Note from Marcia: More than a decade ago, I was editor of an online magazine focused on the promise of learning in the new economy. We addressed learning as the lifeblood of society, a natural process living things did nonstop, bearing little resemblance to modern practices in school or training. Jay Cross wrote several wonderful articles for the publication. With the exception of a reference to VCRs, and Jay’s hallmark cottage-industry sketches, the piece seems as timely to me today as it did back in 2001. Jay passed away recently and I realized it was time to share here my favorite article, reminding every one of us tomorrow’s too late.
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Abraham Lincoln
We often fool ourselves into thinking that we have a good handle on the future impact of current actions. It’s logical, isn’t it?
The voices in our heads continually comfort us by saying that the world runs on common sense and we are in control. We assume we know the logical connection between present and future without even thinking about it. But when we try to describe the intervening steps, we discover that most of the middle ground from now to then is illusory. We don’t invent the pathway to the future until called upon, much as we make up stories off-the-cuff when recounting fragments of ideas that haven’t quite yet jelled.
This gap helps explain self-destructive behavior: the failure to connect present and future. The smoker keeps on puffing, denying that cigarettes cause cancer. The business leader keeps doing what worked last quarter, denying that conditions always change.
Inevitably, the future catches short-term thinkers by surprise.
“Stuff” happens. It doesn’t need to.
“One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’.” Dan Quayle
As a Boy Scout, I carried waterproof matches, a hunting knife, and a flashlight on hikes so I would Be Prepared. This gave me a sense of security for the day but did nothing to prepare me for life beyond. I didn’t think about the future much and didn’t do much to prepare for it.
Why was I so shortsighted?
Beside the fact that I was young, my brain, like yours, evolved when our ancestors were the naked hunters (and the hunted) who survived on the savannah by living in the moment. In a world of eat-or-be-eaten, “long term” was not a concept.
For me, the future seemed so far away. I had no appreciation of consequences. I didn’t think about what tomorrow would bring. I didn’t know what to prepare for. These are not valid reasons to put off preparing for the future.
Also, the future has changed. Sanitation and health care have tripled the human lifespan, and corporations outlive their founders. Most of us will live into what we now think of as the long term.
Time is accelerating, and we’ll get there even sooner than we expect. The past was leisurely. Today the future is rushing toward us.
Unnatural as it feels, we must project ourselves months and years ahead to start getting ready. Snap judgments are not sufficient to see us through. The world’s getting too complicated.
The inevitable future.
Napoleon to his general: “We must plant trees bordering the major roads of France to provide shade for marching soldiers.”
General: “But, mon empereur, they will take decades to grow.”
Napoleon: “Right. There’s not a moment to waste.”
At the macro level, the future is clear. Every individual and every organization that has a life has a life cycle.
You must know where you are in the cycle to take advantage of your position e. This frees you to think about what you are becoming.
Break antiquated routines before they break you. Cut the clutter. Focus on the core; outsource everything else. Strengthen the signal by turning down the noise. Dump things that have outlived their usefulness. Put a kill-date on everything in your personal knowledgebase. Appoint a manager of unlearning for your group. Clear the underbrush of non-essentials.
Think ten years out. What driving forces in your industry will take you there? What is most likely to impact your life? You can work on these areas. Assemble a small group and brainstorm your vision of the future(s). Throw off all constraints—you can edit later. Make your visions feel real by describing them in mock newspaper stories, news broadcasts, annual reports, and video reports. Share these with others; broadcast them. Scenario learning is the catalyst for getting others to join you in thinking about potential future consequences of today’s decisions.
How would you describe an elementary school principal who didn’t conduct fire drills? Irresponsible. And how would you describe a chief operating officer who didn’t prepare for crises? Typical. Sure, it’s easier to ring the bell for the fire drill than to field a corporate emergency-response team. Nonetheless, corporations should practice putting out fires. Name the fire marshals. Set up an in-house “Emergency Broadcast Network.” Decentralize decision-making.
It’s not easy to live out what-if situations when consumed by the present. Since necessity is the mother of invention, you’ll probably have to invent some necessities. Come to grips with what would happen if you had to evacuate the building, evacuate the building.
Preparing for the future was not that important when the world changed only gradually. The future was about the same as the present.
It took 15,000 years for people to discover farming. Writing was invented 2,500 years before the Greeks started using an alphabet.
By contrast, the computer was invented in my lifetime. The first computers filled rooms, contained tens of thousands of vacuum tubes, cost unimaginable sums of money, and were programmed by flipping switches. They had but a tiny fraction of the power in my PDA. And my state-of-the-art PDA will soon be obsolete.
Today the future’s rushing at us at terrific speed. The next three years will see more change than the first three thousand years people lived in America. Thoughtful citizens in our era must focus an increasing proportion of their time on the future, because dramatic changes will take place during their lifetimes.
Here’s the real innovator’s dilemma. Teachers, mentors, and authority figures taught us how the world works. Their vision won’t cut it any more. Their world vanished by the time we had to start making decisions for ourselves. That’s just the beginning.
“How do you fix a computer or program a VCR?” “Ask any twelve-year-old.”
Things are now moving so fast in some fields that the young know more than the old. The young people are the authorities, not their elders.
Like no one before us, our challenge is to seize responsibility for unlearning obsolete rules of thumb, We need to think fresh thoughts and seek new perspectives.
There’s not a moment to waste.