Five Ways to Learn More About the Future

This article was originally published by Forbes here

For someone who loves reading about history, I spend a surprising amount of time thinking about the future. In fact, the main reason I study history is because of what it can teach about what will happen hereafter.

At some level, my fixation on the future is a bit of a problem. I often have trouble remembering what year it is because I spend so much time thinking about next year.

Another problem this causes is an occasional inability to enjoy and celebrate accomplishments. I am constantly reminding myself to be in the moment, especially when it comes to the time I get with loved ones. The beauty of that relationship is now, not just in the future.

But in my defense, there is some practicality to being fixated on what’s to come. As strange as it sounds, I can’t do anything that changes my current circumstances. All the things that caused my current situation happened in the past. What I do right now won’t have any impact until later. So, while my current situation may be set, I can make a choice right now to do something that will alter my future. Hopefully, when I get there, that present will be better than this present.

One of my mentors is a wonderfully wise man who has done much to frame this understanding of time and circumstance. Late last year, he said something that stayed with me.

“You’re going to spend the rest of your life in the future, so you might want to learn about it.”

Just as my present actions are going to shape my future, the actions that are going to shape the future around me are also occurring right now. The best way to predict the future is to be aware of all the activity that will cause it.

The best leaders I know are also the most curious. They take in lots of information from many sources and often explore things that are seemingly unrelated to their business. They are constantly looking for new insights or innovations that may have some relevance to their situation.

Here are some practices I have picked up from others that may help you learn more about what’s to come:

1. Seek contradictory information.

All of us suffer from confirmation bias—a phenomenon that causes us to pay attention to information that supports our views and ignore information that contradicts them. The problem is that this limits our ability to see new trends that can change the future. Purposefully seek and consume opinions and information that counter your view on a topic. It may not change your mind, but it will help you understand the way other people think—and ultimately act.

2. Learn about other industries.

I love talking with people who work in other industries and asking them to explain how their businesses work. Beyond mere intrigue, the way people solve unique problems in their businesses often provides insight into applications that may appear in my industry or the broader world. Take advantage of every opportunity you can to ask someone about their job.

3. Seek root causes.

Most businesses have an unspoken (or spoken) rule that you should never bring a problem without also bringing a solution. The result is that leaders are constantly being given explanations by experts of things that ought to be done. There is a tendency to trust the expert and just move on. However, if you don’t understand the root cause of the problem, you won’t know if the proposed solution is the right one or how to solve a similar problem in the future. Whenever I sense there is an issue I don’t sufficiently understand, I try to dig in. One of my favorite phrases is: “Tell me more about that.”

4. Pay attention to the bleeding edge.

The vast majority of startup businesses fail, but their business models show how innovative people are viewing unique solutions to problems. And the one that does succeed is often going to make a big impact on the way things are done in the future. One of the things I enjoy is going to a trade show and looking at the small booths in the hinterlands of the exhibit floor—the little startups that can’t afford the big fancy spaces in the middle. They are the ones who will have the glitzy booths in the future.

5. Look to history as a guide.

You’ve heard the old adage, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I prefer: “There is nothing new under the sun.” We are simply seeing new variations of old situations. Circumstances may have changed, but the nature of people has not. The way that people reacted to similar situations in the past is most likely the way they will do so in the future. I like asking the question, “When has something like this happened before?” to find old answers to new problems.

One of our jobs as leaders is to make decisions today that will position our team for success in the future. While no one can accurately predict the future, the more we learn about it, the better our decisions will be.

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