8 Books for When you’re in the Mood to Explore Possible Futures

Possible futures

I don't know about you, but after a day of work, some of which includes some level of worry, I'm often not in the mood for reading complex stuff. That's why I've been embracing mystery novels.

But, I also believe there's a place for smart, well-thought-out arguments about things that could impact the future. In my recent email to a growing list of subscribers who are curious about thinking and sensemaking, I shared a list of biographies.

Right now, we're learning a lot from the lives of others… at least I'm learning a lot more about life than a grim tally of numbers. Books worth reading do that, they take you closer to someone's way of seeing the world.

That has value above and beyond fragmented articles and inspirational quotes. A book is a set of ideas with space to create some direction. Direction of travel is useful when uncertainty is part of everyday experience.

Exploration of possible futures

Some writers are masters at holding your hand through new territory. But not every book is useful any time. I've had books sit in my library for months, even years, before I picked them up to read. When I did, I was glad it was at that moment.

They say when the student is ready, the master shows up. As is with every stage in human growth, so is with stages of emotional readiness.

I tried to make this list a little bit like a journey with several stops.


Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility by David Weinberger

The title of the book comes from “Chaos Theory.” A theory that provides mathematical tools for modelling highly complex, nonlinear systems, making it possible to analyze everything from the flow of water around a boulder, to climate change. Altering one element can have surprising and dramatic effects on entire enmeshed systems, just like the tiny pebble on your windscreen… as happened to me recently.

Behavioral economics demonstrated just how irrational we are and changed economic thinking. ‘Everyday chaos’ thinking must change our understanding of strategy and our business decisions.

Central thesis: for centuries, human's imperfect knowledge about the world has rested on the assumption that if we work hard enough and think clearly enough, the universe will yield its secrets. It won’t, and it cannot: there isn’t a box of secret rules.

The “true complexity of the world far outstrips the laws and models we devise to explain it.” That doesn't mean we cannot act intelligentlywe can and must. However, the fundamentals of our thinking and decision making must change in the light of the chaos we now experience and are beginning to understand and internalize. Machine learning can help recalculate variables, but it won't take away the uncertainty.

Strategy is more important than ever, but it looks more like strategizing. Companies and people must engage more with scenario planning to help see through the implications of large scale changes. Energy can come from tiny changes distributed throughout the system, if the system is large, complex, and densely connected enough. You are here.


The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep your Stretegy Moving as Fast as your Business by Rita McGrath

This book is more about transient advantage vs. large-scale change. Professor McGrath debunks Michael Porter’s idea that you can ever have a “sustainable competitive advantage.” Any inventor of a defunct piece of technology has felt the impact. Thus a “strategy of continuous reconfiguration.”

Central thesis: Companies must put in place ways to be alerted to changes anywhere in their environment. This is both organizational structure and culture, to enable companies to respond by letting go of the current trajectory and creating a new one.

McGrath’s approach is to be aware of small changes. This is a more appropriate response to the delicate interrelationship of every aspect of life, any bit of which might affect your business.

Often, the people who see changes coming are not those in charge of making major organizational decisions. … Often, also, the people who are in positions to make difficult choices face the prospect of personal and career catastrophe if the predictions turn out to be false.”


Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe by Deborah Gruenfeld

Actors aren’t the only ones who play roles for a living. Your roles may vary, and you can be more effective if you acknowledge them. Are you in the role of boss” or subordinate, dad or friend”?

Central thesis: Gruenfeld explains what playing high and playing low mean, and when to use each. Power is a part you play in someone else's story,” she says. The idea of purpose to power is interesting.

This book may be empowering: Gruenfeld sees power as a valuable asset people should use to serve, rather than a thing to accumulate.

See also the difference between power and status. Gruenfels, a social psychologist, says:

“like playing power up, playing it down is an act, designed to make us appear less intimidating, less capable of winning a fight, and less ruthless than we might actually be. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t truthful.”


Courage To Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by Ichiro Kishimi

A dialogue between a philosopher and a young person. Kishimi uses the theories of Alfred Adler, one of the three giants of nineteenth-century psychology alongside Freud and Jung. But the 5-conversations format might not everyone's cup of espresso.

Central thesis: each person is able to set the direction of their life. Many of us may need guidance as we set out to go through the wake of this pandemic. Kishimi takes you through self-forgiveness, self-care, and mind decluttering.

It's really hard to detect one's own self-limiting beliefs. One one hand, I try to be realistic about my prospects; one the other, I try to have confidence in my abilities. Somehow, I seem to be bobbing too much in the waters of recognition, especially after a day of too much exposure to social media.


The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller

Too many metrics are killing productivity. Human performance is so much more than a bunch of numbers. Muller is a historian. He says there are three components to the metrics fixation: 1./ replacing judgment with numerical values; 2./ publicizing numbers to make institutions transparent and accountable; 3./ managing people is to give them numerical targets and evaluations.

Central thesis: Our fixation with measuring has gotten us stuck on ease of measurement as a metric. Ironically, despite all this measurement, productivity is lagging. Rather because of it. This overlooks human energy and endangers the quality of our lives and institutions.

The problem is not measurement itself, but excessive use of it in areas where personal judgement based on experience could be better. A way to know: If the object of your measurements can be by altered by the measuring process, then the results is less than accurate.

Some examples in the book: hospitals keep dying patients alive for 30 days because that’s the measure of treatment success. Surgeons decline to operate on iffy cases for fear of them dying too soon. Creative teachers quit and move to private schools where teaching to the test and abandoning real learning are not the main activities. Universities cripple research in favor of reporting on every aspect of education, right up to how much each graduate is earning ten years later. All efforts focused on moving up the rankings in various, competing lists. Cheating by teachers, administrators and politicians on No Child Left Behind are legendary.

Also see knowledge work and the metric black whole. As Muller says:

“There are things that can be measured. There are things that are worth measuring. But what can be measured is not always what is worth measuring; what gets measured may have no relationship to what we really want to know. The costs of measuring may be greater than the benefits. The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things we really care about. And measurement may provide us with distorted knowledge—knowledge that seems solid but is actually deceptive.”


Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Stoicism doesn't rescue you so much as train you to manage unproductive emotions and thoughts. It teaches you to bundle up or triage your concerns according to a fundamental dichotomy.

Central thesis: Irvine expands the classical stoic dichotomy “Some things are up to us, other things are not” (Epictetus) to a trichotomy: “things I have no control over, things I have absolute control over, and things I have some measure of control over.”

For example, you can exert control over your goals, values, what you formulate as your life philosophy.

We have no control over the sunrise, or of the past—what's happened has happened—or over trade or immigration policy and other acts of people in high office over whom we have no means of influence. We have some control over our professional lives but cannot guarantee success in every endeavor, only that we'll do our very best to fulfill the mission.

Given that what makes a good life? Is probably one of the most read articles here, I'm guessing this could be a good addition to your library. Irvine says:

“if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.”

“One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted.”


Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows

There are limits to growth, which is also Meadows' international bestseller. You're likely familiar with the idea that interconnected systems cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others. This is a nice, basic text about systems-thinking. But is in no way and exhaustive treatment of the topic.

Useful ideas: In chapter four Meadows argues that one of the reasons why economic modelling is flawed because it concentrates on flows not stocks (e.g., production rather than productive capacity) and doesn't consider the dynamic between them. Chapter five on systems traps has an interesting comparison on population policy in post World War II Romania, Hungary and Sweden. Attempts in Romania to increase the birth rate by banning abortion led to an increase in deaths from back-street abortions and an increase of children abandoned at orphanages. While in Hungary there was a focus on building instead to counter people delaying having families (symptom) due to a lack of housing (cause).

Quotes I liked:

“There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.”

“Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.”


The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson 

This is a bit of a surprise, I've been curious about this topic for a while. Recently Italian architect Carlo Ratti converted shipping containers to serve as intensive therapy units for Covid-19. They are quite versatile, but where do they come from?

Central story: the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.

The container didn't just happen. Because it required massive investment for adoption to take place. Levinson is an economist and historian. He draws on sources previously overlooked to give us a fuller picture of the box's impact on trade. Before containers, shipping was very expensive.

But, dependencies. Before large scale adoption, the thinking behind ships and trains etc. had to change. Ships had to stop thinking they were in the sailing business, for instance, and begin to see themselves as freight-movers. Everything they did had to be with the idea of the best, cheapest, easiest way to handle freight and get it on it's way.

This is a case where thinking inside the box actually helped.

“In 1961, before the container was in international use, ocean freight costs alone accounted for 12 percent of the value of U.S. exports and 10 percent of the value of U.S. imports.”
I've been sharing more book lists, ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you're using this time to reflect and organize action to build the future.