Imaginable (2022) lays out a simple but powerful premise: you have more control over the future than you may think. Through psychology-backed games, it explores how to train your imagination in order to transform your outlook on life and, ultimately, change the world. Its big-picture thinking and actionable exercises will help you prepare for – and get excited about – what’s to come.
Introduction: Train your imagination to anticipate – and create – the future.
Don’t you sometimes wish you could have a crystal ball to look into the future and at least mentally prepare for it?
Like – truly? Right? Look at the times we live in.
Reading this summary is a little bit like that crystal ball – just better – because it actually gives you tools to prepare for uncertainty.
So what if you were a futurist and imagining the future was your job. In fact, that actually is Jane McGonigal’s job. The author of Imaginable.
And so, in this summary to Imaginable we’ll explore some of Jane’s ideas. There’s a bunch of really great practical exercises that will help you prepare for the future. You’ll learn to upgrade your mindset and replace negative, defeatist thinking with creativity, resilience, and optimism.
In this summary, you’ll also discover
- how simulations can help you build resilience;
- the optimal goal-setting timeline; and
- why practicing hard empathy can make the world a better place.
Learn to imagine the unimaginable.
Can you bear with me for a second? We’re going to do a little time traveling exercise. You can also grab a pen and paper and write things down. That could be helpful. I’ll wait till you have those.
Ready? Okay. Imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning. Picture it in as much detail as you possibly can. Which room are you in? What woke you up – an alarm, a nudge? Is it light out? How do you feel? And now that you’re awake, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
Cool – you just took your first mental time trip! Easy, right? Now let’s try it again. But this time, imagine waking up one year from today. Take a few seconds to vividly picture this future moment. Are you waking up somewhere different? Is someone else lying in bed next to you? Do you look or feel different? Has your morning routine after waking up changed?
How did that feel? Notice how easy – or hard – it was to think of the details.
Okay, last one: close your eyes, and this time, imagine waking up ten years from today. I know. This is a bit harder. I’ll give you a few seconds to really trace out where you are, who you are, who might be there with you, what you hear, smell, and feel, and what you’re going to do next.
So. How was all that? It was probably pretty effortless for you to picture waking up tomorrow morning. Expanding your imagination ten years ahead, on the other hand, might’ve been a bit harder – perhaps like you were grasping at thin air.
Stretching your imagination the way you just did is a really good practice – your brain has to invent a totally new reality instead of just remembering what it knows already. But see what you just did? You made the unimaginable imaginable!
You can use your “memory of the future” to plan and prepare for what’s to come. Revisit this memory as often as you want. Really focus on how it makes you feel. Does it spark joy? Does it fill you with dread? These so-called “pre-feelings” indicate whether you should change what you’re doing today to make a possible future more or less likely.
This kind of imagination – the mental ability to spring forward in time and pre-experience the future – is what scientists call episodic future thinking, or EFT. The name isn’t quite accurate though; you’re not just thinking about the future, you’re simulating it. Consider the difference between knowing it’ll be sunny tomorrow and actually imagining yourself in the sun, trying to pre-feel its warmth on your skin. The bright light blinding you. The smell of dry grass.
EFT includes asking yourself four specific questions: First, Where exactly am I in my future? Second, What’s true in this version of reality that isn’t true today? Third, What do I really want in this future moment, and how will I get it? And Fourth, How do I feel now that I’m here?
This tool helps you answer a simple but super powerful question: Is this a world I want to wake up in? And if the answer isn’t a resounding Yes! it helps you understand what you need to change in order to make it so.
To successfully simulate the future, you need time (specifically, ten years) and ideas (the more ridiculous, the better).
Ten years. It’s kind of a magic number when it comes to EFT. First of all, it’s the most common answer to the question, When does the future start? We’ve been somewhat conditioned to recognize the power of ten years as a conduit for change. Think about the ten-year chunks by which we categorize our lives (for example, you might say, you’re in your 30s or 40s) or how we differentiate history (the roaring twenties compared with whatever the nineties were, for instance).
We know a lot can change in ten years. At the same time, though, we have the mental space to get ready for the change, which allows us to be more hopeful and relaxed about dramatic shifts. This psychological phenomenon is called time spaciousness. It’s the empowering feeling that you have enough time to thoughtfully and methodically tackle the things that matter – and that way you can create the future you desire.
Right now, pick an itty-bitty task – like finishing this summary – and give yourself ten years to do it. Put it in your Google calendar! I’ll wait. Now, if you think this’ll make you more likely to procrastinate, think again. Science shows that, in general, the less time you feel you have to get things done, the less you’ll do – and vice versa.
Your brain really needs to think it has a lot of time in order for this to work, so go ahead: splurge on your deadlines. Start giving yourself ten years to finish that work report or to master the art of brewing kombucha. Whatever it is, you might surprise yourself with how much happier and faster you complete tasks when you feel time-rich.
Ten years. It’s also a long way to travel all on your own. To guide you along your mental time trips, you can use what professional futurists call a future scenario. Basically, it’s a detailed description of a future where you wake up and something is drastically different from your current reality.
When immersing yourself in future scenarios, embrace the details, the drama, and the absurdity. In fact, futurists have a rule for that last one. There’s something called Dator’s law. It states, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
Being receptive to “silly” ideas will stretch your open-mindedness and creativity. To help unstick your imagination, here’s a little game.
First, make a list of five things (or 100, if you’re feeling ambitious) that are true today. Here are a couple to get you started: Shoes aren’t free. Most people own more than one pair of shoes.
Now assume that, in ten years, the opposite is true: In ten years, shoes are free. In ten years, most people own only one pair of shoes.
Try to make sense of these topsy-turvy worlds. How did this change happen? How does this new reality work? You might come up with some surprisingly plausible answers. In the future, for example, shoes might be “free” in exchange for your data – just think of Facebook. And people might own only one pair if there’s a big decrease in consumption due to global climate action. Using your episodic future thinking skills, imagine how you’d personally respond to the opportunities and challenges of these possible futures. In one word, tell me . . . how do you feel?
You can also try flipping some facts about your own life. Again, write down five things that are true today. On my list, I’d write: I’m a European citizen, I travel a lot, I’m a journalist, I sleep at night, and I love puns. Then rewrite them so that, in ten years, the opposite is true. And just embrace how absurd it is. For me, that’d be, I’m a Canadian citizen, I don’t travel, I manage a taco shop, I sleep during the day, and I hate puns.
Choose an upside-down fact, and mentally time-travel into the future to see how vividly you can envision the change. Really imagine what might’ve led to this shift, how it feels, the things you’d do that you can’t do today, and why the alternatives popped into your mind in the first place.
You’re not trying to create a plan to drastically alter your life here. The point is simply to make your imagination more bendy.
Clues about the future are hiding in plain sight – you just need to start looking.
It’s 2010, and McGonigal – the author of Imaginable – has created a large-scale future simulation game called EVOKE. It’s set ten years ahead, in 2020. For ten weeks, nearly 20,000 players imagine what they’d do to help others during a conflation of future global crises – including a pandemic, a social media–driven misinformation campaign, and extreme weather events.
They predict how they’d feel and the specific actions they’d take. They’re looking at how these things might change their daily habits – would they wear masks? What social interactions would they avoid – would they stay home?
Wait a minute – we’re talking about a game, right? How come so much of this sounds familiar?
The fact that EVOKE’s storyline mirrors what we saw in the headlines of the real 2020 is no coincidence – McGonigal was inspired by future forces that global experts had predicted for years.
A future force is a phenomenon that’s likely to disrupt society. It’s sometimes described as a “megatrend,” “macro force,” or “driver of change” – and it usually begins as a small clue, or signal of change.
A signal of change is a real-life example of how the world is shifting. Take the pizzly bear, for instance – a new hybrid species between a polar bear and a grizzly bear. Global warming’s making the poor polar bears go south into grizzly bear territory. There, though, the grizzly bears usually outcompete them for food. So, to survive, female polar bears have started mating with male grizzly bears.
This signifies that climate change is threatening biodiversity, yes. But it’s also a show of resilience when encountering sudden environmental change – which, by the way, could soon apply to humans. In the coming years, we’ll probably need to go through a similar migration, moving away from extreme climates and squishing together into smaller spaces.
Finding signals of change can be as simple as typing “future of [anything]” into Google. Try “future of mental health,” “future of prison reform,” or something sillier like “future of cake” – it’s up to you!
You can also discover the future forces hiding in plain sight by checking out the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report. It’s not light reading. In 2021, the report identified global warming, infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks, and social unrest as the forces that would have the biggest global impact in the next decade. When you consider future risks like these, you’re using what’s called your shadow imagination – you’re exploring what could possibly go wrong.
Now make your own personal list of the various future forces that you think will affect you and your loved ones over the next ten years. Let’s focus on the positives this time – look at your list, and pick one force that makes you feel especially hopeful. Take a brief mental time trip to a future in which this development is at its peak, and spend a few seconds with your pre-feelings: Can you vividly imagine the excitement, relief, and gratitude you’re going to experience? In this case, when you’re thinking about happy scenarios, you’re employing your positive imagination – you’re exploring something good that could happen.
Developing both your shadow and positive imagination, and then seeking actionable ways to shape the future, yields a fundamental takeaway of imagination training called urgent optimism. When you have urgent optimism, you feel balanced. You know there are challenges ahead, but you’re realistically hopeful that you can solve them. Urgent optimism means you’re not losing sleep over worries about the future. Instead, you’re stoked to get out of bed in the morning and do something about it.
Hard empathy can heal the world by helping you connect with others and your future self.
Your future self is a stranger. I’m not trying to be poetic here – it’s just a neurological truth. MRI studies show that when you imagine future you, your brain acts as though you’re considering a totally different person. Your imagination literally switches from a first-person perspective, where you see the world from within your own body, to a third-person perspective where you experience your actions from an out-of-body vantage point.
That’s another reason mental time trips ten years into the future are so effective at stretching the imagination. They “unstick” you by allowing you to float above your normal mode of feeling and thinking.
But this weird neurological behavior also makes it more difficult to perform actions that benefit your future self. When your brain sees future you as a stranger, it tends to exhibit less self-control and make fewer decisions for the greater good. You procrastinate more, give up sooner when frustrated, are worse at resisting temptations, and save less money for retirement. After all, why would you give away your hard-earned cash to a total stranger?
To counter this effect, it’s important to cultivate more empathy for your future self – to start treating future you like, if not you, then a good friend. So how do you do this? Well, there are two types of empathy.
The first one is easy empathy. It’s when you can immediately relate to what someone is feeling because you’ve experienced it yourself. Say you were bullied as a child. If you see another child being bullied, you’ll probably empathize with them quickly and viscerally, reexperiencing your own anger or fear.
The second kind is called hard empathy because it takes more creativity and effort. Like when you fundamentally disagree with someone – and yet you still try to understand where they’re coming from.
A good way to cultivate hard empathy is to consult a news source and find a story about someone whose life is radically different from yours. Picture, in detail, your own life circumstances changing to be more like theirs.
Future scenarios (and video games) can transform learned helplessness into helpfulness.
Do you play video games? If so, you may be boosting your well-being! Studies show that gamers generally set higher goals for themselves in everyday life than nongamers. They’re more resilient in the face of real-world setbacks. And they’re more likely to ask for assistance from, and offer help to, family and friends.
How come they have such a strong sense of agency? Well, every game begins with a challenge or a threat – just think of those Pac-Man ghosts. Often, players are given very little information and have to figure out what they’re even supposed to do. And they have to discover which allies to recruit, which resources to collect, and what strategies will allow them to succeed. Ultimately, as players untangle the game and accomplish their goals, their confidence zooms up.
In other words, video games, like future scenarios, offer a therapeutic practice: the chance to practice learned helpfulness.
Learned helpfulness is the opposite of learned helplessness – the feeling that nothing you do matters. Learned helpfulness is having a sense of confidence and control when it comes to tackling problems. Every time you fill an unmet need or help someone who’s suffering, you strengthen the neurological pathways that make you feel like you can sway an outcome.
Finding your own unique way to help – or “answering the future’s call to adventure” – is, according to McGonigal, the most vital future imagination skill of all. So every time you approach a future scenario, ask yourself three questions: What will people need and want in this future? What kinds of people will be especially useful in this future? How will I use my unique strengths to help others in this future?
Spend ten days in a plausible future scenario to prepare for the real deal.
Okay, so maybe you’ve never thought of yourself as someone who has an active imagination . . . but I bet you’ve never played a long-form social simulation before either! To finish up, let’s try one last game – one that’ll immerse you in a world where something you take for granted today changes virtually overnight. That something is garbage. Close your eyes, and . . .
It’s June 1, 2032. You no longer have a garbage can. No more recycling bin either. Those services are obsolete, starting immediately. Luckily, compost is still being collected every week.
You thought the plan sounded cuckoo when the federal government announced it last year. But now we’re here. And to be fair, it’s not a total shock. Recycling never really worked, the landfills were overflowing, and the waste-to-energy plants were all shut down when it became obvious that burning trash was making people sick (duh).
So bye-bye trash cans. And hello 1,000 percent sales tax on any item sold with noncompostable packaging. You want an Americano in a plastic cup? That’ll be $22, please! On the other hand, you’re looking forward to a potential cash bonus to the tune of $10,000 – if the country can reduce its annual collective waste by 80 percent within a year. And the government used to spend trillions of dollars every year to bury and burn trash. Now that money goes toward health care, education, and universal basic income.
People aren’t mindlessly accumulating stuff anymore; instead, they spend money on experiences. Zero waste is the new normal. It’s a vibe – and you’re feeling it. You’re not the only one. People are feeling so good about the situation that psychologists have come up with a new word: Zerophoria.
It’s a brave, new world – and one you’re going to sustain over the next ten days!
We want to give the scenario enough time to simmer and really develop its flavors. So as you go through your daily activities in your current, real life over the next week and a half, keep the scenario playing in the back of your mind. Everything you do, each interaction you have, or place you go – how would they be different in that future scenario?
Record your immediate reactions in your future journal. This can be a physical notebook, emails, a video diary – whatever you want. Here are some prompts to get you started: Describe what you’re feeling in one word. What habit could you change that would decrease your trash right now? What would be the hardest thing to change or give up? Will you embrace this new post-trash society? Or will you resist it? Why?
Every day, set a timer for five minutes and take notes in your future journal. Freewrite about all the strange and surprising things you imagine without editing what you write. And share the experience with at least one other person – it’ll make the simulation feel more real, like you’re in a collective dream.
This scenario is based on real future forces and signals of change – just search “the global waste crisis” or the “the zero-waste movement.” So when it’s really ten years from now, who knows? You might have an eerie sense of déjà vu. But your experience of having seen and felt it coming will have prepared you to handle the real deal with confidence and optimism.
Alright. Here’s what we’ve learned.
When you think about a reality ten years in the future, you’re not necessarily preparing for a catastrophe. But instead, you get to bend your mind a bit. You can build up your mental resilience. If you start remembering the future in a way and imagining it, you can stay calm and practice urgent optimism when the time comes. Basically, you just got a bunch of tools that you can use to come up with some future scenarios.
About the author
Jane McGonigal is a future forecaster and designer of reality games created to improve real lives and solve real problems. She is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2011) and SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully (Penguin Press, 2016), and her TED talks on how gaming can improve our lives have more than 15 million views. She is the Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, a non-profit research group in Palo Alto, California, currently teaches the course “How to Think Like a Futurist” at Stanford University, and is the lead instructor for the Institute for the Future’s series on the Coursera platform. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Psychology, Personal Development, Business and Money, Climatology, Economic History, Popular Neuropsychology, Futurism, Self Help, Social Science
Table of Contents
PART I UNSTICK YOUR MIND 1 (106)
Chapter One Take a Ten-Year Trip 3 (20)
Chapter Two Learn to Time Travel 23 (20)
Chapter Three Play with Future Scenarios 43 (21)
Chapter Four Be Ridiculous, at First 64 (24)
Chapter Five Turn the World Upside Down 88 (19)
PART II THINK THE UNTHINKABLE 107 (130)
Chapter Six Look for Clues 109 (20)
Chapter Seven Choose Your Future Forces 129 (36)
Chapter Eight Practice Hard Empathy 165 (29)
Chapter Nine Heal the Deeper Disease 194 (43)
PART III IMAGINE THE UNIMAGINABLE 237 (118)
Chapter Ten Answer the Call to Adventure 239 (29)
Chapter Eleven Simulate Any Future You Want 268 (30)
Chapter Twelve Spend Ten Days in the Future 298 (57)
Conclusion 355 (4)
Acknowledgments 359 (2)
Source Notes 361 (34)
About the Author 395
Games, Scenarios, and Simulations
Looking for a future to play with?
Warm-Up Game #1: When Does the Future Start?
Warm-Up Game #2: Stump the Futurist
Warm-Up Game #3: One Hundred Ways Anything Can Be Different in the Future
Future Scenario #1: Thank You Day
Future Scenario #2: “Have You Checked the Asteroid Forecast?”
Future Scenario #3: The Global Emergency Sperm Drive
Future Scenario #4: Medicine Bag
Future Scenario #5: Don’t Face Search Me
Future Scenario #6: “Have You Declared Your Challenge Ye; t?”
Future Scenario #7: The Great Disconnection
Future Scenario #8: Double Your Money
Future Scenario #9: The Howl
Future Scenario #10: The Alpha-Gal Crisis
Future Scenario #11: Feel That Future
Future Simulation #1: The Road to Zerophoria
Future Simulation #2: Welcome Party
Future Simulation #3: The Ten-Year Winter
World-renowned future forecaster, game designer, and NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jane McGonigal gives us the tools to imagine the future without fear.
The COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly frequent climate disasters, a new war — events we might have called “unimaginable” or “unthinkable” in the past are now reality. Today it feels more challenging than ever to feel unafraid, hopeful, and equipped to face the future with optimism. How do we map out our lives when it seems impossible to predict what the world will be like next week, let alone next year or next decade? What we need now are strategies to help us recover our confidence and creativity in facing uncertain futures.
In Imaginable, Jane McGonigal draws on the latest scientific research in psychology and neuroscience to show us how to train our minds to think the unthinkable and imagine the unimaginable. She invites us to play with the provocative thought experiments and future simulations she’s designed exclusively for this book, with the goal to:
- Build our collective imagination so that we can dive into the future and envision, in surprising detail, what our lives will look like ten years from now
- Develop the courage and vision to solve problems creatively
- Take actions and make decisions that will help shape the future we desire
- Access “urgent optimism,” an unstoppable force within each of us that activates our sense of agency
Iímaginable teaches us to be fearless, resilient, and bold in realizing a world with possibilities we cannot yet imagine—until reading this transformative, inspiring, and necessary book
Video and Podcast
“An accessible, optimistic field guide to the future.” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Reading this book is like sitting down with a creative, optimistic friend—and getting up as a new version of yourself.” – Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of When
“Jane McGonigal is unusually adept at anticipating events that most of us can’t even fathom. In this eye-opening, actionable book, she teaches you how to widen your peripheral vision, extend your imagination farther into the future, and conceive of the inconceivable.” – Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
“Imaginable is a delightful and actionable antidote to apocalypse: an invitation to play with the future as if it were limited by nothing but our own imaginative capacity. An inspiring read.” – Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock and Team Human
“Imaginable is more than a book, it’s a mindset upgrade. It teaches you to think more creatively and optimistically about what’s next. You’ll be excited about the future rather than fearful of it. Your brain will be on fire with new possibilities. And you’ll never call anything ‘unimaginable’ or ‘unthinkable’ again.” – Peter H. Diamandis, MD, New York Times bestselling author of The Future Is Faster Than You Think
“With Imaginable, Jane McGonigal has pulled off a rare and essential feat: she’s written a book filled with inspiring ideas about how the future might play out that also provides immediate, practical tools to help you think more creatively about how you can change that future yourself.” – Steven Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From and Farsighted
“Imaginable is one of those rare and thrilling books that actually changes you. It translates scientific insights into psychological breakthroughs, giving you a new set of tools to feel more hopeful, more creative, more awake to your dreams for the future. It empowers you with what McGonigal calls a sense of ‘urgent optimism.’ It will help you transcend the present moment to realize your full potential and make a future that’s better for all.” – Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist and author of Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization and Wired to Create
“A unique and insightful look at how games and simulations can not only teach us about the past but give us a window into our future. Jane McGonigal’s work provides us with a whole new set of tools to make important decisions better, faster, and more transparently.” – Sid Meier, creator of Civilization
“In challenging times, it can be tempting to put our heads in the sand. In Imaginable, futurist Jane McGonigal offers us her outstretched hand. McGonigal plows years of research and simulation into an actionable guide that proves that we are vastly more capable of building desirable solutions than we realize. Fueled by her conversational tone of ‘urgent optimism,’ McGonigal’s questions and challenges are a galvanizing, must-read road map to a sustainable, desired future for all who can imagine.” – Julie Lythcott-Haims, New York Times bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult
“In Imaginable, Jane McGonigal teaches us to bring soul-stirring imagination to our daily lives. As she persuasively demonstrates, imagination training is more than just a skill set: it’s a creativity boost, a mindset shift, and an emotional uplift all rolled up in one. The life-changing techniques you’ll learn in this science-packed book will help you choose your future and feel more in control of what happens next.” – Nir Eyal, author of Hooked and Indistractable
“Everyone should be imagining the future as a basic survival skill. This book is for everyone and is the only book I know of that will teach you the proven techniques that futurists use to forecast the future. It includes all the methods I use, and more. Do yourself a favor: Read this book.” – Kevin Kelly, New York Times bestselling author of The Inevitable and Senior Maverick for Wired
“Futurist and game designer McGonigal delivers an illuminating look at how imagining the future can help to change one’s own life while making a difference in the world. Expertly blending practical advice and big-picture thinking, this is a stimulating guide to preparing for the future. Readers will be inspired to put their imaginations to use” – Publishers Weekly
“A fascinating book about how the future does not have to be an undiscovered country. McGonigal, a future forecaster, game designer, and bestselling author of Reality Is Broken and Superbetter, firmly believes that it is possible to consider the possibilities of the future in a systematic, disciplined way, and her narrative draws on a large body of personal experience, research studies, and knowledge gleaned from her work as a game designer. … A wealth of interesting ideas combined with practical guidance for new thinking.” – Kirkus Reviews
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Welcome to the Age of Unimaginable Events and Unthinkable Change
The state of the planet is one of collective shock.
In the years 2020 and 2021 alone, there were over 2.5 million English-language news stories with the word “unimaginable” in them.
There were over three million news stories with the word “unthinkable.”1
We’ve all lived through these stories together.
Stories about the previously unimaginable impacts of a pandemic: health care systems collapsing, hundreds of millions of “nonessential” jobs vanishing overnight, the average life expectancy dropping by years on the global scale.
Stories about the previously unthinkable changes we made to survive the pandemic: border lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, school closures, mask mandates, remote work, remote everything.
Stories about unprecedented weather events and their toll on our towns and bodies: record-breaking heat, flooding, extreme storms, relentless wildfires, toxic air pollution.
Stories about strange things we’d never seen before: An apartment building eroded by climate change collapsing in the middle of the night. A mob storming the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of a presidential election. A shockingly effective misinformation campaign that convinced 20 percent of Americans the government was injecting microchips into vaccines, leading them to reject a free, lifesaving intervention.
The ubiquity of the words “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” in our stories tells us something important about our global condition. We feel blindsided by reality. We find ourselves struggling to make sense of events that shattered our assumptions and challenged our beliefs.
And it’s not just that we didn’t see this coming. There is grief baked into these words. We use the word “unimaginable” as another way of saying “heartbreaking”—as in unimaginable pain, or unimaginable loss, that defies even our best efforts at empathy. We use the word “unthinkable” to mean “unjust,” “cruel,” or “unacceptable”—as in an unthinkable failure to act, an unthinkable lack of concern for others. These two words that we use so frequently these days speak not just to shock but to trauma.
How do we make plans for the future in an age of seemingly endless shocks? How can we feel at peace or secure today, when we are constantly bracing ourselves for the next “unimaginable” event or “unthinkable” change? How do we feel hope for our future, when it seems impossible to predict what the world will be like next week, let alone next year?
But perhaps we need to start with more fundamental questions. Were the most shocking events of the recent past really unimaginable before they happened? Should their consequences really have been unthinkable to us before we lived through them?
Let me tell you a story.
In early January 2020, when the pandemic was first appearing on people’s radar, I started getting a lot of interesting emails and text messages that all said something like this: “Jane, didn’t you run a simulation of a respiratory pandemic? What do you make of what’s going on right now? What should we be doing?” These messages were coming not just from my friends and family but from top executives at the biggest Silicon Valley tech companies, from government agencies, from international foundations. And they were right: yes, I had run a pandemic simulation.
I’m a game designer, and I specialize in creating simulations that help people imagine the biggest global challenges we might face in the future. In 2008, I was the lead designer for a six-week future-forecasting simulation called Superstruct. The simulation was run by the Ten-Year Forecast group at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. Our goal was to map out the full range of economic, political, social, and emotional ripple effects of global threats like pandemics. We set the game eleven years in the future, in the fall of 2019. During this game, nearly ten thousand people worldwide simulated living through five different threats, including a global outbreak of a fictional virus called ReDS, short for respiratory distress syndrome.
There were no mathematical computations involved in our simulation. Instead, we simply asked people to predict how they personally would feel and what they would do in their own lives during this kind of rapidly spreading outbreak. How would they change their daily habits? What social interactions would they avoid? Would they—could they—work from home? Would they choose to self-quarantine—and if so, when, why, and for how long? During a government-mandated quarantine, what problems might they experience? What kinds of support and resources would they need? How would they try to help others? Our simulation was low on algorithms but high on social and emotional intelligence. Our participants told thousands of stories about what they, personally, would do during a respiratory pandemic, which we collected and analyzed online.
When the novel coronavirus first came to global attention in early 2020, I thought the most important findings to share with the world from our massive multiplayer simulation would be the predictions that people had made. For example, one of my main research questions had been: Under what circumstances would people resist voluntary quarantine and social distancing? Our data showed the most likely superspreading risks would be religious services, followed by weddings and funerals. People were likely to continue participating in these activities no matter what the perceived risks. And we saw clearly that if they were young and single, people still wanted to go out to nightclubs and parties, even if these gatherings were illegal.
Based on our findings, early in February 2020, I held an “Ask a Futurist” public webinar with my colleague at the Institute for the Future, Vanessa Mason. We gave our best urgent advice for the newly unfolding pandemic that barely had a name yet. For example: “Data suggests that if you lead a religious congregation or community of any kind, you need to plan now to create a space for virtual religious worship.” And: “If you’re planning a wedding, professional conference or networking event, or party, you should proactively cancel it now, because people will risk their health to attend these affairs even during a pandemic.” The headlines that followed in the months after clearly proved these insights from our simulation to be both useful and actionable. During the real pandemic, people did what our players predicted they would do during our simulation: they held large weddings despite rules against it, went to nightclubs despite the urgent messaging to stay at home, participated in in-person religious services despite testing positive for COVID-19, attended funerals despite having symptoms and being told to self-isolate. And these scenarios all turned into common, real-world superspreading events.2
In the February 2020 webinar and in my advice to people who contacted me, I also shared our data on how uncomfortable many people felt about wearing masks. During the Superstruct game, we asked people to actually go out into their everyday lives and practice wearing masks in different social environments. We wanted people to get used to this habit, so it might be easier to adopt again in a real pandemic. But based on what players self-reported, we knew how high the social barriers might be to overcome mask resistance and to make the behavior feel “normal.” Of course, we saw this problem play out on a much larger scale during the real COVID-19 pandemic later, especially in the United States.
And we talked about how big a problem we anticipated it would be for working moms if schools closed during the pandemic, because moms in our game talked about the impossibility of juggling their jobs with the need to homeschool, if it came to that. Now, we see that, as a result of COVID-19, millions of moms had to voluntarily leave the workforce to care for children when schools closed down.3
One more bit of research we reported in the webinar was how hard it would be for people to follow public health guidelines, and to stay home or self-isolate, if they weren’t given significant economic support. We talked about the need to proactively provide cash payments, and today, when we consider the global COVID-19 response, we see clearly that in places where governments provided recurring cash payments or paycheck protection, people did follow the guidelines more strictly, and the spread of the virus was better contained.4
I’m proud of how accurate our forecasts turned out to be. But now, looking back at how slow society was to react to the growing threat and how stuck so many of our leaders were in old ways of thinking and doing, I no longer believe that the most important work of a large-scale social simulation like Superstruct is to accurately predict what people will do. Instead, the most important work of a future simulation is to prepare our minds and stretch our collective imagination, so we are more flexible, adaptable, agile, and resilient when the “unthinkable” happens.
And based on Superstruct, we have evidence that future simulations can have this positive effect. In January 2020, I started receiving emails and Facebook messages from people who had participated in the pandemic simulation. They wrote things like, “I’m not freaking out, I already worked through the panic and anxiety when we imagined it ten years ago.” They said, “Mask up!” and “Time to start social distancing!” and “I’m starting to prepare for this now,” weeks before it hit mainstream consciousness outside of China that we needed to start making serious changes to our habits and plans. Simulation participants kept telling me, in their own ways, that pre-feeling the future helped them pre-process the anxiety, the overwhelming uncertainty, and the sense of helplessness, so they could move more rapidly to adapt and act resiliently when the future actually arrived.
The simulation participants’ early 2020 messages remind me now of what we would later see play out during the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. Experts have noted that in places that suffered major outbreaks of the first severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, governments and businesses spent less time debating whether to take strong measures to prevent the spread of the novel virus. They acted faster, because they knew firsthand how bad things could get. And citizens in countries that had lived through the deadly 2003 SARS outbreak adopted public health measures like masking and social distancing faster, and more willingly, than their Western counterparts.5 All of this led to significantly more containment of the virus. A similar phenomenon occurred in West Africa, where local experience with the 2014 Ebola outbreak led countries to adopt much stronger measures than seen in Europe or the Americas, and faster. There was also higher compliance with mask wearing. This fast response due to previous pandemic experience has been cited as the primary reason that most African countries fared much better than their Western counterparts during the first two waves of the pandemic, despite having far fewer resources.6
What I see in my simulation participants’ reactions to COVID-19 is something almost like the fortitude of having lived through a real pandemic. Their minds were prepared to act faster and adapt faster. Less shock, more resilience. And it wasn’t just because more than a decade ago they’d imagined themselves living through a pandemic. The simulation had kick-started a habit, for many, of paying closer attention to real-world pandemic news. As one participant wrote me, “I’ve been following what’s happening in Wuhan closely, you could say I’ve had my radar up for pandemic news since Superstruct. It just always stuck in my mind to keep paying attention.” I’ve observed this fascinating and common “side effect” of participating in a future simulation countless times. A deep immersion into a possible future creates lasting mental habits, especially when it comes to watching the real world for evidence that the simulated possibility is becoming more likely.
Now, it’s one thing to get lucky and run a single accurate simulation. But if I’m going to convince you to read the rest of this book and make futures thinking a regular part of your life, I’d better tell you another story.
In 2010, I led another large-scale future simulation game, this time for the World Bank. It was called EVOKE, and it was set a decade in the future, in the year 2020. This time, nearly twenty thousand players showed up to predict what actions they could take to help others during a complex outbreak of possible future global crises, including a pandemic and extreme weather from climate change happening at the same time. EVOKE ran for ten weeks, and each week a new compounding crisis was added to the mix.
Players were immersed in a future world that was dealing with a global respiratory pandemic called the Pearl River flu that had started in China . . . and an outbreak of social media–driven misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic . . . and historic wildfires up and down the West Coast of the United States due to climate change . . . and a shocking collapse of the power grid due to aging infrastructure and extreme weather. The misinformation and conspiracy theories, spread in our story by a group we called “Citizen X,” complicated the efforts of individuals to understand what was really happening and what they needed to do to stay safe. Meanwhile, the wildfires and power outages forced many to leave their homes at a time when staying safe from the pandemic meant staying at home.
The storylines that we wrote a decade in advance turned out to be pretty much exactly what we saw in the headlines of the real 2020 and early 2021. First the global spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, followed by the historic West Coast wildfires of the summer of 2020 that burned for months and required millions of people to evacuate their homes and relocate. Then, the rise of the QAnon conspiracy movement on social media, which created an “infodemic” of misinformation that COVID-19 was a hoax and vaccines would implant a microchip in your arm. Later, the “unthinkable” power grid failure in Texas that left three million people without electricity or water, blamed on “unimaginable” extreme cold weather that the aging infrastructure was unable to withstand. You would be hard-pressed to find a prediction in the EVOKE simulation that didn’t turn out correctly, most of them in the very same year we forecast they might happen.
Which explains why, in the middle of the real year of 2020, I got a call from Robert Hawkins, a senior World Bank executive, who led the educational outreach and technology strategy on the EVOKE project. He said, “Look at how many specific forecasts from EVOKE are happening now! It’s uncanny. How did you get so much right?”
And that’s a question I’m going to answer by way of this book.
In Part I: Unstick Your Mind, I’m going to teach you some mental habits that professional futurists practice, and some social games that we play, to keep our minds open to “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” possibilities. You can use these habits and games to train your brain to think like a futurist.
When you think like a futurist, you think more creatively. You’re not stuck in old patterns or limited by what has been true in the past. And more than getting you ready for the future, these futures-thinking habits and games can make you feel better today. Research studies have shown them to increase hope and motivation for the future and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. So if like many millions of others, you have some emotional healing to do after the pandemic and other shocks of the recent past, I believe these techniques will help. Think of them as a kind of post-traumatic growth for our post-pandemic planet.
Because I want you to have confidence in these techniques, I’ll share with you the science behind how futures thinking strengthens key pathways in the brain to build realistic hope, creativity, and a more resilient response to stress. And while I can’t offer you an fMRI scan to show you how your brain is activated by futures thinking, I can teach you the same scoring methods that researchers use in scientific studies to document the benefits of futures thinking. You’ll be able to measure your own progress so that you can be confident your personal growth is real.
In Part II: Think the Unthinkable, I’m going to show you how to use the same techniques that we used at the Institute for the Future to develop our highly accurate Superstruct and EVOKE forecasts—so you can start to see what’s coming too. These techniques will help you spot any kind of change faster—so you can act faster, adapt faster, and not be blindsided by surprising events.
Finally, in Part III: Imagine the Unimaginable, we will play a brand-new game together so you can get firsthand experience of the power of a social simulation. I will lead you through three different future scenarios set in the year 2033. You’ll be immersed in a world in which things we take for granted today change virtually overnight, and new social movements, technologies, and policies transform every aspect of our lives in surprising and profound ways. You will be able to participate in the simulations just by reading this book and keeping a journal for ten days about your mental time travel to the year 2033. How would you, personally, react to these scenarios? What would you think, feel, and do? How would you help? If you wish to share some of your future stories with others, and see what others are imagining, there will be a place online for you to do that as well.
These simulations will truly put to the test all of the skills and habits you’ve learned in the first two parts of Imaginable. I assure you the scenarios you encounter will sound as “far out” and inconceivable to you today as the Superstruct and EVOKE scenarios seemed to our simulation participants in 2008 and 2010. But by the time you reach this part of the book, you will be ready to imagine them.
Then it’s your turn to make the future. I’ll explain my design process and give you all the information you need to create and run your own social simulation, about any future topic you want.
Along the way, I will be giving you many forecasts for the next decade of unthinkable change, covering everything from the future of learning and the future of work to the future of food and the future of money; from the future of social media and the future of health care to the future of climate action and government—all so you have a better idea of the risks, opportunities, and dilemmas ahead.
These ten-year forecasts will help you become more resilient to future shocks. They will help you lean into the fact that there is no “going back to normal.” They will also give you some ideas about how you might take advantage of this historic period of disruption and reinvention to change your own life, your community, or the world for the better. The next decade is likely to be the most significant opportunity most of us have in our lifetimes to really transform the way society works—and we all have a part to play in creating that positive long-term change.
There are many other books about how to think about the future. What makes this book different? Well, I’m a professional futurist and I’m a game designer. It’s not a common combination of career paths—as far as I know, I’m the only one in the world. But it’s a career combination that makes a lot of sense. As both a game designer and a futurist, I see my job as transporting people to imaginary worlds, to worlds that don’t exist—either because they’re virtual or because they’re future worlds that haven’t happened yet and may never happen. My goal is to make sure that when people leave these imagined worlds, they feel more creative, more optimistic, and more confident in their own ability to transform those worlds, to take actions and make decisions that change the shape of that reality.
It’s easy to feel powerful and creative when we play games. Every move we make, every action we take—whether in a card game, sport, board game, or video game—clearly impacts the state of the game. But when we think about the future, it’s harder for most people to feel the same kind of agency. We aren’t as confident that we personally can take actions or make decisions that truly help determine what happens next, especially when it comes to the bigger futures that we all share: society’s future, the planet’s future.
So I’ve tried to bring these two approaches to creating imaginary worlds—designing games and writing future forecasts—closer together. I’ve spent the past fifteen years as the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. The Institute for the Future is the world’s oldest future-forecasting organization, founded in 1968, and it pioneered many of the methods that are standard practice for professional futurists today. At the institute, my job is to invent games that teach players futures-thinking habits and skills, the same kind used by researchers at the institute. I specialize in creating large-scale social simulations of the future with thousands of participants, the kind you’ve already read about. These simulations do more than stretch individuals’ imaginations. They build actionable collective intelligence, by revealing otherwise hard-to-predict phenomena and ripple effects. As we say at the institute, “It’s better to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality.” In fact, one way we measure the success of a simulation is by how surprising the results of the game are to experts in the field.
Over the past fifteen years at the institute, I’ve developed custom future forecasts, trainings, and simulations for plenty of experts and leaders—including clients at Google, IBM, Cisco, Intel, Disney, GSK, the Rockefeller Foundation, the US Department of Defense, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Economic Forum. But my favorite kind of work is bringing futures thinking directly to the public, whether through simulations or teaching. I love watching people move from feeling anxious and insecure about the future to feeling confident, hopeful, and energized. It’s why I created the How to Think Like a Futurist workshop for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program, where it has been one of the most popular classes for the past five years—in fact, students fly in from all over the world just to take the course. It’s why I created a Futures Thinking certification program with the Institute for the Future on the online learning platform Coursera, where my classes currently have over thirty thousand students. And it’s why, when we launched the Coursera program—the first free, public training in futures thinking offered at scale—I coined the phrase “Foresight is a human right.”
It’s my mission to give as many people as possible the skills not just to change the outcome of a game but to change the outcome of our future.
I’m excited to go on this journey with you. Before we begin, let me share one more thing—it’s my favorite maxim of professional futures thinking:
In dealing with the future . . . it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be one hundred percent “right.”7
This bit of wisdom comes from Alvin Toffler, author of the 1970 book Future Shock, which kicked off professional futures thinking as we know it today. Toffler proposed the idea that society occasionally experiences a period of profound and sustained change previously so unthinkable that the people who live through it suffer a kind of “future shock.” We’re disoriented. Our strategies for being happy, healthy, and successful no longer work. Old assumptions no longer hold up. And it’s incredibly difficult to wrap our minds around what exactly is happening, and why. It feels like a collective trauma, the psychological equivalent of being struck by a freight train. The turbulent period of the late 1960s, when Toffler wrote this seminal text, was a time of future shock for many. The 2020s, now, even more so.
It might seem that getting ahead of the next shock by making the most accurate predictions we can about the future is our ticket out of this trauma. And yes, seeing what’s coming so it doesn’t blindside us is helpful. But there’s a deeper truth to futures thinking that goes beyond just trying to be right.
Being “right” means making your best prediction and then waiting for whatever you think is most likely today to actually happen. But what if the most “likely” future isn’t one you want? What if it’s a catastrophe? What if it’s unjust? Would you rather be correct, or would you like to prove yourself wrong—and change what’s most probable today into something better?
Yes, we want to think about the future in ways that are highly plausible and likely, so our forecasts are helpful. But if we’re lucky, correctly anticipating future risks and challenges will help us start solving problems creatively today. We can use our new foresight not just to prepare for the future but to imagine new opportunities for ourselves right now, to be innovators and change something in our lives for the better today.
Let me give you two examples, from my own experience.
I always participate in the social simulations that I run, so that I can contribute my own personal insights and get the same benefits as other participants. During the Superstruct simulation back in 2008, I was trying to figure out what I would do during a pandemic to help others. How could I use my unique skills and experience to make a difference?
I tried to think of a new way a game designer could uniquely help during a pandemic. It occurred to me that the negative stereotype of gamers as people who like to stay home alone in their basements playing video games would actually be a positive behavior during a pandemic. After all, what would public health experts be telling everyone to do if a deadly virus were spreading? “Stay home, alone!”
So I started describing a hypothetical game project that I imagined future me creating, a kind of virtual dance club where you could meet up online and dance in front of your webcam with others, to make it easier to stay home and stay socially connected. I added this idea to the simulation database, which other players could search to find ideas they wanted to build on. I was soon contacted by a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who was also participating in Superstruct, and who was intrigued by my dance game idea. She told me that in real pandemics, outbreaks are often linked to dance clubs. She suggested that epidemiologists could work with game developers during a real pandemic, to promote stay-at-home games when community spread of the virus is high. As Superstruct continued, we brainstormed how public health officials and game developers might collaborate in the future and about how doctors might prescribe games to patients to keep them home. It was a fascinating conversation, but I had no idea at the time that it would inspire me to embark on a life-changing project within a year’s time.
Nine months after the simulation ended, I hit my head and suffered a concussion that turned my life upside down. My symptoms, including brain fog, excruciating headaches, vertigo, and memory problems, wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I rested. I developed panic attacks, severe depression, and even suicidal thoughts that lasted for months. At my lowest point, I decided to try to make a game to help myself heal. I used everything I knew about how games could increase motivation, optimism, attention, creativity, and collaboration to design some quests and challenges that might jump-start my brain back to a more hopeful and capable state. It worked. This game, called SuperBetter, became the subject of a TED talk with over seven million views, a best-selling book of the same title, and an app that has helped more than a million people tackle their own health challenges. But the only reason I had the confidence to tell anyone about this deeply personal game I made for myself, let alone make an app for others to try, was the previous experience I’d had sharing ideas with that CDC researcher. Her enthusiasm about my vision of a collaboration between health professionals and game developers, and her willingness to entertain this strange idea that a doctor might prescribe a video game, planted a seed. That seed helped me imagine that I might be taken seriously, that it was worth giving it a try.
The simulation gave me a sneak preview of the kind of real-world contribution I could make—not just in a pandemic, as it turned out, but in health crises more generally. And so when the opportunity arose, I was ready to take it. This is the gift that I want futures thinking to give to you: a chance to think more creatively and confidently right now about the things you could make, the solutions you could invent, the communities you could help.
I had another, bigger “aha” moment while immersing myself in an imagined future pandemic, and this one was even more personal. The first thing we asked Superstruct participants to do was to create a future profile on our social network. The profile asked ordinary questions—how old are you, where do you live, whom do you live with, what’s your occupation, what communities are you a part of? The challenge was to answer these questions for your future self, ten years ahead. As I filled out my future profile, I wrote something that surprised me. I wrote that I lived with my husband, Kiyash—whom I was already married to, in the present—and my seven-year-old daughter, Pepper. I could see her so vividly in my mind—a spunky, playful girl who was at the center of our adventures in the year 2019.
But at this point in 2008, when we ran the simulation, my husband and I did not have any children. We had been married for three years and weren’t in any rush to start a family. I had never pinned my hopes on becoming a mom, and we certainly hadn’t made any plans to try to get pregnant. Still, this imagined daughter in the simulation, she felt very real to me. She felt important to the life I wanted to lead. I could see her so clearly in my imagination, this person who didn’t yet exist but who felt key to the rest of the life I wanted to lead. Just by filling out this simple profile, I discovered something I truly hadn’t known about myself. To my surprise, I really did want to be a mom.
It turned out to be very important that I came to this realization when I did. It would take many years and fertility treatments and extraordinary help from others for my husband and me to start our family. Seven years after I imagined a possible daughter, I finally became a mom to twin daughters, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. And I don’t know if we would have been able to make our family in this way if we hadn’t had so much runway—so much time to make the hoped-for future real.
Clearly, neither of these personal insights prevented the COVID-19 pandemic from happening. They didn’t even prevent me from catching the coronavirus—although, like a good futurist, I “got there early” and came down with it in early 2020 before anyone suspected the virus had arrived in the United States. But comparing my experience with others’, I am certain I felt less anxiety than most during our long pandemic, because I felt prepared. And without a doubt, what I imagined during the Superstruct simulation changed my life and my future for the better. It gave me foresight about what I really wanted. And it gave me confidence to try to help others in a way that I’d never imagined I was capable of.
When we think about how the future might be different, we better understand how we might become different too.
That’s why this book is called Imaginable. Yes, I want you to be able to imagine the “unthinkable” risks we need to prepare for and the “unimaginable” pain we want to avoid—so we can, in fact, prevent them or at least mitigate their harms. But I also want you to be able to imagine doing something new and exciting for the next ten years of your life, and beyond. I want you to be able to imagine yourself rising to the historic occasion of our post-pandemic, climate-crisis moment and being of service to others in a way that brings more meaning to the suffering we’ve all just been through. I want you to be able to imagine yourself doing and creating amazing things that would have been “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” before you had the futures-thinking tools to inspire you.
The reality is, there will always be future forces beyond our individual control. This book is not about your becoming a superhero who saves the world from the brink of disaster. Futures thinking isn’t a superpower, and you don’t have to fix everything or save everyone. But futures thinking is an incredibly useful, practical tool to prepare your mind to adapt faster to new challenges, build hope and resilience, reduce anxiety and depression, and inspire you to take actions today that set yourself up for future happiness and success.
If we all stretch our collective imagination together, we will pick ourselves back up from the shock of the early 2020s faster. But not because we’ll be “right” about what’s next. We’ll heal and recover faster because we won’t be sitting around waiting for the next decade to happen to us. We’ll be making the decade together.
At the start of the global COVID-19 outbreak, author and activist Arundhati Roy wrote: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”8 I hope this book can serve as a portal for you: from our current world that needs to heal from a long pandemic, extreme social divisions, and the growing climate crisis, to a world where you find real new reasons to hope and feel ready for anything—even things that seem impossible to imagine today.
Before we start your imagination training, I want to ask you three questions that will give you a baseline sense of your “future mindset”:
Question #1: When you think about the next ten years, do you think things will mostly stay the same and go on as normal ? Or do you expect that most of us will dramatically rethink and reinvent how we do things? Rate your outlook on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is almost everything stays the same, 10 is almost everything will be dramatically different.
Question #2: When you think about how the world and your life will change over the next ten years, are you mostly worried or mostly optimistic? Rate your outlook on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is extremely worried, 10 is extremely optimistic.
Question #3: How much control or influence do you feel you personally have in determining how the world and your life change over the next ten years? Rate your outlook on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is almost no control or influence, 10 is almost complete control or influence.
These three questions give you a good idea of the kind of imagination training we’re going to do in this book. In fact, each of the three parts of the book is specifically designed to increase your score on one of these questions by at least +1.
First, we’re going to focus on the opportunity for rethinking and reinventing. Why rethinking and reinventing? Well, it’s easy to prepare for futures that are similar to today. It’s the dramatically different stuff that catches us off guard. So it’s important to spend time getting ready for the futures that will feel stranger and less familiar. Focusing on rethinking and reinventing also puts us in a better position to help decide how the future will be different. Having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, each of us will know for the rest of our lives that almost anything can change virtually overnight—for worse or for better. We know that it is absolutely possible to make radical changes to how we live, work, learn, and care for each other—and to make those changes fast. This gives us a collective power of imagination unprecedented in human history. We need to use this moment strategically and creatively.
Second, I want to help you create a more balanced mindset between hopes and worries for the future. At the Institute for the Future, we call this using your positive imagination and your shadow imagination.
Positive imagination asks the question: What’s something good that could happen? It builds confidence that the future will be better.
Shadow imagination asks the question: What’s something bad that could happen? It builds readiness to face future challenges.
Whatever your instinctive feelings are about the future right now, you will benefit from cultivating at least a little bit of the flip-side feeling. So I’ll teach you imagination techniques that help you see both sides of the future: the risks that it makes sense to worry about, and the opportunities that are cause for optimism.
Just know that wherever you are right now in your outlook on the future is fine. Whether super-worried, super-optimistic, or somewhere in between, be ready to stretch your imagination in the opposite direction, so you can hold both hopes and worries in mind at the same time.
As you develop your positive and shadow imagination, you might be surprised to find that seeing risks more clearly and defining your worries more concretely can actually help you feel more hopeful. As you get better at anticipating global challenges, you’ll feel more optimistic overall. There is a good reason for this paradox: you’re increasing your awareness not just of what might go wrong but also of the bold plans and innovative solutions that are already being envisioned and implemented. And deep down, you know that you’re putting yourself in a stronger position to help yourself and others by seriously imagining a future crisis instead of denying that it could ever happen.
Finally, we’ll focus on building your confidence in how much influence you have to help determine how the future turns out. This book is about more than just anticipating the future. It’s about acting to create the future you want: happier, healthier, safer, more just, more sustainable, more beautiful, more equitable. So I’ll show you future-forecasting techniques that you can use to discover what contributions only you can make toward a better future, and how you can start making them today. And then I’ll help you learn how to communicate your ideas for future change so that others are more likely to pay attention to them and feel inspired to act with you. If anything can increase your ability to influence how the future turns out, it’s this: planting seeds of imagination in the minds of tens or hundreds or thousands of other people who can help you make whatever changes you’re imagining.
If you add all three of these mini-mindsets up—focusing on the opportunity to rethink and reinvent, using both positive and shadow imagination, and looking for actionable ways to increase your ability to shape the future—you get what I believe will be the biggest takeaway you’ll have from training your imagination. It’s what I call urgent optimism.
Urgent optimism is a balanced feeling. It’s recognizing that, yes, there are great challenges and risks ahead, while also staying realistically hopeful that you have something to contribute to how we solve those challenges and face those risks. Urgent optimism means you’re not staying awake all night worrying about what might happen. Instead, you’re leaping out of bed in the morning with a fire in your pants to do something about it. Urgent optimism is knowing that you have agency and the ability to use your unique talents, skills, and life experiences to create the world you want to live in.
Make a note of your score for the three questions above. (Write your numbers in the margins or send yourself an email you can search for later.) You’ll see these questions again as we move through each of the three phases of your imagination training. At the end of the book, I’ll ask you to answer them one more time, so you can compare your scores and see for yourself just how much your skills have grown and your thinking has changed. My biggest hope for you is that reading this book will increase your overall urgent optimism score by at least +1, if not +2, +3, or more. Actually, it’s not just a hope—it’s an expectation, based on my own teaching experiences and the results of scientific research. When I teach How to Think Like a Futurist in the Continuing Studies program at Stanford University, I ask these same questions at the start and end of the class—and the scores consistently go up. I’ve also been able to ask nearly fifty thousand Futures Thinking learners from around the world these same questions on Coursera. And I can report that learners who complete their online training with the Institute for the Future really do anticipate more dramatic change, feel more optimistic, and have a stronger sense of agency over how their future turns out.
Perhaps even more convincingly, World Bank researchers ran a randomized controlled study of EVOKE with three hundred college students, using a new future scenario set in the year 2026. In the study, half the students (the control group) took conventional coursework in social innovation and global challenges. The other half participated, for college credit, in a sixteen-week EVOKE social simulation, imagining what they could do to help during a future crisis involving human trafficking and people displaced from their homes by war. Compared with the students who completed conventional coursework, the EVOKE players became more optimistic that global challenges could be solved. And at the end of the simulation, they expressed more confidence that they could use their own voices and actions to bring about a better and more peaceful future.9
The EVOKE players also measurably improved a specific set of imagination skills, which were tested at the start and end of the sixteen-week game and evaluated by peers throughout the study. Compared with the control group, they showed a statistically significant increase in their ability to “view familiar things in a different light,” “produce original and novel ideas through the willingness to take risks and try something different,” “dream of creative ways to resolve a conflict or problem,” and “initiate forward-looking solutions.” Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want to get better at these things? Most importantly, their skill growth and newfound agency to influence the future were similar across genders, ethnicities, ages, and academic fields of study. This suggests that futures-thinking training and participation in social simulations can empower people from diverse backgrounds to become optimistic agents of change. And that includes you!
Turn the page, and let’s take our first trip to the future together.
Unstick Your Mind
To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.
—Rebecca Solnit, historian and activist
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
—Alan Watts, philosopher
Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.
—Mandy Hale, author
When you think about the next ten years, do you think things will mostly stay the same and go on as normal?
Or do you expect that most of us will dramatically rethink and reinvent how we do things?
Rate your outlook on a scale of 1 to 10.
1 is almost everything stays the same, 10 is almost everything will be dramatically different.
1 Take a Ten-Year Trip
You are not crazy. You are just ready to change.
—Nnedi Okorafor, author
You may be familiar with the saying “The future starts now.” As catchy as this phrase may be, it is fundamentally not true. The future doesn’t start now, or tomorrow, or next month—at least not if you want to get the most out of mental time travel. It takes much longer than that for the full benefits of the future to kick in. But when exactly the future starts depends on who you are and what your life circumstances are like. Let me tell you about a simple game I invented. If you play along, you’ll get a pretty good idea of when the future starts for you.
Every time I teach a futures-thinking class or workshop, I begin with a quick game of When Does the Future Start? I ask everyone: “If the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today, how long from now does that future start?” I ask them to write down their answer in days, weeks, months, or years.
This isn’t a trick question, and there’s no single correct answer. In fact, usually there are dozens of different answers, all of them valid: a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now. (If you want to play along, go ahead and think of your answer to this question now.) I ask everyone to hold up their answers for others to see and then organize themselves in a line—or, more specifically, a timeline. The person who answered with the shortest amount of time goes first in line. The person who answered with the longest amount of time goes last. Everyone else orders themselves from shortest to longest in between.
At this point, it becomes obvious that there is a wide variety of responses. So I ask people at the very front and end of the line to explain their responses, along with a few in between. Their answers are often deeply personal. “Six months from today,” a woman in my Continuing Studies class at Stanford once said. She shared that her husband had recently and suddenly passed away. For her, everything had changed literally overnight. She was feeling a lot of uncertainty about whether she could expect anything to be reliably the same for long. In my experience, this is quite common: the person who answers the question “When does the future start?” with the shortest amount of time is someone who recently experienced a significant loss or shock.
On the other hand: “Three months,” a young man in a workshop I ran for high school students once said, for quite the opposite reason. He was graduating from high school in three months. That turning point felt like the start of something completely new. Studies show that this is also quite common: We become more open to the possibility of change as we get closer to achieving a long-term goal.1 We anticipate the end of one journey and look ahead to a new one beginning.
“Five hundred twenty-one days from today,” another student of mine once answered, quite specifically. It turned out that she had done some quick math. In 521 days, exactly, she would be turning thirty years old. Milestone birthdays, too, often cause us to anticipate big change, not just in our own lives but in the world around us.2 Thinking the whole world will change when we do may be a bit of egocentric thinking! Still, it’s useful to have a number of regularly scheduled moments in our lives when we can lean into dramatic change.
When else does the future start? “On Tuesday, November 3, 2020,” someone replied in the year 2017. “The date of the next United States presidential election,” he helpfully explained, clearly hoping the next election would yield different results. Not everyone has such a precise tipping point for the future in mind. But many people do think about dramatic change as a kind of regularly scheduled process, so that hope for something new and different is always on the horizon. Think: political elections, or drafts for sports fans, or even the new Pantone color of the year, as a very artistic student of mine once suggested.
Then again, just as often as not, people will say that they have no good reason for what they wrote. “The future starts in ten years,” someone might say, “just because it feels so far away.” And that’s profoundly true. The future is whatever time feels far enough away for things to really change. It is a completely subjective truth. The future starts whenever you feel ready for dramatic change: big change, scary change, prayed-for change, crazy change.
That’s why I love to play When Does the Future Start? A person’s answer tells me something important about their state of mind. A shorter answer—less than five years—means they are either very sensitive to change, or open to it, or smack in the middle of change happening right now. An unusually long answer—like forty, fifty, or even one hundred years—suggests a number of things: Someone might feel stuck and frustrated with the pace of change in society or their life so that they can’t realistically imagine dramatic change anytime soon, perhaps not even in their lifetime. Or they might be a very patient person with a lot of grit and determination, planning for a very long road ahead. Or perhaps they see no need for major change and are happy for things to stay the same for as long as possible. It takes some discussion to find out which situation is relevant, but in my experience a conversation that begins with “When does the future start?” is one worth having.
That said, with all this fascinating variation, ten years is far and away the most common answer to the question “When does the future start?” In the responses I’ve collected from more than ten thousand students, almost everyone agrees: Ten years is enough time for society and my own life to become dramatically different.
What makes ten years such a magic number for the mind?
Most of us have internalized the power of ten years to create change through a combination of our own lived experience and social convention. We think about our own lives as a series of ten-year-long periods: our twenties, our thirties, our forties, and so on. We use these milestone birthdays to reflect on what we want our next decade of life to be like. And we talk about decades as units of time in which society changes: think about how different the 1920s were from the 1910s, the 1960s from the 1950s, or how different the 2020s have already been from the 2010s. Anyone who has lived through more than one decade, or studied history, already has a clear mental model of just how much can change in ten years.
If you look at recent history, ten years really does seem almost like a magic number. You can find myriad examples of new ideas and actions creating a previously unimaginable social reality over the time span of a decade, give or take a few months. This is particularly true when it comes to social movements achieving historic victories, and new technologies achieving global impact. To consider just a few examples, it took, give or take a few months:
ten years for the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States to go from its first boycott of segregated bus seating to the successful passage of the federal Civil Rights Act (1955–1964)
ten years for the first international economic sanctions against South Africa’s segregationist apartheid system to lead to a new constitution that enfranchised Black South Africans and other racial groups (1985–1996)
ten years for same-sex marriage to go from being considered controversial when it was legalized by a country for the first time (the Netherlands) to being supported in global surveys by a majority of people in a majority of countries (2001–2010)
ten years for marijuana to go from being legalized for all uses in one US state, Colorado, to being decriminalized in forty-four out of fifty states (2012–2021)
And it took:
ten years from when just sixteen million people, mostly scientists and other academic researchers, were using the internet—they thought it would be used mostly to share scientific data—to when a billion people were using it (1991–2001)
ten years from the first iPhone release until a majority of people on the planet had smartphones, creating a new era of always-on communication (2007–2017)
ten years for Facebook to go from one user to one billion daily users, on its way to becoming the first product used by more than one in three humans on the planet (2004–2015)
ten years for Bitcoin to go from being a hypothetical idea discussed in a scientific article to having a nearly US$1 trillion market capitalization, larger than the three biggest US banks combined (2008–2019)
ten years from Airbnb’s and Uber’s foundings for a full 36 percent of US workers to be engaged in some form of “gig work” (2008–2018)
ten years for Zoom to go from its first user testing session to becoming a critical lifeline for humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the de facto tool for learning, work meetings, and staying in touch with friends and family (2011–2020)
In other words: things that are small experiments today in ten years can become ubiquitous and world-changing. And social change that seems improbable or unimaginable—well, in ten years that can change too.
Of course, not all goals for change can be achieved in a decade—many social movements take much longer. And progress doesn’t just stop after ten years. The purpose of looking ten years ahead isn’t to see that everything will happen on that timeline—but there is ample evidence that almost anything could happen on that timeline. And for that reason, ten years helps unstick our minds. Ten years helps us consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss. Ten years even relaxes us a bit as we try to imagine preparing for dramatic disruptions or for a radical rethinking of what’s normal—because ten years gives us time to get ready. And it’s for this reason that whenever I send people on mental time trips to the future, I almost always send them ten years ahead. Futurists want people to go somewhere they believe anything can be different—even things that seem impossible to change today.
When we think on a ten-year timeline, it’s not just that we are more likely to believe that dramatic change can happen in the world. We become more optimistic and hopeful about what we can change through our own efforts. This has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as time spaciousness. It’s the relaxing and empowering feeling that we have enough time to do what really matters—to consider our options, make a plan, and act more confidently to create the future we want. It is almost impossible to create a sense of time spaciousness when we’re thinking in a matter of days or weeks. But when thinking ahead ten years . . . ah, it’s so much time! On a ten-year timeline, we don’t feel rushed. We have plenty of opportunity to develop new skills, collect resources, recruit allies, learn from our mistakes, bounce back from setbacks, and do whatever else we need to do to get the best possible outcome. This feeling of abundance makes us less risk-averse and therefore more creative. We have all the time we need to play with ideas, try new things, and experiment until we figure out what works.
Interestingly, brains respond to abundant space in the same way as they do to abundant time. Studies have found that we also think more creatively and set higher, “maximal,” goals for ourselves when we’re in rooms with higher ceilings or outside in a wide-open environment.3 With maximal goals, we focus on the upper boundary: What is the highest and best possible outcome we can imagine? So I like to think of a ten-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination.
When we feel time-poor, on the other hand, it’s like being stuck in a tiny, depressing room with no windows. We shrink ourselves and imagine less. We adopt “minimal” goals, which means we try to do just enough to avoid a bad outcome. As one team of expert psychologists put it: “A maximal goal reflects the most that one could wish for, whereas a minimal goal reflects bare necessities or the least one could comfortably tolerate.”4
Do you have a sense of whether you’re waking up each day focused on maximal or minimal goals? Whether you’re feeling time-rich or time-poor? Setting goals for yourself (or your family, or your community, or your organization) on too short a timeline usually creates the feeling of being time-rushed. So does being too busy, but that’s not something you can always control. So rather than drastically reduce what’s on your schedule, it’s much easier to control how far out in the future you’re imagining when you think about changes you’d like to achieve.
You may not be used to goal setting on a ten-year timeline. We usually think about making personal change year by year, most commonly by making resolutions at the start of the New Year. But a one-year resolution won’t help you think maximally, and you won’t feel a sense of time spaciousness if you’re trying to achieve a big goal in just one year. So next New Year’s Day, why not try a new tradition? Make a ten-year resolution. What could you (or your family, or your community, or your organization) accomplish if you had ten years to do it? What would the long-term impact of a new habit be if you practiced it for ten years? Let your mind play with some bigger possibilities. Now this idea may not sound appealing to you at first. When it comes to making resolutions, you don’t want to be different in ten years; you want to be different as soon as possible! So go ahead and keep making short-term resolutions. And try to stretch your imagination a decade further too, while you’re at it.
If you want to get a taste of time spaciousness right now, here’s a trick you can try: pick a tiny task like finishing this book—and give yourself ten years to do it. You might think that having all this time will make you more likely to procrastinate, and you’ll never actually get around to reading it. But procrastination, paradoxically, is more likely to happen when you feel time-poor.5 When you feel like you have less time to get things done, you do less. And when you feel you have ample time, you do more. Studies show this is true completely independent of how much “free” or unscheduled time a person has. What matters is whether your brain perceives an abundance of time. So give it a try. Give yourself luxurious ten-year deadlines. You might be surprised at how much faster and more happily you do things you’d otherwise put off when you feel time-rich, and therefore more in control of your timeline.
I want you to try this, for real: go ahead and put a deadline to finish this book, or some other small goal, on your personal calendar, for ten years from today. Google’s and Apple’s calendar apps will let you schedule things ten years in the future. In fact, you can use these apps to schedule something one hundred years in the future, if you’d like to imagine something that might happen one hundred years from today. I highly recommend it as a thought experiment!
While you’ve got your mental or digital calendar open, let’s try a mental time trip. Imagine it’s ten years from today, and you wake up incredibly excited about . . . something. You’ve got a special event on the calendar. What is it?
To help you imagine this future more clearly, skip ahead in your digital calendar to ten years from today. Now, fill in the blank space. What do you have planned, ten years from today? Who are you doing it with? What will you be wearing? What supplies will you need? Why is this activity important or exciting for you? And how do you feel now that the day is here? Try to answer all these questions and imagine the day ahead as vividly as you can. Be sure to think about how you and your life circumstances might be different from today, and how those differences might change what you want or are able to do.
As with any mental time trip to far in the future, it may take a few moments for your brain to start filling in the blanks. Sometimes it helps to plant the seed of imagination in your mind now and come back to it later. Just keep the calendar open and keep playing with possibilities. My challenge for you is to put something exciting—maybe even something life-changing—on your real-world calendar for ten years from today. You’ll have a whole decade to decide if you want to actually make it happen.
For inspiration, let me tell you about a community that has truly embraced the ten-year timeline as a tool for dramatic change. In Germany’s Osing farming region, they do something remarkable every ten years. Each year that ends in a four (for example, 2024), the community gathers to conduct the “Osingverlosung,” a lottery in which all 213 local lots of farmland are randomly redistributed.
If you live in Osing, whatever property you owned and managed for the past ten years is now given over to someone else for the next decade. And you get to start over with a new lot. Fishing, hunting, and fruit-picking rights are raffled off as well. This ten-year lottery tradition started centuries ago and has continued on the local calendar uninterrupted. Today, the handover is celebrated with music, a feast, and festival activities.
Can you imagine committing to this kind of dramatic change every decade? Can you imagine having to trade some of your personal assets with a neighbor every ten years—perhaps your collection of books, or your wardrobe, or your home? What would it feel like to give what you own back to the community every ten years and start over with someone else’s lot? Can you picture yourself joyfully celebrating this random redistribution, as the Osing residents do, instead of fearing or resenting it? It’s difficult, isn’t it? But it’s not a fantasy; there are people who do go along with it, voluntarily, happily. So why is such a lottery unimaginable for most people?
To find out, make a list of all the barriers and obstacles you can think of. What are the reasons such a lottery would never work where you live? Why would people refuse to participate? And then consider: How willing are you to suspend your certainty about those obstacles? Is there anything on that list you think could change or be overcome? Can you think of any urgent crisis, or social movement, or technological breakthrough, or shift in popular beliefs that could make this unimaginable thing imaginable?
That’s the kind of imagination stretching we’re doing together in this book. The Osing lottery, but in your own town, is just the first of many “impossible” futures we’re going to consider.
To be fair, there are people who will tell you they need much longer than a decade to create and prepare for dramatic change. When I play When Does the Future Start? I sometimes notice another large cluster of answers, in the twenty-to-thirty-year range. This group, it turns out, tends to have a very specific mental model of how things change. They think about the world in terms of generational change, in which most changes are a result of young people growing up and doing things differently than previous generations.
This is a reasonable way to think about change, but it has at least three drawbacks. First, it’s an awfully long time to wait if you are urgently hoping for change. Second, it puts all the agency in the hands of one demographic: the most recently grown-up generation. What if you’re not a part of that group? Third, it gets harder for your imagination to fill in the blanks of the future when you have less and less information about what it might be like—at thirty years out, you’re more likely to be making random guesses than helpful predictions. When I train people with this generational view of change, I don’t try to talk them out of their mental model—but I do encourage them to practice futures thinking on the ten-year timeline, in order to help them start their own future faster.
Unfortunately, imagining ten years out is not a habit that most people come by easily. A few years ago, as part of my research at the Institute for the Future, I conducted the first major survey of futures thinking in the United States.6 In it, 2,818 people reflected on how frequently they imagine what they might personally do at different timescales of the future: a month, a year, three years, and so on, all the way up to thirty years into the future. (Respondents were eighteen or older, and the survey has a margin of error of ±2 percentage points.) I expected that most people would think about the far future less than I, as a professional futurist, do. But I was surprised by just how much less they did. Thirty-seven percent of people said they never imagine the world or their lives ten years into the future. Another 15 percent said they think about it at most once a year. Add those groups up and you’ve got a majority of people who are completely missing out on the power of the ten-year timeline in their own lives.
Closer futures are imagined more often by most people: 56 percent of people say they imagine something they might do a year from now every day or almost every day. So it’s not that futures thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s just that most of us don’t push the timeline far enough.
Let me try to convince you with one more scientific finding that you should be thinking ten years into the future pretty much every single day.
When you take a mental time trip ten years into the future, your brain starts to think with a different point of view. This isn’t a metaphor—it’s a literal fact. Scientists describe this as switching your imagination from first-person to third-person perspective.
In first-person perspective, you imagine the world from your own point of view, from inside your own body. This is how you normally move through life, experiencing yourself as the center of reality. In third-person perspective, you imagine yourself from an outside point of view, almost like an out-of-body experience. You’re floating above or apart from the action, not stuck inside it. When you’re thinking in first person, you’re totally immersed in your own thoughts and feelings. When you’re thinking in third person, you escape your own ego and get a more objective and expansive perspective.
Virtually everyone thinks in first person when they imagine their recent past, present, or near future. Likewise, almost everyone switches to third person when they think about their far past or far future, usually defined in the scientific literature as ten years in either direction from today. This shift in mental perspective is why you can often look back at emotionally charged moments in your life, after enough time has passed, and see things from a more detached, clearer point of view. Your brain is literally processing them from a more insightful vantage point. Likewise, this is why taking a mental time trip ten years to the future can help you feel “unstuck” emotionally. You momentarily get a break from your normal mode of thinking and feeling and get to float above it all, like a satellite looking down from space.
Psychology researchers have devised a clever way of demonstrating this perspective-switching phenomenon. In studies, they use something called “the letter-tracing task.” And you can try this task with a partner to create your own “aha” moment about what’s happening in your brain. Here’s an example of how the letter-tracing task works:
In one study, participants were asked to close their eyes and imagine themselves walking along a beach either tomorrow or in ten years’ time. After twenty seconds had gone by, but while still imagining the beach walk, participants were instructed to draw the letter C just in front of their forehead (without touching the skin), using the index finger on their dominant hand. They were told that this action should be performed as quickly and thoughtlessly as possible.
The researchers reported a fascinating pattern in their observations. Almost everyone who imagined walking on the beach tomorrow traced the letter C so that it appeared correctly from their own point of view, but backward to the researcher sitting across from them. But 70 percent of the participants who imagined walking on the beach ten years in the future traced the C the opposite way, so that it appeared correctly to the researcher and backward to themselves. In other words, people thinking about the present were still looking at the world with a first-person perspective, from inside their own heads. But people thinking about the far future zoomed out into a third-person perspective. They adopted a more empathetic perspective, as evidenced by their drawing the C for someone else’s point of view. It really is as if, when they took the ten-year trip, they were looking at the scene from outside their own body.7
You can try this experiment with a friend, if you like, and experience the phenomenon for yourself. Just keep in mind: You need to be sitting or standing across from your partner in the same physical space for the effect to work (you can’t do it over the phone). And it won’t work for everyone; somewhere around 20 to 30 percent of people will always trace the letter the same way, even if they’ve switched between actor and observer mode. Still, the letter-tracing task is strong confirmation that zooming out in time really does help us zoom out from ourselves. If we can get some distance from the present moment, we can get some distance in our perspective too.
As the letter-tracing task suggests, a major benefit of switching from first person to third person is that it’s a huge empathy booster. In scientific language, we “reduce our egocentric biases” and become “less ego-identified”—which means we get out of our own heads and can start to see things the way someone else might. We’re better able to consider that others might have different wants, needs, values, or ideas than we do.8
We also become more open-minded—and this is particularly important when it comes to thinking about how the future might be different, or how we ourselves might change. Studies show that when we zoom out in time and perspective, we become much more likely to take in new information that runs counter to our existing beliefs.9 This is a kind of mental superpower.
Most of the time, when we’re exposed to information that challenges our beliefs, we shut it out. Our brains have various defense mechanisms, including paying less attention to “disconfirming data” and forgetting it faster if we notice it at all. If you’ve ever told someone, “I don’t want to hear it,” when they’re trying to convince you of something, you know exactly what I’m talking about! Your brain really does not want to hear it—it actively filters out and rejects information that causes it discomfort, or “cognitive dissonance.”
There are good reasons for these defense mechanisms, according to cognitive scientists. Our brains don’t want to waste energy reassessing our mental models every time we get new information. We need to save that energy for all the other important thinking, planning, and problem solving we have to do. And we’d never take any action at all if we didn’t have some degree of confidence in our ability to understand the world around us. In fact, if we don’t have relatively stable beliefs, we are likely to experience significant psychological distress: we may feel we have a weaker self-identity, or that we are simply unable to understand the world around us. This can lead to anxiety and even despair. So, of course, our brains want to avoid going into a tailspin every time we encounter a piece of information that might require us to rethink what we know. But if we always shut out challenging information, we’ll never learn or grow. And we certainly won’t adapt quickly to disruptions or surprising events.10
When we get a little distance from our own point of view, we’re less likely to get stuck in old ways of thinking that no longer serve us. When we take a mental time trip to ten years in the future, we are choosing to open our minds at least temporarily and see what we discover. It’s like opening a window to get fresh air—a ten-year timeline opens our mind to get fresh ideas. This openness to surprising or uncomfortable information is a gift. It helps us overcome blind spots and imagine what others refuse to think about.
A little over ten years ago, I was invited to the corporate headquarters of a major automotive manufacturer to give a talk to their innovation team about how video game technology might be incorporated into future cars. During a tour of a research facility, I got into a heated discussion with a few senior executives about whether self-driving, or autonomous, cars would ever take off as a popular alternative to people-driven cars.
“Absolutely not,” one of them said.
“We’re not even looking at that as a serious possibility,” another said.
I asked why they were so confident in their opinion.
“Cars are the ultimate expression of individual freedom,” one responded. “When you get in your car, you decide where to go, you’re in control. People are never going to be willing to give up that sense of freedom and control by letting the car drive them.”
Another executive talked about the psychological power and cultural importance of the driver’s license. “There’s a reason why getting your first driver’s license is such an important rite of passage,” he said. “It marks the moment when a young person finally feels in control of their own life. That’s just not going to change.”
I asked if they thought that the possibility of reducing motor vehicle fatalities would be a stronger motivator than being in charge of your life. What if self-driving cars were ultimately safer than people-driven cars? What if we could eliminate some of the nearly 1.5 million car-related fatalities that happen globally each year? No, they all agreed. Safety gains would never trump a sense of individual freedom and control. I shared a few other reasons I thought autonomous cars would become commonplace, but I didn’t get any traction. The executives were locked in to their assumption.
As their guest, I didn’t want to get into an argument with them, so I said, “I hope we have a chance to talk about this again in ten years.” And then as soon as I had a moment to myself, I pulled out the tiny notebook I always carry with me, and I wrote up everything I could remember about the conversation. I wanted to capture the conversation because I was fascinated by the certainty they expressed in rejecting this possible future. I didn’t take their opinions to be an official company position—and I later learned that there were already people within the company advocating for taking self-driving cars more seriously. But our conversation stood out to me as a clear example of how an idea can get labeled “unthinkable,” and how, once the idea is labeled, it is hard to get people to change their minds about it, even in a team tasked with innovation.
Before I started training as a futurist, I was probably just as stubborn about my own views of the world. But at the Institute for the Future, I quickly discovered how important it would be never to let my mind get stuck on a certain point of view. In meetings, my new colleagues would often repeat a particular mantra, which I learned was coined by a former president of the institute. Whenever they got into a heated conversation, they would stop, take a breath, and say: “Strong opinions, lightly held.” And then they would take a closer look at their assumptions.
It took me a while to figure out exactly what this mantra meant. On one hand, it’s important to have strong points of view, especially when we’re trying to stretch our imaginations. If we want to prepare for unthinkable events and create previously unimaginable change, then, by definition, we have to be willing to propose extremely provocative and challenging ideas. But on the other hand, just because we can imagine that something can possibly be true in the future doesn’t mean we have to believe it will be true with absolute certainty. We need to be open to letting our assumptions and beliefs go when they no longer serve us, especially if we get new information that makes us rethink our original position.
“Strong opinions, lightly held”—I really do love this mantra. It’s an expression of humility and willingness to learn. It reminds us that no matter what we think we know for sure, the future can still surprise us. So I use this mantra whenever I feel myself getting overinvested in a particular outcome—not just about the future but in any disagreement I’m having. (Yes, I even use it to press pause on arguments with my husband!) It’s a reminder to myself, and a promise to whomever I’m in a conversation with, that I will keep a flexible, open mind.
I’ve learned a lot about futures thinking since that conversation with the innovation team more than ten years ago. What would I do differently if I had known then what I know now? I’d definitely invite them to take a quick mental time trip with me, so they could imagine their very first time riding in a completely autonomous vehicle.
“Imagine it as vividly and realistically as you can,” I’d say to them. “What color is the car? Where are you going? How comfortable is the seat? Is anyone with you?” I’d give them a moment to pre-feel this future, and then I’d ask, “In one word, how would you describe the emotion you’re feeling during this first ride?” I’m confident that it would open their minds, especially if they had a chance to share their mental time travel trip reports with each other.
I’ve since had thousands of students take on this exact imagination challenge as a mental warm-up for class. (Although in recent years, as self-driving technology has actually entered the marketplace, I’ve had to revise it slightly: “If you’ve already had this experience of riding in a completely autonomous vehicle, what was the main emotion you felt?”) I invite everyone to share their one-word emotional reaction on a giant whiteboard at the front of the classroom or, if we’re learning online, in chat. This is my favorite part, as everyone takes in the inevitably wide range of feelings. People predict they would feel excited, nervous, awed, terrified, curious, nauseated, grateful, thrilled, confused, vigilant, asleep, free. The words they share run the full gamut of positive and negative emotions, with no consensus whatsoever.
With this kind of insight into other people’s imagined futures, it becomes much harder to hold any strong opinion about self-driving cars too tightly. This is especially true if we try to understand—or better yet, have a conversation about—why exactly someone else might feel nervous about the ride while we would feel excited, why someone else might feel free during the ride while we might feel nauseated, why some people want this future and others don’t.
In other words, imagining the future is most mind-opening when we do it with others. We can notice how differently others feel about the same possible future. We can take in the details of their imagination so we have material to work with in our own mind. When we take ten-year trips to the future together, it’s much easier to keep adapting and evolving our own beliefs.
Speaking of which . . . twelve years later, that automotive company I visited is now manufacturing self-driving cars. They definitely got their minds unstuck about that idea! Still, regardless of whether this particular technology becomes ubiquitous, it’s likely that they (and we too) will need to do even more rethinking in the next ten years as even bigger changes loom on the horizon. The future, even more now, is resisting our strongly held assumptions about the importance of cars to modern life. Here’s another clue to plant in your mind about how the future might be different:
During the 2020 pandemic, cities around the world experimented with closing large areas of streets to cars. The roadways were opened up for pedestrians, bicycles, and outdoor dining, so people could spend more time socializing and staying active, while still staying a safe distance from each other. These experiments proved extremely popular, and they will likely have lasting impacts on people’s ideas about cars. When the international market research and data analytics firm YouGov conducted a survey in twenty-one cities across France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and Belgium, for example, it found that 78 percent of people wanted to keep the restrictions on cars put in place during the pandemic as a way to lower air pollution and limit the role of cars in urban life.
Meanwhile, young people are increasingly opting not to get a driver’s license. In the United States today, 40 percent of eighteen-year-olds have opted not to get their license yet. The top reasons they gave in a survey by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute: “too busy or not enough time to get a driver’s license” (37 percent); “owning and maintaining a vehicle is too expensive” (32 percent); “able to get transportation from others” (31 percent); “prefer to bike or walk” (22 percent); “prefer to use public transportation” (17 percent); “concerned about how driving impacts the environment” (9 percent).11 And in a separate survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, nearly half of teens who chose not to get a license said that driving was a risky activity that made them feel anxious.12 What do I take from this data? Freedom clearly has a wider range of meaning to young people today when it comes to cars—not just personal mobility or control over a machine but also freedom from debt, freedom from feeling guilty about the environmental impacts, freedom from anxiety about risky activities.
To me, these clues alongside the advance of self-driving technology suggest we are probably past the “peak-driving” moment in history for humans, at least for our lifetimes. This will increasingly change where we live, whom we live near, how we work, how we learn, how we shop, what kind of infrastructure we need, and how young people gain independence and mark rites of passage. There are so many things we can start to rethink and reinvent if we allow ourselves to consider this change.
As you imagine your life and the world ten years from now, it might be worth occasionally constructing a scene with dramatically fewer cars and less human driving. What would be different in this future? Could you live where you live today? What would change in your community? The next time you take a ten-year trip, see what creative ideas for personal or social change a post-car world inspires for you. This is just one of many large-scale societal changes we’ll be imagining together in this book.
There is one important caveat to all this ten-year thinking. For some people, and with good reason, a ten-year timeline is too long. In my national survey of futures thinking, I found that the very oldest respondents, individuals in their eighties or nineties, were the least likely to think that far ahead in time. Their most often cited reason: “I don’t expect to be here in ten years.” Even for professional futurists, it’s necessary to acknowledge that advanced age, illness, or dangerous conditions can make imagining a ten-year future feel pointless or distressing. If your life circumstances make ten years into the future feel like a bridge too far, I encourage you to imagine a future that still feels further out than you would ordinarily think about. Let the future start wherever you feel that slightly uncomfortable reaching and stretching and opening in your mind, wherever you believe dramatic change is possible.
RULE #1: Take a Ten-Year Trip.
When you think about the future, focus your imagination ten years out. A ten-year timeline will lift the ceiling on your imagination and give you that magical feeling of “time spaciousness.” It will help you open your mind, take in new information, reduce your blind spots, increase your empathy, set more optimistic goals, and see a much bigger picture. If your mind feels stuck or rushed, give yourself a ten-year deadline, make a ten-year resolution, create an event on your calendar for ten years from now, or talk to others about how the world might be different ten years from now. It will change how you think and feel today.
2 Learn to Time Travel
It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
—Lewis Carroll, author
For the next thirty seconds, I want you to imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning. Try to picture it in your mind or describe it to yourself as clearly as possible.
These questions might help you make your imagined scene clearer: What room or space are you in? What wakes you up—is it an alarm, the sunlight, someone nudging you or calling you? Is it light out, or still dark? Is there anyone with you? Which side of the bed are you on? (If you’re in a bed—or are you somewhere else?) What are you wearing? What kind of mood are you in? And what’s the very first thing you do, now that you’re awake? Keep imagining your tomorrow morning until you have a clear answer to all of these questions.
Good job. This quick mental time trip you just took is an example of a highly imaginable future. It was likely quite easy for you to envision, with plenty of vivid details.
What makes it so imaginable? Well, there’s not too much room for uncertainty between now and tomorrow morning. You probably have a good idea where you’ll be waking up. Your physical environment isn’t likely to be completely different by tomorrow. Your habits and life circumstances aren’t likely to dramatically change overnight. In other words, you can reasonably expect tomorrow morning to be at least somewhat similar to most mornings you’ve experienced recently. That doesn’t mean you can predict it with certainty. But you have all the information you need to simulate in your mind, clearly, at least one likely possibility.
Now let’s try something a little more challenging. For the next thirty seconds, I want you to imagine yourself waking up one year from today.
Again, try to envision this future moment as clearly as possible. Feel free to change as many or as few details as you want from the first scene you imagined.
One year from today, are you waking up somewhere different? Or is there something different about your bed, or your room? Is someone different with you? Are you physically changed in some way?
Would you like to imagine waking up in a completely different mood than you expect to wake up in tomorrow? What might put you in this new mood?
Do you have a different morning habit a year from now, something you do as soon as you wake up that you don’t do today? What might that new habit be?
Keep imagining your morning one year from now until you have answers to all of these questions—even the ones that seem harder to predict. Did this exercise stretch your imagination a bit more? Notice how easily and automatically ideas came to you, or how hard you had to work to come up with details. Notice how inclined you were to describe a moment similar to today, or how freely you started to invent change. Notice whether your body and brain felt relaxed or active with effort. Take a quick inventory of your reactions, and then let’s try one more act of imagination.
This time, I want you to imagine yourself waking up ten years from today.
Take as long as you need to come up with a vivid and plausible image—of yourself, of the space that you’re in, and who might be with you.
Where are you ten years from today? What’s around you? What do you see, hear, smell, and feel? What’s the first thing on your mind when you wake up? What do you have planned for the day? How are you physically different in this future?
Try not to make this future scene a total fantasy. Stay grounded in what you feel is genuinely realistic and possible for you.
If you’re having any difficulty with this challenge, one trick you might try is to write down a description of what you imagine instead of trying to hold all the details in your mind. For some people, it’s easier to think about the future with words rather than with mental images.
Keep thinking about this moment ten years from now, until you’ve filled in as many details as possible.
What did you see in your far future? Did you expect things to be more or less the same? Or did you fill your future with alternatives to how things are today? There’s no right or wrong answer. Just notice.
Did you picture a morning you’d like to wake up to? Or did you find yourself exploring possibilities that might be painful to encounter? Both are helpful forms of imagination—your positive and shadow side. Just notice which direction you went to first.
Most importantly, did you feel a difference in your brain and body as you stretched your imagination ten years into the future? For most people, the sensation of this activity is like reaching for something that isn’t quite there.
Some people feel it mentally, some physically, and others both. You may have noticed that your eyes started moving almost involuntarily, as if looking around for clues. This is quite common when we try to imagine the future; it helps us “see” what isn’t there yet. Or perhaps you noticed your fingers rubbing together, or your hands moving around and touching things, unconsciously, as if feeling for information. Touch is the first way we learn about the world, and in times of uncertainty we often revert to “feeling” our way.1 Even if you didn’t have any physical reaction, you probably felt the mental effort. Your brain works significantly harder the further you stretch your imagination into the future. And ten years is a particularly tricky challenge compared with one year, or two years, or five.
Why is that? To begin with, you’ve never been ten years older than you are right now. Your brain hasn’t been there before, so it doesn’t know what to expect. And there’s so much opportunity for things to change in ten years—your body, your relationships, your life circumstances, your physical environment. Your brain intuitively grasps this uncertainty, this unknowability. It doesn’t have the necessary data to simulate, perfectly, what might happen. So instead of projecting confidently one possibility into the future, your brain opens up a blank space for you to consider multiple possibilities. At this point, you have to start making intentional choices about what you want to imagine in your future. You have to fill in the blanks.
Filling in the blanks takes considerable mental effort. But it’s precisely because of that stretch, that strain, that this kind of imagination is so powerful. Instead of simply remembering what it already knows, your brain has to invent a new possibility. It draws on past experiences, current hopes and fears, and your intuitions about what might change in the years ahead to bring something into the world that doesn’t exist yet. You may have actually felt this “mental stretching” happening while you tried to imagine waking up ten years from today, your brain forging new neurological pathways, making a brand-new memory of something you haven’t even lived through yet.
After you’ve made this new memory, something amazing happens: what was previously unimaginable to your brain is now imaginable. The next time you try to think about this possible future, a vivid mental image or detailed description will spring immediately to mind. You can use this new “memory of the future” to plan and prepare for the future much more effectively. You can revisit this memory whenever you want and examine how it makes you feel. Does it spark positive or negative emotions? These pre-feelings can help you figure out: Should you change what you’re doing today to make this possible future more or less likely? And because you invented this memory, you can change it whenever you want. You can alter the details as your hopes or fears change, or as you get more information about what your future might be like.
Scientists call this form of imagination episodic future thinking, or EFT. It’s the mental ability to transport yourself forward in time and pre-experience a future event. EFT is often described as a kind of “mental time travel” because your brain is working to help you see and feel the future as clearly and vividly as if you were already there. But EFT isn’t just thinking about the future; it’s simulating the future in your mind. It’s the difference between knowing that it’s probably going to rain tomorrow—a kind of “fact” or abstract thought about the future—and vividly imagining yourself in the rain, trying to pre-feel the rain on your skin, and using everything you know about what tomorrow might be like to make the scenario more detailed and realistic. EFT might entail picturing where exactly you’ll be when it starts to rain, what you might be wearing, who might be with you, whether you’re likely to be annoyed by the rain or delighted by it, whether you’ll rush to get somewhere dry or stroll leisurely through it, and so on.
Another way to understand EFT is to think of it as replaying in your mind an episode of a documentary or reality television series starring you, only the episode you’re watching is set in the future. This analogy captures the often highly visual and narrative qualities of EFT: you see possible events of the future unfolding in your mind’s eye as if they had already been captured on video.1 More importantly, it underscores the fact that EFT should be plausible, grounded in reality. EFT is not a daydream in which you fantasize about living a completely different life or waking up in a world where all your problems are magically solved. It is a way of connecting who you are today with what you might really feel and do in the future. This future might very well be better than today, but it will also undoubtedly come with challenges. So EFT isn’t an escape from reality. It’s a way of playing with reality, to discover risks and opportunities you might not previously have considered.
Because EFT allows us to pre-feel different possible futures, it’s a powerful decision-making, planning, and motivational tool. It helps us decide: Is this a world I want to wake up in? What do I need to be ready for it? Should I try to change what I’m doing today to make this future more or less likely? It’s also an incredibly demanding cognitive task. It’s hard work for your brain to conjure up something that doesn’t exist yet but plausibly could.
According to fMRI studies, which reveal patterns of brain activity, EFT involves heightened activity and increased connectivity between eleven distinct brain regions.2 Compare this to remembering a past event or daydreaming about what someone else might be doing in the present. These forms of imagination activate just six of the same eleven regions of the brain as EFT; you need five additional regions firing to go on a mental time trip to your future.
Why does EFT require so much more mental effort than casual daydreaming or remembering? During EFT, you’re not only trying to simulate in your mind something that isn’t right in front of you; you’re also actively trying to make sense of it.
There are three major kinds of sense making that happen when you time travel, mentally, to your future.
First, your brain has to do what cognitive scientists call scene construction—mentally building the world of the future. Where are you, what do you see, what’s going on, and who else is there? Think of this as building the stage set, cast, and props for a theatrical play. Before you can imagine what you’re going to do, feel, and say in this future, you have to know where it takes place, who’s with you, and what objects surround you.
Scene construction also means establishing basic facts of the world, or what scientists call the semantics. Have you ever watched a movie trailer that began with a voice-over: “In a world where . . .” “In a land where . . .” “In a time when . . .”? Well, the same kind of voice-over moment happens in your brain at the start of EFT. The voice might say, “In a world that’s pretty much the same as today,” if you’re not trying to stretch your imagination very far. But as you start to use EFT to imagine change in your own life and society, your scene construction might start with more surprising descriptions: “In a world where college is free,” or “In a land where cars are banned,” or “In a time when my kids are fully grown and out of the house,” or “In a time when my kids are fully grown and back in the house.” Playing with the semantics, or rules, of the future is one of the most important and creative tasks of EFT. The more freely you play with possibilities, the more challenges you’ll be prepared for and the more opportunities you’ll discover.
This scene-construction work is all hypothetical, of course. The future hasn’t happened yet, so you can fill your mental stage with anything, and you can make any rules you want. So where, exactly, do these possibilities come from? How does your brain decide what to imagine?
During EFT, your brain goes on a kind of scavenger hunt for realistic details and plausible ideas. To do this, it activates the hippocampus, the seat of memory and learning, and starts digging through all of your memories, plus any other facts and ideas you’ve stored away. Depending on what kind of future you’re trying to imagine—a hopeful one or a nerve-racking one, a familiar one or a strange one—the hippocampus identifies the most relevant stuff, and then retrieves and recombines it into a new scene. This means that whatever you see in your future will always come from information your brain has already perceived and processed. Anyone can imagine a future that looks more or less like today. But ideally, as you get better at imagining the unimaginable, you’ll construct your scenes with an eye for change—incorporating not just obvious ideas and things that have been important in your past but also surprising ideas and things that could be important in your future.
That’s why the single most important element of imagination training you’ll do in this book is to start filling your brain with what I call “clues to the future,” concrete examples of new and strange ideas that might shape how the future turns out. Looking for clues to the future means finding and examining evidence of changes that are already starting to happen today. When you have a hippocampus full of clues, your brain will have better data to draw on, and the scenes you construct will be way more interesting. This book is full of clues.
So your hippocampus is fired up, making up the rules for the future and setting the stage. What happens next during EFT?
After scene construction, your brain starts to do a kind of work that cognitive scientists call opportunity detection. In opportunity detection, you look for ways to fulfill your needs and achieve your goals. For example: If you predict you might be hungry when you wake up ten years from now, what will future you eat? If you imagine yourself lonely when you wake up, who will future you try to connect with? Opportunity detection is like an actor showing up for rehearsal and asking, “What’s my motivation?” In other words: What do I want in this scene?
To figure out your motivation, your brain fires up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a region that’s heavily used whenever you set goals and track your progress towar