Backwards into the dark

It is said that foresight is a recent invention. For thousands of years humankind had no imagination of steady progress. Somewhere in caves and ancient civilisations the seeing into the future was the preserve of mystics, wizards and shaman, priests or soothsayers. As I understand it one expression of this is that of walking backwards into the future. We can see clearly the near past, and remember more vaguely the distant past, but the future ahead is completely invisible.

Enlightenment and so called progress have brought with us a new myth. That we can see into the future. That we, mere mortals, can take our ideas and turn them into reality. Whether spotting trends, picking stocks, “deciding” on the number of children we will have or the job we will take after this one, the zeitgeist of our times revolves around a myth, that if we make a clear plan, and then execute it, we can choose our future. Or a twist further. It’s down to us to create our future. Sticking the knife in. If you don’t have the life you want it’s your fault. We have stolen and claimed for ourselves what was once believed to be in the power of the God’s, to decide what was coming and enact it. We have made divination a cultural norm.

Unpicking the prevailing wisdom. 

Somewhere right now in Silicon Valley a so called entrepreneur is pitching to VC. With them is an artefact with mystical powers. The business plan. The business plan contains data that shows, over a number of years, that tho right now our business is just an idea, a seed or an embryo, in a number of years hence, it will be a superbly profitable and potentially world dominating platform. Believe in us, believe in our idea, believe the data say the “founders” in their jeans and converse, and we can turn your millions into billions.

A few years ago I had a bucket list opportunity to spend some time with Clayton Christensen, Harvard business professor and author of the ground breaking book “Disruption”. Humble and grounded he shared stories and ideas. I was working on some entrepreneurship trainings at the time and was grateful for his wisdom and advice. One thing he said stuck with me: “All business plans submitted to investors show that the startup will be successful. In my research only 50% of these Investors will loose all their money, 25% will get a return of their money, and 25% will get a return on their money. If business planning as a tool has a 75% failure rate, then business planning predictions are not effective’.

A trip, and a conversation

At a bar in Munich this week Matt and I had a long chat. We were talking about dream killing. Dream killing is telling musicians they won’t make it big, actors they will likely be poor and various “founders” that their thing, that takes nearly all their time, but makes no money, is a hobby not a business”. Dream killings not that popular right now and runs counter to our prevailing narrative that if you dream big and work hard you will make it no matter what anyone says. Who would crush these aspirants ideas? How horrible! Yet wait, is it surely not worse, to see a friend, blinded by belief, and let them walk backwards into destruction? True friends are courageous, brave and empathetic. True friends might help a dream die in order that something more fruitful can rise in its place. True friends might “be there” to help a transition into something new. To let go of an old way, to be open to possibility. Midwives to possibility.

Matt and my discussion centred around the sequence:

  1. Is it better in life to pursue your dreams, and if that fails, settle for something mundane, but fruitful to some extent.
  2. Or is the correct sequence to pursue something fruitful but mundane, keeping a side-line idea alive on the rare possibility that this dream becomes a winner.

Matt and I both work in the business of new possibilities and transformation. We both encourage others to take leaps, to risk, to let go, to try, to dare. Chasing our dreams is the same dilemma faced by the entrepreneur and VC=:

  • Will our risk/investment pay off?
  • Will we loose something?
  • Everything?
  • or receive back more than we could imagine?

Concrete tips for an unknown future

Matt and I have been working with 200 leaders at Airbus this year exploring New Ways of Working. Over a twelve-month programme we have engaged leaders at various levels with this conundrum around the unknown future. How can we change and evolve to be ready for the unknown future? What changes should we make now in preparation for what’s next? Here’s some firm ideas:

No risk bets

Does such a thing exist? Well yes. In poker there are certain situations where the probabilities show that, if I bet every time, whilst sometimes I will loose, in the end I will always win. Imagine a coin toss where you pay £1 to play. If it’s heads I keep the £1, but if it’s tails you get £1.01. Would you play? The answer should be “every time and as often as possible”. Over 100 random plays you would on average end up with £2. Over 1000 £20, and so on. If you can afford to loose £1 a few times during the process on average you are up. In our life we are faced with many no risk bets. An example, honesty. Whilst honesty might cause short term wobbles, it’s sure fire long term winner. Pursing empathetic communication with others, and encouraging empowerment and development in our teams is equally a no risk bet. Sure they might actually grow! But if they don that’s to all our benefits, even if they then go to a job in a different department.

Pursue Dual strategy.

The dilemma matt and I discussed is easy if we are open to dual strategy. I’m always impressed by sports stars who finished their schooling. They pursued a dual strategy. They have the sport, the thing with a high risk of not making it, and the education, the fruitful pursuit that will help them valuably throughout their life. Wannabe musicians take note. Don’t just get a job in a bar until you make it. Get a good job that’s fulfilling and work your music round that. Actors… if you really are that good, believe me, people will notice. You don’t have to work in a coffee shop just so you can drop everything for an audition. Unless you like coffeeshops, and would enjoy that as a career.

Understand when to give up.

In his excellent book “no shortcuts to the top” Mountaineer Ed Viesturs repeatedly uses a pithy catchphrase about climbing Everest and other dangerous mountains “Getting up is optional, getting down is mandatory”. He articulates that there are important moments, when success is tantalisingly close, but that, if pursued, will lead to destruction. I have musician friends that were “almost there” for around 5 years. They never gave up. But one did become close to destruction sharing “if this doesn’t work I have nothing to live for”. I was worried. Turning back can mean revisiting beliefs and commitments formed years ago an acknowledging their time is up. A good friend of mine was part of an amazing hip hop act and toured the world. In their 20’s they said “we commit to each other and the band no matter what”. But in their 30’s with kids on the way and the money still not quite there, it was time to acknowledge that their art was brilliant, but that the story of their family life required a stable income and a new phase. Quitting is hard. Sometimes quitting is vital.

Insurance policy: For the ride

One frame that helps is that of adventure. Trying new things, taking risk can be insured or inoculated by committing to enjoy the journey. Experimenting with new ways of working takes a different meaning when we commit to learning through the process, living in the moment, being open to changes of direction. This frame allows a possibility that, even if things don’t work out as planned, our time and efforts won’t be wasted.

Think Holistically

With our VC analogy sometimes, we fail to see what’s really going on. IF we borrow from family life, to invest in work, or borrow from health, to invest in career whilst one stock is rising, another stock falls at exactly the same rate. Our net gain is nothing. Pursing a balance portfolio of investment in health, friendships, family, hobbies, home, as well as a work adventure. When we see the whole tapestry of life and make fruitful investments in each in turn, our whole stock portfolio might grow.


The future is uncertain. Let’s not pretend otherwise.   I’m no magician or soothsayer. I can’t see what’s a head. What I do know is that with wisdom and patience we can live extraordinary lives filled with fruitfulness. With bravery and wisdom we may ascend summits, reach peaks fulfil dreams. We may need wisdom that reminds us when it’s time to quit, turn back, give up and so-called dream killing friends to help us. We can thrive through all this when we predate our gambles on this ancient wisdom:

The journey is as important as the destination.