To create something new or to make a change in your own life, you first have to be able to imagine how things can be different. And the future is a place where everything can be different.
I teach a class at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program called “How to Think Like a Futurist.” On the first day of class, I always challenge the students to try to stump me and my fellow researchers at the Institute for the Future. I ask them to come up with a list of things they believe will not change in the future, things that are true about how the world works today that they believe will still be true 10 years from now. For example: Humans will still need oxygen to breathe, or countries will always have borders, or my favorite one that I hear most often is about human reproduction: It takes the DNA of two people to make a baby, one man and one woman. That’s been true for 3 million years. It definitely will be true for the next 10.
Whatever my students come up with, I promise I’ll take their ideas back to my colleagues, and we’ll try to prove them wrong. We’ll look for clues that, in fact, those things that seem un-changeable might already be changing. Because if there’s one thing futurists know how to do, it’s how to keep an open mind that literally anything can become different.
And what do you know? Just last fall when I was teaching this class, a few weeks in, a news headline came out: The first “three-parent” baby was born, using a new experimental method that’s legal only in a few places in the world. It’s called pronuclear transfer, and it combines the genetic material of two women and one man to make one baby, with three genetic parents. This method is already being used today primarily to help parents avoid passing on genetic diseases.
Now you may not be a geneticist, and you may not be thinking about having a baby, but this kind of thing is worth paying attention to. It’s a mental habit of actively challenging what you believe could or could not be different. You have to get yourself unstuck about what you think is possible, by always looking for evidence that literally anything can change, even something that has been true for all of evolutionary history up until now.
This habit of unsticking your mind is incredibly important. It’s the basis of all creativity and personal reinvention. And professional futurists have all kinds of exercises for practicing this habit, for helping get our brains unstuck about what we think is possible, what we can believe can be different. Here are three of these exercises that you can practice anytime, anyplace to strengthen your own powers of imagination.