Learning from your future

A time of change will often push us to take decisions based on incomplete information and without knowing how things are going to turn out. If we find this difficult we can easily get stuck.

We’ve already seen two tools that can help us get better at taking these decisions: learning from people we admire and learning from our past

A third tool is to learn from our future. This has two parts.

Part One: The Voice of Experience

As we get older we generally become wiser. For example, you could probably offer some wise advice now to your 16-year-old or 26-year-old self.

If you haven’t done this before take a couple of minutes to do this now. It is a useful exercise:

Knowing what you know now, what advice you would give to your 16- year-old or 26-year-old self?

Then ask yourself another question: would you be willing to listen to the advice of your 86-year-old self now?

Part Two: Living A Worthwhile Life

One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Begin with the end in mind.”

Peter Drucker said the same thing a different way. He said, “Define what finishing well means to you.”

We are all alive for a limited time, maybe 70 or 80 years if we are lucky. What is the ‘end’ that you have in mind for your life? What will ‘finishing well’ look like to you?

To answer this, imagine yourself aged 86 and then answer this question:

What will it take for you to have lived a worthwhile life? 

Define between six and eight categories or areas of life that are important to you.

(Remember you can always change or update your answers later.)

When you have defined the priorities that matter to you there are a couple of ways that you can use the answers:

  • You might define for each category where you want to get to by the time you are 86. Then map out a plan to get there, week by week, month by month, and year by year.
  • In a changing world, this probably won’t work for everybody. So an alternative is to define what a ’10’ would look like for you under each category and then identify your priorities for the next month or half-year.
  • And a third approach is that whenever you find yourself needing to take a decision based on little information and without knowing how things are going to turn out you can simply ask yourself which alternative will lead you more towards whatever a worthwhile life looks like to you, and do that.

In a churning world all outcomes are unpredictable. What matters is not whether or not we achieve a particular objective. What matters is that we spend our time as best we can on the priorities that matter most to us. We are all human becomings.

Or as Steve Jobs put it:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

What advice you would give now to your 16-year-old or your 26-year-old self? Are you willing to listen to the advice of your 86-year-old self? What does a worthwhile life look like to you?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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(And remember: you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming, you also need to practice.)


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