, and sensation contributes to a rich portfolio from which creative ideas and insights arise.

Now, here’s where it gets really exciting:

When these new experiences are being recorded, the brain looks for similar “data” to associate it with. It’s like a mental mash-up; an established memory collides with new information, and your frame of reference suddenly expands. In that moment you re-perceive an idea, now in a broader context, with nuances you’d not seen before, and think, “Aha! I’ve never seen it that way before!” Indeed you haven’t. Without the new input and the new synaptic connections that it creates, there’s no physical way that you could have seen it that way before.

This moment of insight is what futurists are working for. In that moment, perspective expands and understanding deepens; a cascade of new predictions ripples through the brain and, with it, new ideas start to pop. When this starts to happen in the innovation process, the insights, the new predictions, and the ideas are the material from which a solution is mapped out. The result is a new set of possibilities that fits our interests and matches future conditions.

Our Future

Once you have that broad reservoir of memory, you can become agile in thinking and creative, a quality we used to think was divinely endowed to a special class of genius, the likes of Galileo, Da Vinci, Mozart, Shakespeare, Oprah, and Steve Jobs.

And while we may not all be Einsteins, it’s important to remember that our brains are wired in the same way theirs were, and since we now know understand more about how to enhance its capacity for prediction and insight, we can more readily access the ‘genius’ potential in each of us. 

Yes, we can.
But far more critically, we have to.

We have to, because our world and the issues before us are growing in complexity. This is the natural course of progress, like it or not. To adapt, we need a rich and dynamic store of memories from which we can cast flexible and nuanced views of the future. If we don’t, we are destined to feel overwhelmed and stuck in a permanent present.

Conclusion

Our world is both expanding and converging far faster than it ever has before.  If we’re to respond sensitively, with an eye on the long-term, our thinking has to, similarly, be more expansive and convergent too.

What does that mean for you? You have to be endlessly curious. You have to be comfortable with being a beginner. Willing to take in new experiences simply for the sake of doing so. You have to be intolerant of being stuck, or too narrowly defined. Like a futurist, you have to be comfortable in the space between.

I may never be able to satisfy my mother totally when she asks me, “What exactly do you do?” But I would encourage you to begin exploring the ideas of future thinking for yourselves. In fact, if I had my way, thinking like a futurist would be a general competency, not a profession. Children would be trained in critical thinking and decision-making. Teenagers would be rewarded for considering the far-reaching consequences of their actions. Young adults would direct their lives by who they are and where they’re going, returning to that anchor of purpose and vision whenever their lives took a new turn. Leaders at every level of society, and in all sectors, would eschew ideology, while holding fast to their values. They would be rewarded for cultivating curiosity and courage in the people around them. They would favor action over rhetoric, and rigor over rigidity. If I ruled the world, everyone would think like a Futurist, ensuring that each individual is not just busy, but busy creating his or her future.

But that’s a talk for another day.

For now, my hope is simply that we would all be trained to be futurists, starting right here in this auditorium.

That way, when my mom asks “How many of there are you?” I can honestly and simply and happily say: “Lots.”