Disasters seem to be winning right now.
Most learning methodologies that exist today – in fact, just about all of them – are focused on learning by reflecting on the experiences of the past. However, when you work with leadership teams in business, government, and civil society, you see leaders face new challenges that require them to not only reflect on the past, but to sense and actualise emerging future opportunities.
The question then becomes, is there a second source of learning and, if so, how do we approach it?
The importance of learning from the emerging future is not new. But in practice, given the urgency of today’s challenges, it has never been more important. There are plenty of historical examples that demonstrate what happens when people respond to new situations with old perspectives. The results are often quite destructive, with history telling the story of leaders not considering the consequences that their collective decision-making was bringing into the world. Each was looking at the situation only from the angle of the national interest, not from the impact they were having on the system as a whole. Today, we find ourselves at a similar moment of choice. In this century, the sleepwalking is happening on a global scale.
It is time for this ship, which has been heading a certain way, to just stop heading that way. It’s going to take a long time to turn the ship, probably several generations, but for now, we have just hot to stop it heading in that direction and start to stabilise it. And in that process, I believe within a decade or two, we will start to feel that we can bring about the changes needed.
Astronauts have often told us that when they go into space, something strange happens to them. They can’t stop staring back at our planet. They called it ‘Earth-gazing’. Seeing Earth in its entirety somehow didn’t make astronauts feel insignificant, but gave them a feeling of increased connection, awe and care:
From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realise that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realise from that perspective that you’ve changed forever, that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.
In the 60s, Rusty Schweickart’s journey into space went went so smoothly that, for the last two or three days of the mission, he spent most of his time just looking out the window of the spacecraft Earth-gazing. It was 10 years before he told anyone what happened to him in those days, as he couldn’t figure out how to even do it. Eventually, he gave a talk at Lindisfarne and had a flash of insight that he would describe what happened to him in the second person and in the present tense.
He asked people to imagine that they were sitting in his body. Imagine I’m not me, but I’m a sensory apparatus of humankind. So yes, my eyes are seeing, my senses are feeling, but you’re feeling too – “now you see this, now you see that”. You see the western coast of the Americas. You’re looking for what’s familiar to you. You live in Houston, so you notice when you go over Texas. And then now you’re going over Florida, and you know that place. He said, that’s what you’ve been doing now for several days, you’ve been looking for the places that are familiar.
But now you notice that something has shifted. Now you’re looking forward to seeing the Sinai Peninsula. And now you’re looking forward to seeing the Western coast of India. And you realise slowly that you’re looking forward to seeing all these places that you didn’t grow up with. You now realise that your identity has shifted, and you’re now identifying with all of it. He said, now you’re in the last day. You’ve now shifted that identity. You’ve been going over all these places which are now equally appreciated. You feel the same connection. You feel the same love you felt just for the place you knew.
And he said, now you’re drifting over what we call the Middle East. You see that stretch of division between the Mediterranean Sea and the land. And you see the familiar outline of the Dead Sea, and you see the desert. You’re staring down at this, and for the first time you realise that there are no lines. Every time you’ve ever seen this before, it has been a map. Every time you’ve ever seen that familiar geography, there have been lines drawn. Of course, the lines move with history. You realise in this instant of awakening, there are no lines. And you realise, right now, people are killing each other over lines and belief systems, which do not actually exist except in their imagination.
Asked several years after his talk in Lindisfarne, “So Rusty, if you looked at all of that right now, all these years later, what did you actually see when you were up there?” He paused. He just sat there with his eyes closed and replied ‘I saw a baby about to be born’.
I don’t think any of us know what’s coming, but it could be quite wonderful.