Future doesn't exist, or does it?


Yesterday, I had an engaging conversation with a group of city leaders of one of the major cities in Finland. Our topic was how to build a well-grounded long-term policy for the city. We mainly focused on how difficult it is to build enthusiasm about long-term thinking, when all future-orientated action seems to be limited through short-term, if not “no-term” thinking. Indeed, people in our times seem to be obsessed by the present: how can we manage life right now, with all its difficulties and challenges. Look at the shelves in bookshops (or these days on web sites like Amazon) and you find will find countless authors explaining how to live “just now”. Future seems to hardly even exist.

There is good reason for this phenomenon. At the end of the day, now is all we got. But now is also the darkness, not the light. “Nowness” is about not seeing forward. It is like being in the womb with our eyes closed. So are we just stuck in the darkness?

Of course not. Because even if now is everything that exists we still have something else. We have a future in the possibilities. Yet, as the great Indian Yogi, mystic and philanthropist Sadhguru notes, many of us go blindly into the future. We continue to repeat our compulsions or just simply blunder through somehow.

The light in our lives comes from the fact that we can choose our future. We can make conscious, deliberate decisions. It almost doesn’t matter what those decisions are. We just need to make a choice and stick with that. Sadhguru says we only need to be comfortable and stable. If we can achieve that much, the rest will follow. Our decisions will bear fruit, they will bring the future.

But you might say: hey, look at the world! Look at where the grand invention of our age, crony capitalism, a deliberately taken series of decisions, is taking us.  62 people possess as much wealth as half of the world population. As the title of the Oxfam report to the last World Economic Forum reveals, ours is the economy for the 1%. This is a world where people, increasingly young people, feel they are trapped in poverty, without education, and without a job. They try a thousand times to find a job but to no avail. How can they think they have a future?

So how do we deliberately build our lives, while the world is falling to pieces? If the world is shaking us, can we still stay in tune, comfortable and stable with what we have just now?

First, let’s admit that there are indeed darker possibilities for the future. Not only might the end of capitalism be looming – like a financial crisis that will, this time, actually destroy global capital markets and not just “almost”, as last time. Other catastrophes could be looming: such as a devastating climate flip-flop - a term coined by Prof. William Calvin in his famous Atlantic Monthly article explaining the possibility of climate cooling as a result of icebergs melting down and warm ocean currents coming to a halt.  Or other minor catastrophes, like some one telling you your services are not needed anymore, and fired you are.

In our personal lives, just wishing for a nice future for ourselves may not achieve it. The mantra of positive thinking may not be working. The world doesn’t turn into a nice place simply because you wish it to. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology, has interestingly pointed out that what we actually need in order to envision a brighter future is something she calls “mental contrasting”. It means we take into account the possible obstacles, which some people also call “the reality”. Her WOOP -“wish, outcome, obstacle, plan” -model seems to me a much more delicate way of planning out our futures.

The world, with its problems and calamities, is coming nearer to us. But the opposite is also true. We are expanding further out into the world. The old saying “ think global, act local” is turning more into “think and act both globally and locally”. Stephen Cohen, a global strategist,points out: because we are living and experiencing “more” in the world, we are indeed developing a global mindset. We are the world, as he hymn goes.

Yet, we can stay comfortable and stable in this turbulent and information-intense world only by continuing to choose what we want. That is our way of getting out of darkness. Choosing what we want means actually designing, visualizing, imagining the world. If we keep on doing that, recognizing the obstacles but planning our way around them, we might be getting what we want.

As BMW Chief Designer Adrian van Hooydonk says elegantly: “If a designer has an inner representation/visualization of something there is a big chance that it will come into reality some time”.

This is not a definite promise, but it gives an orientation, which I believe is a very true one.

There is a future, after all.