You Are Your Own WORST Enemy...and Science Can Prove It

I just returned from a trip to the Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, CA.  The two day seminar regarding how working and learning could / should / would take place in the future was an interesting mix of commercial thinking, public awareness, and educational contexts all being pulled and stretched. 


For example, without apology nor with any audience objections, the notion of micro-credentials, badges, or piece-meal certificates being the future output of formal education (vs our current model of a pre-determined, complete degree) were discussed from the stage over and over.  Educators, politicians, and entrepreneurs alike were both admonished for not thinking differently, as well as urged to start thinking far more futuristically, and globally. 

Participants were exposed to a virtual reality “workout” circuit for the mind while being shown examples of future thinking regarding people, places, processes, and paradigms.  And while communication was largely via 15-30 minute, TED style talks by practitioners who were not necessarily the most polished presenters (promoting a very un-futuristic education trend), there were some very interesting nuggets of information amid the messages.  In all, it was fascinating to see. 

But I have to admit, the strongest message of the day was given by a seasoned presenter, researcher, and someone I already looked up to prior to the event.  Jane McGonigal of TED fame, creator of amazing multi-player games for change and also author of Reality is Broken, happens to also be a Fellow of the Institute.  And with her usual clever turns of phrase, she attempted to move us out of a paradigm paralysis that most of us didn’t even know we had.  She basically explained to the audience at the Institute for the Future how rare and hard it is to think about…well, the future.  Basically, you need to know that almost nobody thinks of themselves in the future, at least in a positive way. 

Ironic to me are the implications as an educator.  As a person attempting to transform education at scale, one of the dozens of issues I have argued for and even debated on stage is around motivation.  Most reasonable people agree that students should be able to see a reason for learning.  In fact, most would also agree that if a person can tie learning to something that already motivates them, all the better.  It feels less like work and more like an important, necessary stepping stone towards success.  Yet, most educators have little to no idea how to do this, especially at scale.  They typically start by urging students to care about learning by using something important to them, the educator, but not important to students. When that falls short, they often seem to try motivating students with what appear to be tricks or hollow catalyst strategies.  They will employ game mechanics, (although notably not actual games) to create these motivators.  And so, often they fall back on the idea that students are not motivatable, resorting to one of two final statements: “Learn it because I tell you to,” or, “Learn it because it will matter when you’re older.” 

And therein lies the trouble.  Do it because it will matter when you’re older… I’ve always known that felt hollow - even as a kid - but until last week, I didn’t realize why.

Jane McGonigal, and I’m assuming partly in collaboration with her neuroscientist sister, Kelly McGonigal, reported that people – not kids, but all people – struggle to think of the future.  How do we know?  Well, firstly, the IFTF did the largest survey of future thinking ever and found that by far, most Americans think about the future 1 time per year or less.  (Note, I believe this future is caveated at more than X years out – not thinking about what you’ll eat for dinner.)  Most people just don’t do it.  But it doesn’t end there.

Most people, when asked to think of themselves in the future, really struggle.  And by struggle, I mean they are mentally incapable of doing so in a positive way.  We know this through studies which have been replicated hundreds of times, whereby people are asked about people while sitting in an fMRI machine.  First, they are asked to think about friends, acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, etc.  There is an “upturn” in how the prefrontal cortex begins to fire.  Scientists can see the electrical impulses flow from bottom to top when people think of these friendly or at least known people.  However, when shown or asked to consider strangers, the fMRI shows a different pattern to the impulses.  The electrical surge is a downturn, moving from top to bottom of the prefrontal cortex.  When shown an enemy, the impulse is sharper, but definitely follows this top to bottom pattern.

So here’s the kicker.  Guess which direction the electrical impulses flow when a person is told to think of themselves, ten years out?  You guessed it.  DownwardIt seems we think of our ten-year-away self as a stranger or worse, as an enemy

A letter from me to future me.

A letter from me to future me.

Scientists and sociologists are just starting to use these findings to construct meaning around things we’ve never understood (but which Seinfeld has been questioning for years.  "Night Jeff vs Morning Jeff" is a very real struggle....).  Why don’t people vote?  Well, that is a very future-facing activity.  Why would now-me vote for a candidate or issue that impacts future-me, who I don’t really care about or even like?  Why do people struggle to save for retirement?  Well, that too is a future-facing concept.  Do I really want to take money away from now-me and give it to future-me? 

It’s fascinating to consider, but the implications matter, both in education and in life.  And the point that Jane McGonigal makes is important to consider.  We can train ourselves to think in a future-facing way, but like anything, we have to work at it.  We need to do it routinely, we need to create positive as well as realistic, constructive lines of thought that move from now into the future, and we need to find different avenues to make it work more realistically.  She gave a specific example.  Instead of thinking about our future as disparate facts, think in the first person. 

So, instead of thinking that by 2050 our sea levels will rise approximately 9 feet (fact), that our weather patterns will be far more extreme and unpredictable than today (fact), and that we’ll have 10 billion people on the planet (fact), consider how these facts will actually impact us.  Perhaps I should instead think that I will need to fly into Sacramento’s airport to see my Dad because SFO will be underwater.  I should probably urge my daughter to live near us so we aren’t forced to fly which may prove harder when I’m older.  And I should likely think about how to carve out some space for my family now, as water-rich land will be an extraordinarily expensive thing to come by in the future. 

If the IFTF is right, and while this statement may feel self-serving for their mission, if you think about it you will likely agree, future thinking is a new superpower.  It’s now making the list of desirable attributes for high performers at companies, along with innovation, problem solving, statistical reasoning, and communication.  Why?  Because it’s rare.  And because it’s hard.  But as you can also see, it’s important. 

So back to our students for a minute.  Perhaps, like grit, mindset, resiliency, and other, so-called “non-cognitive” factors, we should be encouraging and teaching them future-thinking from the time they are young.  And if it’s too late for that, then maybe it’s worth our time to give up a little bit of content knowledge to start pushing this concept now.  After all, I can learn 0% of your quadratic equations now because I see no point, or I can tie it to motivation and even the future, thereby learning 75% of the desired formulas and having them stick. 

So the question is now for you.  Do you have the superpower of future-thinking?  If so, and you’re a manager, teacher, trainer, or other leader, do you know how to help others attain that same power? 

Good luck and good learning.

Jeff Borden