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10 Big Mistakes People Make in Thinking About the Future

In a time of huge change and uncertainty, we need to think about the future as clearly as possible. Here's where we most often get it wrong.

Photo Credit: Frank Peters


Being a working futurist means that I think a lot about how people think about the future. It also means spending a lot of time with people who are also thinking about their own futures.

Typically, this involves a dialogue between three distinct groups.

First, there's usually a small handful of very foresighted people, who are aware of their own blind spots and biases, and who are eager and open about the prospect of soaring into a wild blue sky to gather a lot of exciting new information. 

Second, there's a larger group of people who don't usually think at 50,000 feet -- but are willing to go there if they're with people they trust. Their wings aren't sturdy, and they are prone to some very common mistakes in thinking, but they're often the most gratifying group to work with. What they want is permission to let go, encouragement to go big, and a watchful eye to keep them out of the rocks and ditches. 

And then there's a third small group that's very resistant to the idea that anything could or should change. I've spent a lot of time over the years thinking and writing about that last group, because I'm fascinated by the question of what drives change resisters. What they want from me is safety -- the reassurance that if they overcome their natural reticence and try to embrace some constructive thinking about change, they won't end up all alone somewhere terrifyingly unfamiliar.

Of that second group, I've found that there's a fairly short list of common mistakes that they make over and over again -- little assumptions that create big obstacles in their ability to see all the potential alternatives clearly. These are the same mistakes most people out on the street and in the media make, too; on any given day, one can open a newspaper to the op-ed page and find three or four of these mistakes, right there in black and white. When pundits and prognosticators are wrong, these assumptions are usually somewhere near the root of why they're wrong.

To the end of helping progressives think more productively about the future we're trying to create, here are 10 of the most common mental hiccups that keep people from seeing the bigger picture and planning for it with a full measure of courage and intelligence.

1. The future won't be like the past. And the most likely future isn't. In any group, there's usually a tacit set of assumptions about where the world is headed, and what their future holds. Life has gone on for a certain way for a while -- and the longer that trend continues, the more invested they get in the assumption that things will just keep on going that same direction. I always ask people early on to describe their Most Likely Future -- the one they and their friends assume will happen if nothing else changes. And I've never met anybody who had to hesitate a minute to fill me in on what that future looks like. 

But the gotcha is: research by academic futurists has found that this expected future really isn't the most likely outcome at all. In fact, it only actually comes to pass somewhat less than half the time. Which means that somewhat more than half the time, you're going to be facing something else entirely. And if you're too settled on that vision of what's most likely, odds are that you won't do nearly enough to prepare for those alterative futures in which you are even more likely to actually end up living.

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