A futurist’s guide to managing the dire present

Brave new world?
Brave new world?
Image: Reuters
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These are the worst of times and we’ll be living in extreme upheaval for the foreseeable future. That makes trying to read the tea leaves an exercise in futility, futurist Richard Watson tells Quartz.

The London-based writer is paid by governments and corporations to think ahead, to foresee risks and opportunities. Yet Watson suggests we not bother prognosticating right now. “In the shorter term I think we have to forget about the future, what’s next or when this will end, and simply live one day, or perhaps week, at a time. Focus on things we can do and influence, not on what we cannot.”

Things will get back to normal, he believes, when there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus and it’s widely available. “But speculating about when, how, and what seems fairly pointless to me,” Watson says.

Watson, like many others, saw a pandemic coming and wrote about the likelihood in most of his six books. He also discussed the possibility in countless workshops, including those on extreme risk with the UK government. “Was I ready for it?” he asks rhetorically. “Kind of.”

But not exactly. For example, he had “a few things in the garage just in case” and kept cash on hand, assuming a total global financial meltdown, which could still happen. But the devil is in the details, after all. There was no way to predict precisely how such a crisis would unfold and he notes with amusement that his cash turns out to be useless in the current predicament.

Some things are fairly certain, however. Geography, geology, and demographics don’t change drastically, nor does human psychology. “You can see general patterns and shadows of the future sometimes, but nothing granular,” the futurist explains. “Yes, people saw this coming, but only in outline. Nobody knew when or exactly how, and normalcy or recency bias—along with herd instinct—tends to make people focus on the immediate present.”

In his view, the coronavirus crisis was “hidden in plain sight.” Now, like the rest of us, Watson is mired in this dire present. But he takes a philosophical perspective, the Stoic approach, living in the moment. Today he’s focused on his garden, not on tomorrow.

Control issues

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that emphasizes the cultivation of a sound mental state, disciplined thinking that yields peace. Like Taoism and Zen Buddhism, it says that we can only be at ease when freed from the illusion of control and the prison of desire. Much of our lives are spent trying to shape a world with many forces at play, more powerful and plentiful than we could possibly anticipate or influence. Meanwhile most of our time is wasted wanting what’s out of reach and fearing what will be.

These philosophies propose that happiness is momentary, arising and fading away. Thus, you must learn how to operate within the chaos of nature, adapting rather than raging against the machine.

There is no universal answer on how to manage amid the pandemic. But there are principles you can use for guidance, like working with reality, neither fighting it nor becoming overwhelmed. For example, Watson advises, “If you are anxious and consumed with worry, stop reading the news. If you are ignoring the situation and think everything is fine, start reading the news.”

Despite his forward-looking work, Watson has never been mired in headlines. Indeed, he’s advised reading less news to be better informed. The futurist has long argued that the most important information will find you. As such, you can relax and not chase every single fact in a mad dash to be informed.

Watson instead favors uncommon knowledge, eschews social media, and is basically an information contrarian, arguing that to get smart you must start by not worrying about where the crowd is going. This approach is counterintuitive yet has enabled him to see ahead and scale his thinking.

Now, he’s adapted his mode a bit. “I glance at the front pages and catch TV news headlines sometimes,” Watson admits. “But my strategy is working. It’s so calming.”

Indeed, he’s reading How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economyby Jenny Odell. “But I’m actually rather busy in the garden at the moment,” Watson jokes.

Back to the future

Like me, and probably you, Watson worries about the dark tomorrows that lie ahead. Unlike us, he’s been dreaming up disaster scenarios and anticipating woes for so long and so intensely, professionally, that he’s experienced firsthand how crippling it is to swim in the waters of the unknown, always attuned to risk. It’s bad for our mental and physical health to be perpetually on edge. We have to remain tethered in the present.

The professional prognosticator has not, of course, given up on the future. Instead, as is his wont, he’s thinking long term.

The pandemic shows how the near future is usually an extension of present conditions or trends, Watson says. For example, the US response to the crisis has highlighted the shortcomings of an already-ailing healthcare system. The crisis also seems to have reenforced a nationalist trend in the European Union and beyond, which had arisen in response to globalization.

These trends don’t necessarily tell us where we are going, however. They only highlight the questions to ask now. Like, what is the future of borders, post pandemic? Will globalization go virtual while our physical contact lessens? Will living in isolation make us more or less inclined to human contact later?

In the big picture, the futurist contends, it helps to remember that trends—and data generally—are historical. “We inhabit a complex and unpredictable system with feedback loops and random events,” Watson says. “Personally, I’ve always used ‘the future’ as subterfuge. It’s a way of asking deep and perhaps difficult questions about the present, an excuse to get people to stop worrying about the urgent and focus on the important and fundamental.”

He believes we do need to look forward but not in order to try to guess unknowable specifics. “Instead we should focus on what we would like the future to look like. This current situation is an opportunity to change things so let’s not waste the opportunity.”

Because prediction is his business, though, and history guides his hypotheses, Watson knows there’s a strong possibility we’ll soon forget all the vows we made about changing the world once we reemerge to work in it and enjoy its many pleasures. He recalls the last time everyone swore to do better—it wasn’t so long ago. After the 2008 global financial crisis, there was much hand-wringing and declaration but more than a decade later—faced with another disaster—we’re not better equipped and haven’t changed the systems that put economies and people at serious risk.

Still, the forecast isn’t all bleak. If we can get good with the idea that much is unknowable and keep in mind a key lesson from history, there is hope, Watson believes. “The human spirit endures!”