Learning from your future

Research shows that most people are not very good at taking decisions based on little information and without knowing how things are going to turn out. This means that in a time of change we can easily become stuck.

We’ve already seen two approaches that can make this task easier: learning from people we admire and learning from our pastA third approach is to learn from our future.

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 slightly differently: he said the first step to success was to “Define what finishing well means to you.” So we can help ourselves move more smoothly through this time of change if we apply these questions to our lives: if we begin with the end of our life in mind, if we ask ourselves what does ‘finishing well’ look like to us?

To do this, imagine yourself on your deathbed, looking back at your life. Identify six to eight categories or areas that will be important for you.

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

Once you know your answers there are a couple of different ways that you can use them. 

The first is to map out an exact plan to get exactly where you want to be. In a changing world that plan isn’t likely to last long. And your answers might change over time.

So a more flexible approach is to define what a perfect, ideal outcome would look like under each category. If you were rating your life on your deathbed, what ’10’ would look like for you in each area? Then rate yourself (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on) as to where you see yourself now. And then choose some priorities that inspire you for which areas you’d like to improve over the next few weeks or months.

And a third approach is simply 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 ask yourself which of the available ways forward leads you best towards whatever a worthwhile life looks like to you. Then do that.

In a churning world all ways forward will be difficult. We can’t tell how things are going to turn out and we might not achieve a particular goal.

But what we can always do is recognise that we are all human becomings and spend the time we have on the priorities that matter most to us.

Knowing what those priorities are is the first step.

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

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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