Many of our decisions are based on the short term — our horizons have gotten very small, our tools indulge the need to constantly know where we are towards our immediate goals, never mind that we may be missing the big picture. Entire businesses exist and thrive because they indulge our habit of being “always on.” More businesses are there to help us be “here now.”
We can create better habits. But it's hard to plan for a different future when we don't inhabit the present. Or we're partially here. Think of all the instances in which what we say is distracted by the myriad things we think about or do at the same time.
There's a great line in the movie version of Eat, Pray, Love where Richard from Texas tells Liz something to the effect of “if you could just make some space in there (referring to her head), the universe would just rush in, and fill you with more love than you could ever imagine.”
We react, rush to conclusions, want the quick fix, and make a Hail Mary play for the long-term results. To get there, we need to re-learn to think beyond the immediate, stop ourselves from joining the instant gratification bandwagon long enough to make better decisions.
The long view
Taking the long view is a different process.
Ari Wallach says to shape what's next, we want to move beyond short-termism, to look at the great things we did in the past that have endured, and get back to building that way. At Synthesis Corp. Wallach helps organizations build skunk-work labs. He believes in creating a “longpath” practice in our lives where we get used to thinking in three ways:
1. transgenerationally — many of the issues we face today, in business and in the world, span across generations; anyone with children appreciates this because it touches them personally; in companies there's the whole conversation of succession planning, or even success planning, rarely done anymore. The self-help movement is all geared to help an army of “me,” yet we're all in this together and nobody comes out of this alive.
2. futures thinking — we often imagine the future as a version of the present, but rarely do we think of alternative futures. That's also because we have a hard time going beyond the quarter. but mostly because we've ceded the ability to think for ourselves to others; the media, the gurus, the high priests in Silicon Valley are planning our quarters. To fit into their reports, our thinking about the future needs to fit into their worldview. The future of work depends on our ability to envision futures, plural.
3. telos thinking — or thinking about the ultimate purpose, from Greek. They knew how to think and talk about death, which is a very healthy thing to do for that is something we all have in common and hardly prepare for anymore. Wallach uses the example of Odysseus and his Ithaca as ultimate purpose. And it's interesting because the story is also a perfect example of procrastination and being lost for many years at sea. The journey to finding our place in the world, if not our purpose, is a long one.
Sending the ladder down to the next generation, looking at possible futures, and having an ultimate purpose are the qualities that help us build the long path.
I call this building cathedrals, because success is fragile when it's borrowed or on borrowed time. When we build this way, from understanding what holds the edifice up for centuries rather than months, we grow. To learn about the kind of impact we want to have, we want to look at what influences us.
What we consume consumes us
We're in a relationship with thoughts and things in the same way as we are with others. It's an exchange of energy. As I wrote in the universal language of human relationships
The things we own own us as it takes energy to deal with them and unless we change our relationship with the stuff we own, it will end up owning us.
If we think it's hard to understand how a relationship with things works, it is harder still to learn the mechanisms underscoring human relationships.
There's a give and take of energy in interactions. It's more perceived than real, but it happens nonetheless. The more we understand the mechanism that drives the depletion part, the better off we'll be:
We act to make what we want and what we think could happen match. When that doesn't happen, we repress or deny it to manage our anxiety or do our best to make our desires come true.
What happens in our heads is very powerful. Our reading, our habits, the things we consume end up affecting us in ways more profound than we may imagine. In our gut we know this, but we let short-term thinking and desires for gratification, immediate results, and quick fixes take over.
This and social pressure are the levers that take over.
Fads vs trends
We could argue that everything is momentary, but with consequences, many of which are unintended. Fads are short-term events, which is why we also call them “flash in the pan.” They're here and gone. Trends have the potential of influencing a market long-term. Some ideas are weeds, some are trees.
If we want the stuff that makes history, we want to tell the fads from the trends. To learn the difference we may resort to tactics like Ulysses with the sirens — minimize temptation by making a binding promise to hold ourselves to our purpose long enough to vet and validate an event.
In Megatrends, John Nasbitt says that each new technology, to be successful, must be coupled with a compensatory human response. Thirty years later, we can tell the trends because they endured in our culture.
The more we're online, the more we want and need to get offline with people in real life, for example. Evidence of this trend is the proliferation of in person events, which is why it's both difficult to know about them all, and near impossible to capture them in a system so people can discover them.
As technological development accelerates and permeates human cultures, the value of individually hand-crafted items rises. The interest in owning hand-made items, and in making things with one's own hands, increases in parallel.
Globalization and localization are in conversation with each other — each force pulling its weigh as the laws of physics would dictate. Why? Because where we live and what happens there matter to us as much as the possibilities of expanding our horizons and trading all over the world.
Trends flow through culture on a river of emerging consensus and change us in some way, they change the way we think and operate. But it's not enough to pay attention to long-term developments to sail on the winds of commerce.
Empires rise and fall based on how they execute, their behavior. Rapid growth comes at a cost. Often the price we pay is our future. We want to learn to see the difference between short-termism and longpath, weed and tree ideas, as much as we want to tell fads from trends. The more we seek first to understand, the better off we are when it comes to long-term results.
At Conversation Agent, I focus on slow and tree ideas. Which is why I took a short (if we consider the almost 11 years of this blog) hiatus to take stock of what we've learned together so far (see my Twitter feed or search here for re-runs on topics), and to think about where the conversation takes us to futures thinking.
Conversation is the internet of the modern business landscape. My hunch is there is so much more to do to learn about the relationship of business with technology and digital media as seen through the lens of human behavior. And this is what Conversation Agent is all about.