Train your Brain to Think Like a Futurist

You may be downing your Starbucks Venti. You may be driving your car or telling your kids to pick up their backpacks. Whatever you’re doing, you’re thinking about the future.

The human brain is wired to make predictions. Constantly.

In each moment, it’s assessing the situation and, based on past experience, makes assumptions about what comes next:

  • Having landed a big project over coffee, you’ll tell your assistant to clear all personal appointments from your calendar for the next month.
  • When the queue to the freeway entrance ramp is longer than usual, you’ll plan an alternate route home.
  • When the tell-tale stink of stale sweat wafts into your house, you’ll know that your son needs to replace the dirty gym clothes in his pack with a fresh set for tomorrow.

Thinking Ahead vs Thinking Like a Futurist
Your brain is jumping ahead even as you read this sentence, interpreting marks on the page as familiar letters, words, sentences, and meaning. The vocabulary is quite basic, so you already know what comes ________.

See, you are thinking about the future. (Correct answer: “Next”) But you are not thinking like a futurist.

Here’s the difference. Thinking about the future uses past experience to anticipate what comes next. Thinking like a futurist rejects this backward-looking orientation – and instead looks sideways, backwards, forwards, and upside down — in order to envision an unexperienced, and often unexpected, future; it is a different exercise of the brain.

Futurist Thinking in Business
Neurologically, thinking about the future is simply a reconfiguration of past memories and feelings. We know this because, using brain scans, cognitive scientists have recently observed that the area of the brain that lights up when we recall a memory also lights up when we’re asked to imagine a future event.

Early in the human evolutionary process, this quick-fill pattern of foresight helped us run the other way when, say, we recognized the paw prints of a Saber-toothed tiger. If he was there yesterday he’ll be there again today. This pattern of thinking is also used in cumulative learning (from arithmetic to algebra to calculus), to get through everyday tasks efficiently. And, if you ascribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers rule of 10,000 hours, achieve mastery in your field.

However, pulling from the past to create the future can also trap you in what I call the “Permanent Present,” a linear continuation of current conditions. In a world that is increasingly discontinuous, the brain’s default prediction mechanism is a liability. Witness the erosion of market share of the once dominant Blackberry smartphone, plummeting from a Crackberry-worthy 44% in 2009 to a Slackberry-nadir of 1% in 2013.

Contrarily, by committing to a bold, future-forward digital strategy aimed at Millennials, Burberry’s stock price rose 200% in six years. Burberry’s brand story remains consistent with its heritage as a 150-year-old luxury brand and, by reimagining retail as a digital-first experience, it is also consistent with where the future is headed. What worked for Burberry worked for innovators like Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, and Warby Parker, and it will work for you: a creative leap into a scenario that looks different than your past.

Train your Brain to Think Like a Futurist
Creative leaps come when memories are combined in unexpected ways — what neuroscientists call associative fluency — a facility that grows in direct proportion to the memories it draws from. It also grows with practice; here are three tips for training your brain to think like a futurist:

1. Change perspective
Choose experiences that literally shift your perspective: Go skydiving. Interview someone whose experience and beliefs are different than your own. Take a survival challenge. Challenge yourself to do something that’s scary every day.

2. Look under the hood
Get curious about how things work. Dive into different disciplines and keep asking why: Study philosophy. Go the planetarium. Talk to a political campaign manager. Listen to science lecturers. Read history. Visit a factory. Take the opposing side of an issue.

3. Give it a rest
An unfocused state of mind is often where it all comes together. As you turn down your attention on the external world, your brain will start connecting unrelated experiences in new ways: Take a walk. Stare out the window. Lie in the sun. Get a massage. Book a session in a flotation tank. Meditate. Sit by the fire, or on a porch. Paint a room. Go running.

Use these three steps in innovation challenges or whenever you feel stuck. Build them into your problem-solving method, and in workshops. The more you practice, the more your associative fluency will grow, and the more your brain will fill in the blanks of the future with new possibilities.

The rise of Internet of Things, Big Data, and 3D printing is challenging everything we already know. It’s also accelerating the rate of change and of innovation. To navigate this future, our thinking has to become as rich and varied as the world around us; a world that demands that each of us is thinking like a futurist.

© 2014 by Cecily Sommers. All rights reserved.


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