Imaginable, by Jane McGonigal (book notes)

Imaginable by Jane McGonigal is a book about the future. More precisely, a book about engaging with possible futures.

Why should we engage in a simulation of the future? What’s its use? The future is un-seeable, unknowable, and that’s fine, because it means it’s not defined until it actually happens. So, the gift of the future is not about trying to predict it.

The most important work of a future simulation is to prepare our minds and stretch our collective imagination, so we are more flexible, adaptable, agile, and resilient when the ‘unthinkable’ happens. (…) This is the gift that I want futures thinking to give to you: a chance to think more creatively and confidently right now about the things you could make, the solutions you could invent, the communities you could help.

Engaging in a simulation of a future also helps you develop the habit of challenging what you think that can and cannot change. By trying to unstick your mind about what is possible by looking for evidence that anything can become different, you grow psychological flexibility. This gives you a powerful foundation for making change by recognizing the challenges and risks, while remaining realistically hopeful that you have something to contribute to how to solve them.

The book is structured around 12 Rules, which are summarized below1. The book is full of examples and actual future simulations that have been run by the author at the Institute for the Future. It also contains self-assessment tests about the reader’s preparedness or mindset regarding to possible futures, and proposals for several games. My take is that the author tries to interact with the reader and teach her how to simulate futures in a practical way, through exercises and games. While I don’t mind the resulting style, I sometimes found it distracting from the central points the author was trying to convey.

That said, this is an important book about Future Thinking, a book that actually explains how to think about the future, which I consider an invaluable skill.

Rule #1. Take a Ten-Year Trip

The first question we should answer is what is the future? According to McGonigal, “the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today. (…) The future is whatever time feels far enough away for things to really change” That said, 10 years is somewhat of a magic number. Enough time for things that are small experiments today to become world-changing. “There are things that take much longer, but anything could happen in ten years.”

On a ten-year timeline, we don’t feel rushed. We have plenty of opportunity to develop new skills, collect resources, recruit allies, learn from our mistakes, bounce back from setbacks, and do whatever else we need to do to get the best possible outcome. This feeling of abundance makes us less risk-averse and therefore more creative. We have all the time we need to play with ideas, try new things, and experiment until we figure out what works.

Rule #2. Learn to Time Travel

The central activity of preparing for “unthinkable” events and planning for “unimaginable” change is Episodic Future Thinking (EFT). EFT is “the mental ability to transport yourself forward in time and pre-experience a future event.” It’s not just thinking about the future, is simulating the future in your mind, the more vividly the best. Deeply grounded in reality, EFT connects your present self to your future self.

“Episodic future thinking, or taking a mental time trip to the future, means asking yourself four questions:

  1. Where exactly am I, in my future—who else is here, and what’s around me?
  2. What’s true in this version of reality that isn’t true today?
  3. What do I really want in this future moment, and how will I get it?
  4. How do I feel, now that I’m here?”

Vividly imagining an experience creates like a memory in your mind. The next time you try to imagine it, you’ll be able to think about it more easily. You can draw on details that you’ve thought before. Your brain has an easier time thinking of it. It seems like it is “more possible”, more plausible.

Rule # 3. Play with scenarios

“You can think about scenarios this way: before you take a trip, it helps to know where you’re going. A future scenario gives you a specific destination for your imagination. “Playing with scenarios involves taking a mental time trip to a specific future where at least one thing is dramatically different from today.”

Two important rules when playing with a future scenario:

  1. Suspend your disbelief. In order to train your brain to think the unthinkable, you have to put possibilities in your brain that your brain will naturally resist. “Be willing to think hard about ideas you would normally dismiss as impossible, impractical, or even dangerous. In fact, if a scenario makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, that’s a good sign that it’s working.”
  2. See the future scenario from your unique point of view. Assume you will still be yourself in the future, and be honest with yourself about your possible reactions and feelings.

Rule # 4. Be ridiculous, at first

“Any useful statement about the future is ridiculous at first.” (Dator’s Law)

Ridiculous ideas reveal a blind spot in your imagination. Not every wild idea is useful, of course, but only those that are ridiculous at first but seem more plausible the more you think about it. You need to develop the habit of take in information that makes you uncomfortable.

Rule #5. Turn the World upside down

The author proposes a possible four-step receipe to engage in a future simulation. The point of this game is not to come up with an actual plan to change your life. It’s simply another way to train your imagination to be more flexible. “And it may help you get a fresh perspective on what assumptions about your own life you might be willing to let go of.”

  • Make a list of at least 5 things that are true about your life today.
  • Rewrite them so that the opposite is now true, or offer a new strange alternative.
  • Pick one flipped fact and take a quick mental time trip to the future to see how vividly and realistically you can imagine the change being true.
  • What might lead to this change? (don’t skip this part.)

“How does it feel? What actions would you take in this upside-down future that you can’t take today? Why do you think this particular alternative popped into your mind?”

Rule #6. Look for clues

Signals invite us to ask question after questions about what the future could be. Signals aren’t about the great trends like Artificial Inteligence, but vivid, detailed and specific examples of innovation, change, or invention.

Collect and investigate “signals of change,” or real-life examples of how the world is becoming different. Let these signals spark your curiosity. Follow the trail of clues wherever it takes you. By looking for these clues to the future, you’ll develop your strangesight—a “sixth sense” for noticing surprising, strange, mind-opening examples of how your life and society could change. These clues may even inspire you to take action today.

We need to develop the ability to “collect, combine, and build future scenarios out of clues to how the future might be different.” Instead of being drawn to people, information, and ideas that fit your expectations, we should develop a sense of wonder and curiosity.

Rule #7. Choose your future forces

A Future Force is a significant trend or phenomenom that is likely to make a disruptive or transformative impact on society. Sometimes described as “megatrend”, “driver of change”, or “macro force”, it usually starts with a small signal of change–and then picks up strength over a period of months, years, or decades.

Make a list of the external forces beyond your control that are most likely to affect your life and your friends’ and family’s lives in the next ten years. Include things that make you excited for the future and things that make you worry. Use this list to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Be willing to acknowledge the reality of growing risks, even when they make you uncomfortable. Keep updating your knowledge of future forces, so you can be prepared to help at least one person in your life or your community should a hypothetical future risk become a real crisis.

You can work against a future force. You can work to help it spread faster. Or you can explore a future force with an open mind and try to find new opportunities in it. However, you’ll never be in control of a future force, and neither will anyone. But you can “adjust your sail” if you know which way the wind is blowing.

Paying attention to future forces is a way to fall pray of the Normalcy Bias, which according to McGonigal is responsible of a quarter of CEO firings. Normalcy bias is the refusal to plan for, or react quickly to a disaster that has never happened before.

If you don’t want to be shocked or blindsided by possible future crises or disasters, you have to overcome your normalcy bias and convince your brain that these strange events can happen—no matter how “unthinkable” they seem to you today. A single act of vivid imagination today will do the trick: it will prime your brain to see a risk as normal, so you’ll be more likely to notice and pay attention when the threat grows. And if the risk turns into a real crisis, you’ll skip right over the shock and denial phases that keep other people stuck in old ways of thinking, and frozen in old ways of acting. You’ll be able to adapt and react faster when the word “normal” no longer applies.

To turn a future force into an opportunity to help, start by thinking how you would help just one person. Start so small that nothing will stop you from actually acting, so that you do something and not only imagine it.

Pick up a few future forces to track over the next few years. Research one every month.

Rule #8. Practice Hard Empathy

When you think in a near time frame, you usually see things from a first-person perspective, from inside our body, As the time frame expands, your brain starts to shift the point of view. “This isn’t a metaphor—it’s a literal fact. Scientists describe this as switching your imagination from first-person to third-person perspective.” In third-person perspective, you imagine yourself from an outside point of view, like an out-of-body experience. You escape your own ego and get a more objective and expansive perspective.

The problem is, explains McGonigal, that when you see things in third-person perspective, you see your future self a different person altogether. This makes it hard to relate to or care about your future selve. It may be an obstacle to take actions that may benefit yourself in the future.

Hard empathy helps us feel connected to our future selves.

There are two kinds of empathy. Emotional Simulation implies taking the on the feelings of others and bearing them ourselves. It comes more easily but can be exhausting because we somehow revive the emotions of others.

Then there is Hard Empathy. Hard Empathy happens when we have no first hand knowledge to draw on. For example, when we say sincerely “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you”, or when we disagree with someone but still try to see that person’s point of view and understand what life experiences led to it.

Hard empathy is difficult because we need to go over our instinctive responses and our personal histories. It’s even harder to practice with people or groups with different political views, different life choices, and culture. But most important, hard empathy helps us connect with our future selves.

How can we practice hard empathy? Instead of guessing what someone else might feel, try to experience something yourself. Consider a situation that is alien to you. Then, stay exactly who you are, exactly where you are, and imagine how would you feel if that situation were happening to you, right now. That is, change the facts of your own life.

Fill in the gaps of your own lived experiences with the stories and realities of other people whose lives are almost unimaginably different from yours. Envision your own life circumstances changing to be more like theirs, as vividly and realistically as you can. How would you feel in this alternate reality? What would you do? What kind of help would you want? This habit helps you increase your circle of natural empathy and feel more connected to others. It also improves your ability to imagine change of any kind.

You can also practice hard empathy whenever you play with future scenarios. Whenever possible, don’t just guess how the future might affect others. Ask others directly: What would you be excited about in this future? What would you worry about? Write your stories down and share them, to move from mental simulation to social simulation. Fill your imagination with the real hopes and worries of people whose circumstances, values, and lived experiences are different from your own.

Rule #9. Heal the Deeper Disease

Find the social challenges that fill you with the most urgent optimism. Which inequalities, injustices, and vulnerabilities do you personally feel called to help heal? These challenges will connect you to our collective post-pandemic, post-traumatic transformation. They can be a springboard for your own personal growth and meaning making. So look for the preexisting conditions of society that made us suffer more deeply in the past. Then imagine how they might create the complications of the future. What might happen over the next decade if we fail to remedy them? What might be possible if we heal them?

Rule #10. Answer the Call to Adventure

The most important future imagination skill is finding your unique way to help, to learn that you actually can do something about the future and “threat every future scenario as an invitation to imagine yourself doing something important.”

“We don’t learn helplessness. The brain assumes helplessness when exposed to adverse conditions. If we want to feel that we have any control over our own outcomes, we have to learn that we have power.” Playing with future scenarios is a way to learn helpfulness and rewire our default, neurological response to adverse experiences.

Excuses for not answering the call for help may appear in different forms:

  • Distancing. Thinking that because the future is a long way off, it won’t affect us personally… it’s something for someone else to solve.
  • Denial. Believing that something will never happen. Or, if it happens, it won’t be a great deal.
  • Fatigue. Why worry about an hypothetical future when we have so many real problems? Or, we are burned out trying to get other people to pay attention.
  • Surrender, which is thinking that you can’t personally do anything about this. So, why bother?

There’s a saying: “If you’re not the hero of your own story, then you’re telling yourself the wrong story.” To which I would add: “If you’re not the hero of your own future, then you’re imagining the wrong future.”

  1. Rules 11 and 12 are about practical instructions about building actual future simulations and a proposal for a game, Spend Ten Days in the Future and are not included in this summary. ↩︎

future thinking Jane McGonigal Imaginable

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