Practice the future

In 2000, Octavia Butler wrote in Essence magazine about why trying to predict the future was so important:

So why try to predict the future at all if it’s so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses. Because, most of all, our tomorrow is the child of our today. Through thought and deed, we exert a great deal of influence over this child, even though we can’t control it absolutely. Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good. Best to do that for any child.

Notice here that Butler isn’t counseling that we simply try to see the future—like correctly divining tomorrow’s winning lottery number. She’s arguing for trying to influence the future. Prediction, in this context, isn’t about forecasting, but rather about moving towards the future you want—about building rather than betting. And that building happens in both “thought and deed,” that is, both by taking action but also by orienting our thinking.

In Emergent Strategy—which draws from the work of Butler and other SF/F writers—adrienne maree brown refers to this as “practicing” the future. I like that. I take practice to refer both to a kind of rehearsal but also to showing up and putting in the time—practice not only as an exercise but also as training or preparation, or as experimentation and play. I distinguish practicing from planning in that the former is located in the present, while the latter presumes some authority over the future. That is, practicing doesn’t require that you know how you’ll get somewhere, or what steps will be necessary between here and there. It asks, instead, what you want the future to be, and to act and think as if you know that future is possible. Not to prescribe a preordained path but to take one step, and see where it takes you. Then, another. And another.

It’s a cliché at this point to say we live in a time of uncertainty. But the future is always an undiscovered country. The degree of uncertainty we feel bears little relation to an unknown and unknowable future. It’s a reflection, instead, of our relationship to the present—how we are thinking and acting and shaping what’s to come. That’s where we can find the seeds of hope—in believing and moving towards what we believe, one step at a time.

I want to posit that, in a time of great uncertainty—in an era of climate change and declining freedom, of attrition and layoffs and burnout, of a still-unfolding rearrangement of our relationship to work—we would do well to build more space for practicing the future. Not merely anticipating it or fearing it or feeding our anxiety over the possibilities—but for building the skill and strength and habits to nurture the future we need. We can’t control what comes next, of course. But we can nudge, we can push, we can guide and shape, we can have an impact. We can move closer to the future we want to live in, no matter how far away it seems to be.

A while back, I left a VP Product job without a plan. This is not to say I left recklessly or thoughtlessly. I left with an intention to practice—to practice different relationships to work, to practice rest and meditation, to practice being of service. If you asked me when I left what I would end up doing, I probably would have guessed I’d eventually be back in more or less the same kind of role, but—hopefully—more able to manage my own burnout and with more clarity about what I wanted to optimize for in my work. But practice is a commitment to a process, not a predetermined outcome. And the outcome was not what I predicted.

Coaching has long been one of the sharpest tools in my managerial toolkit. It’s what made me come to love management, after some early years of feeling very ambivalent about it. But adopting a coaching stance, when I could, proved to be a powerful skill. Serving as a kind of midwife to change is a magical experience. The opportunities I’ve had to build close and trusting relationships with people, both my reports and others—when I’ve been able to listen deeply, sit with someone through big feelings, or ask open questions and discover the insight that bubbles up—have been the most rewarding parts of my career. The times when I’ve missed the chance to do that represent my greatest regrets.

I’m not making a pivot so much as applying a filter. Among the things I’ve observed from people with long careers is that there are often periods of accumulation—times when you’re gathering lots of skills or contexts or habits—followed by periods of subtraction—when you peel things away in order to focus on a few key intentions. It’s kind of like writing and editing that way: you write a whole lot, figure out what you mean, and then cut, cut, cut to get at the good parts. Now, with nearly twenty years of management behind me, lots of products and platforms, more than one go at being a founder, several mergers and acquisitions, and tons of mistakes and hard-won lessons along the way, I’m cutting everything back but the coaching.

I’ve made lots of career changes over the years, but this one feels fundamentally different. In the past I’ve mostly moved opportunistically—not without care, but not often with a lot of forethought. Which isn’t a judgment: those opportunities were good and real, and they often resonated in the way that only the right move at the right time can really do. But now I feel a certitude I have before only daydreamed about: my job, for the next many years, is to coach people as they build the best work lives they can, as they design and contribute to a culture of work that is fulfilling and sustainable and just, as they live long and healthy lives that are enabled rather than curtailed by their jobs, as they practice their own futures—making all our futures brighter in the process.

Related books

Emergent Strategy

adrienne maree brown

“I read sci-fi and visionary fiction as political, sacred, and philosophical text, and I engage with others who read it that way,” writes adrienne maree brown, in this astonishing, radical, and humane book.