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Why 'futures thinking' will help you with career uncertainty

Rica's note: Career change can feel overwhelming and it helps to have a framework or theory to help you navigate uncertainty. But I also know that one size doesn't fit all. That's why this section aims to explore various disciplines and theories in business and social sciences that you can apply to your own career.

I don’t consider myself a science fiction geek, but if there’s one aspect of the genre that always fascinates me is the idea of time travel and multiple timelines. Every series that I’ve watched always has an episode where the protagonist has to explore an alternative future to get insight about a decision that he or she has to make in the present. In the process the hero is presented with a different version of his or her life before traveling back to their original time and place. If only we could time travel in reality right? Actually, in some ways we can.

Fast forward to the present.

This fascination in science fiction explains why I’m drawn to the practice of ‘futures thinking’ or 'futurism' in my work as a strategist and researcher. Both concepts use the power of imagination to envision different outcomes that will help us make better decisions in the present. Essentially what the protagonist does when he or she goes back and forth between the present and future is to create a feedback loop for decision making. Similarly, futurism requires an ambidextrous mindset. It teaches us how to think two ways at once - both monitoring what’s happening in the present and thinking through how the present relates to the future.

You’ve probably seen a lot of ‘Future of (insert industry)’ webinars and opinion pieces ever since 2020 began, and even more so because of Covid. But what practical advice does this provide you - someone in the midst of career change?

This will be my first in a series of articles that aim to unpack how we can apply this discipline to future proofing our careers, focusing first on the core principles of the discipline. I’m not an expert but this is based on my own experience applying futurism to my strategic practice.

But first, a definition.

Futurism is not about peering into a crystal ball to predict the future because that’s impossible. Anyone who says otherwise is foolish. Rather the practice is about critically exploring a range of alternative futures or scenarios so that we can better navigate through uncertainty and work towards building a future that we want in the present.

According to “The Signals are Talking” by renowned futurist Amy Webb, there are 3 principles to futures thinking:

#1 The future is not predetermined, but rather woven together by numerous threads that are themselves being woven in the present.
#2 We can observe probable future threads in the present, as they are being woven.
#3 We can impact our possible and probable futures in the present.

Let’s apply this mindset to our career.

Your future career is not predetermined but is in a constant state of becoming.

So if you suddenly lost your job because of covid, then good news. It doesn’t mean that your career is over, but that your experience thus far has become yet another thread in the tapestry of your career.

The future might feel distant, but there are signs of what it could become in the present. You just have to pay attention to the latent signals of your life - such as hobbies, interests, etc.

A probable future is what will most likely happen based on existing knowledge and skills. A possible future is something we think could happen based on some future knowledge we do not yet possess but can get such as through reading, taking a course, etc. Even though both are future scenarios, we can make it come to life based on actions we can take in the present.

From imagining one to several possible futures

Futurism requires thinking in contradictory ways. We have to accept that the future is not predetermined (which means we can still intervene to shape it), while simultaneously acknowledging that any number of variables can influence an outcome.

This is an important mindset shift for career design because it expands our idea of what career fulfilment can be. Rather than be rigid about achieving a single outcome (i.e. become Director of X by the age of X), futurism helps us imagine a range of options that we would happily lean on if a curveball hits. What if a pandemic hit that caused your industry to decline and job to be made redundant? Oh wait...

Futurism acknowledges that there are unknown variables we can’t control and multiple scenarios that can occur. It goes against conventional wisdom that our career future can only head in one direction, by giving us the mental model to go sideways. It’s a way to future proof and diversify our career options.

Explore the fringes of your life

How do we start imagining more than one future? By exploring the signals of what futurists call the ‘fringes’ or the outer edges. This is usually where subcultures start forming or where early adopters and hipsters hang out. As a strategist, I love exploring the fringes because that’s where I find inspiration for innovative opportunities that I can bring to a client.

But I believe that people also have fringe areas that can be fertile ground for career transformation. The fringes of your life could be ancillary interests, hobbies, experiences, or contacts that you have never tapped into while you were busy doing other things.

As mentioned earlier, futurism is not about declaring prophecies. If you want to think like a futurist, then it’s your job to collect data and that means focusing your attention very broadly. The exercise of imagining alternative futures will force you to listen actively rather than reflexively. It will help you to see beyond the industry, title and traditional pathway in front of you. It unshackles you from being bound by our earlier choices to consider ‘what if’?

After identifying those signals, the next step would be to see the different ways they converge. Treat your career like a science experiment. What happens if you apply skill A to interest B to emerging trend C? Exploring our ‘fringes’ enables us to rise sideways by shedding light on the potential of our own latent signals.

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