You might think someone who gets paid to predict the future would be mad for gadgets and forever spouting off on social media. But you’d be wrong. Writer and futurist Richard Watson may teach London business students and Silicon Valley tech companies how to think about crafting tools for tomorrow, but he’s not even on Twitter.
What’s more, Watson doesn’t really follow the news in any conventional way. He reads Sunday newspapers, in print, retrospectively. He’s not trying to catch up but to check and see which of the many headlines turned out to be relevant a few weeks or a month later. In other words, Watson is neutral about current events. He’s placing any given moment in a much greater context than the day or the week. Watson’s scale is grand and includes all of human history and its possible futures. In this very long view, nothing is such a big deal, although anything may become relevant eventually.
Instead of focusing on what everyone is already talking about, Watson hunts down unusual knowledge. He shared with Quartz his approach to creating a smart information filter—a net that captures what’s happening and what really matters without making you a slave to information of fleeting importance.
You can’t read or think about everything, so keep that in mind when choosing materials and pick quality over quantity, and try to create a wide context. In other words, triangulate between breadth and depth. The more information is available, the less we tend to digest, and people are increasingly tuning out even while they consume, so it makes sense to consume less and better data.
Watson advises that we randomly pick up books and magazines, and strike up conversations with strangers. These random acts of interest in strangers and unusual communications break your information consumption routines and expose you to unique insights.
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.
“Travel. But again take the path untrodden,” Watson urges. “We are herd animals and the temptation is always to follow the herd. Try not to.”
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you. If the publication or person is focused on thoughtful analysis and not panic news, you’ll hear worthwhile insights. Watson especially recommends perusing weekend editions of quality newspapers.
“Relax,” writes the futurist. “The important news will find you. It will.” Watson is confident that relevant information makes its way to us, and that much of what we fuss over daily is just stuff that will soon be forgotten.
“Have a think week every year,” Watson says. Microsoft founder Bill Gates takes time to reflect on the future of technology from deep in a forest, for example. He reads dozens of academic papers during a solitary and studious retreat in the woods, which helps to fuel innovative thinking all year long.
“Learn how to look and listen deeply,” Watson recommends. “Stop talking. Start listening. Be curious all the time.” Find quiet settings that elicit a certain reverence, like deserts, mountains, and even churches, places where reflection and contemplation come easily.
Common knowledge is common, and there’s a glut of it online. But surprising info collected by curious oddballs is precious, valuable, and worth hunting down. Watson says, “Become cynical about trends. Watch for counter-trends. Visit the fringe.”
Finally, switch communications off once a week and every evening. If you are brave, Watson says, dare to own no cellphone.
Watson’s approach is counterintuitive but consistent, and can be basically summed up in one principle: Be contrarian. Get smart by not worrying about where the crowd is going.