In the last ten years, as my focus expanded, a story about the future emerged. If I were to write a book to capture that story, I would call it A Journey through the Looking Glass (like the name of the leadership course I developed in 2017). My presentations are the vehicle for this type of storytelling, while my Blog captures the story in pieces. Now, as we find ourselves in the early stages of a transformative decade, I feel compelled to pull the pieces together through the written word as well. My next several posts will be dedicated to telling this story. Here are the other posts in the series to date:
Second Post: An Historical Perspective
Third Post : A Growth Of Knowledge
Fourth Post: Our Current World Order
Fifth Post: Convergence Drives Human Advancement
Sixth Post: Catalysts Of The Past And Those On The Horizon
Seventh Post: A Phase Transition
Eight Post: Our Complex, Uncertain, And Volatile Future
Ninth Post: The Building Blocks Of The Future
Tenth Post: Dual Paths Of Innovation
Eleventh Post: The Next Phase Of Human Development
Twelfth Post: The Journey: A World Of Ecosystems
Thirteenth Post: A Great Reset
Conclusion: Living In Times Of Transition
A JOURNEY THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
I believe we are on a journey through the looking glass – a metaphorical expression that means on the strange side, in the twilight zone, in a strange parallel world. It comes from the Alice and Wonderland literary work of Lewis Carroll, where he explores the strange and mysterious world Alice finds when she steps through a mirror. I have always found this to be a perfect metaphor for our times. The future world on the other side of this fictitious mirror is complex, uncertain, volatile, and unexpected. Much like Alice did not recognize the world she entered, we are unlikely to find a recognizable world emerging.
In thinking about this emerging future, the operating environment, and the challenge it represents, creates a compelling reason to reflect on what this means for society, individuals, organizations, and leaders. In telling the story, the course from 2017 stressed the need for resilience and adaptability in the face of rapid shifts and extreme events. Fast-forward to present day and the pandemic represents an extreme event. It is succeeding where storytelling failed. The dialog emerging around resilience and adaptability is one of the few positive outcomes from COVID-19. We have comfortably ignored that which was lying beneath the surface for years, but the virus illuminated much of it. Disease, extreme weather, and geopolitical instability are just a few examples. To survive in this world, we must be more flexible and prepared to respond to the next systemic shock.
WHERE OUR STORY BEGINS
This famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill captures the starting point of our story. A look backward has accompanied my look forward. As we will see, history represents a series of cycles. A book titled The Fourth Turning describes these cycles in compelling detail. The author focused on generations, archetypes, and the cycles of our history (which last the length of a long human life). What intrigued me as a Futurist is the claim that our past can indeed predict our future – it is a compelling argument when viewed through the lens of these historical cycles. The cycle has repeated itself six times, and if it was to do so again, we would have entered a crisis period somewhere prior to 2010 (perhaps the great recession?). The crisis period would last one generation – moving towards a resolution that dramatically alters the social order by the late 2020s. Here is how the cycle is described by the book abstract.
First comes a high, a period of confident expansion as a new order takes root after the old has been swept away. In our current cycle, that’s the end of World War Two, or seventy-seven years ago. One might say it is approaching the length of a long human life. Next comes an Awakening, a time of spiritual exploration and rebellion against the now-established order. Then comes an Unraveling, an increasingly troubled era in which individualism triumphs over crumbling institutions. Last comes a Crisis—the Fourth Turning—when society passes through a great and perilous gate in history. Together, the four turnings comprise history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and rebirth. Each piece of the cycle is approximately 20 years in duration – adding up to a long life of 80 years. If we consider the headwinds that we face as a society, a crisis prior to 2030 is not far-fetched.
The second influential book that sees a new cycle emerging is The Changing World Order. Author Ray Dalio is the Co-Chief Investment Officer & Chairman of Bridgewater Associates. In making decisions, he has found history to be very instructive. Mr. Dalio explores these cycles in the context of the big boom and bust cycles of history, the empires of the past, and the consistent rise and fall of each empire. The Changing World Order further solidifies the role that history plays in understanding the future. It serves as a warning sign, as the dynamics in play today are eerily like past periods of considerable turbulence. I encourage anyone in forward looking roles to look backwards – and leverage books like these as a key source of signals.
The past represents a possible window to the future. As these books show, major events throughout history have brought out the best and the worst of humanity. Leaders have emerged in the most difficult of times – and tyrants have as well. Lost in the focus on life after the pandemic are all the forces that were already shaping our future. I explored many of them in various posts, but none have been as intriguing to me as the forces tied to history. If we look at history and apply it to current day, we can seek out periods that look like ours. This application of history illuminates possible futures and has the potential to inform our actions. What happened in these similar periods and what can we learn?
The next post will continue this look at history before we turn our attention to the future.