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Photo of David Zach Futurist with wall of books

A Futurist?

tl;dr version:

  1. One of the few professionally-trained Futurists on the planet. I can’t predict the future, but knew you might have wondered.
  2. Degree in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. BA, Political Science from University of Wisconsin.
  3. Given over 1500 keynote presentations throughout North America and Europe.
  4. Talks focus on the cultural and social (often humorous) implications of technological and demographic trends.
  5. Design has become a central theme running through my talks.

About David Zach, Futurist:

  1. I’m one of the few professionally-trained Futurists on this planet, having earned an M.S. in Futures Research from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Then again, I got that degree way back in 1981 so it’s pretty much history at this point. (B.A. was in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, though I had more credits in Philosophy and almost as many in Communications.) My introduction to futurists was from a course called The Future, taught by Alan Stauffacher at Monroe High School. But, even before that I first fell in love with the future by watching Star Trek. I was only allowed one hour of TV a week on school nights, but my smarty-pants brother Jim had all As, so he didn’t have any restrictions. He got to legally watch Star Trek. I had to sneak down to the rec room, hide behind the sofa and lay on the floor. My introduction to the future was sideways, and it pretty much has remained at off angles ever since.
  2. To finish the futures degree, I got an internship at Johnson Controls in downtown Milwaukee, WI. This was rather lucky as not only did I not have to write a thesis, but they paid me too. Because HR didn’t know quite how to classify or rank a “futurist,” they figured my skill set was equivalent to that of an accountant. When I asked my dad what I was going to do with all of that extra money from a real full time job, he just laughed. One of the first adult-level unlocked lessons is that earning money can be quite expensive.
  3. Three days after moving to Milwaukee, I got invited to attend the inaugural meeting of Goals for Milwaukee 2000. Then they invited me on some sub-committees and because I spoke up a few times, I was named chair of the subcommittee on the future of education. This was a mistake. I was 23. Fortunately there was stronger leadership throughout and with lots of guidance, our report turned out just fine. Along the way, I met a lot of other civic-minded people, who upon meeting someone fresh out of college, would typically ask: So what did you major in? The answer of “Futures Research!” either got a blank look or questions like “Could you talk to my Rotary Club about that?” I did probably about ten talks to such clubs when someone unexpectedly gave me a $40 honorarium. My career is the result of a hobby that got out of control.
  4. Since 1981, I’ve given over 1500 talks throughout North America and Europe. My largest audience was over 7000 with the The Critical Care Nurses Association, who gave me a rare standing ovation. You cannot buy drugs that feel that good. At the same event, I also learned about one of the lows of speaking. My talk ended just before lunch. Quite a few people came up to chat and say thanks, but by the time I had put all my slides and materials away – I was standing alone in a empty auditorium. I remembered thinking, “Not one of you wondered if I was free for lunch?” Speaking professionals have sometimes described it as one of the loneliest jobs on the planet, especially when you do a great job. People are often intimidated or assume that of course you already have plans. I soon learned to book a second night and always try to have dinner with the client before or after the event. Before the event you get better insights on the audience and create allies in that audience. The evening after we share stories and great wine. The dinners after were often the most memorable parts of the gigs because I had already had my say and now it was my turn to listen.
  5. The smallest audience was just three people, for Farmer’s Insurance. I was told to expect one hundred, but they might have exaggerated. Still, I got paid a lot more for that talk than for the nursing talk – and I got invited to lunch after the talk.
  6. My talks were often described by my agents as “light, but thought-provoking.”  I had thought that was a cool description but soon realized that a lot of speakers also described their talks as “thought-provoking,” but what they really meant was that they didn’t quite know how to describe their talks. Mine really were thought-provoking because I would hide philosophy inside the trends, often in the form of humor. My reasoning was that the future felt threatening to too many people, but anything they can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. It’s a bit like the child pointing at the pompous future and saying, “But he doesn’t have any clothes on!” Helping people to see what the future for what it really was, not just fascinating forecasts of change, but also enough timeless traditions and ideas that people still had hope for some continuity and connection. That’s deep, so being able to laugh does indeed make it seem lighter and more approachable.
  7. The talks would always start with technology because that’s the obvious, heavily marketed driver in terms of future change. This would evolve into a fun discussion about the social and cultural implications of the technology. And, as the talk curved around toward the finish line, it got more personal. What would begin with such ideas as nanotechnology or how that tech could lead to factories returning closer to the points of consumption, would connect into the world of children, protecting their sense of wonder and even to the importance of grandparents. I have this photo showing my niece Rachel as an infant being held by her great-grandmother Myrtle, showing not only the vast distance in age, but also that there really was no distance, no separation. Rather than falling into the clutches of technology as the future, we also need to see the future as something we can hold in our arms. When holding an infant, we see that children really are the message we send to the future. What are we trying to say? What will be heard?
  8. In the last ten years of my speaking, the dominant theme became design. Design determines value and the better design, the more value. Learning to think a bit like designers and having some process by which we look at the ways the future is made but also that we consider the longer-term implications of what choices today might be down the line. This focus created a bit of a niche for me, and I’ve probably keynoted over 100 design conferences. For some reason, architecture always fascinated me, though never as a possible occupation as I don’t have those sorts of technical skills. But I do have an aesthetic sensibility to recognize good design and a bit of how it works. This eventually led to my being on the AIA-WI board of directors and from 2010-13 as a public director on the American Institute of Architects national board. While on the board, I had the particular honor to be a keynote speaker for AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) four years in a row, twice almost by accident as I filled in twice for speakers who missed their planes. (The last of those speeches from 2013 can be viewed elsewhere on this website.) My favorite story from those talks was in 2010, freshly on the AIA board and in the midst of a very enthusiastic and slightly rowdy audience, I got towards the end in which I extol the virtues of smoking and drinking– as metaphors for talking with strangers and breaking bread with them– but I set them up in the joke and of course, they’re very young adults and they’re roaring with laughter. And then I see that in an earlier skit that evening, someone had left a Smirnoff Ice on stage. I stopped, looked at the audience, looked over at the bottle, walked across the stage, popped the top and took a drink. This caused a screaming, laughing, cheering standing ovation. This eventually got back to the board of the AIA. In a series of emails between members of the board, I was told by one of the more serious members that despite the fun, I had to understand that I was represented the board and should comport myself thusly. Harumph! Thankfully, the AIAS executive director was in on the email stream and replied that it was perhaps not quite one would expect professionally…, but for the first time, the students of the AIAS actually think that the AIA might be cool. Over the years, I was a keynote speakers five times and was given a rare Presidential Citation by AIAS. That was cool. (You can see one of those talks here.)
  9. My interest in architecture has two origin stories. The first is that the house I grew up in was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Edmund Howe) and my dad used to take me to the meetings with the architect. This did not result in my wanting to be an architect, it resulted in me being fascinated with architecture and how ideas can be made into real buildings.
  10. The second origin has to do with the design style of Art Deco and my fascination for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In many ways, the future as we know it started at this fair. It was slowly dawning on the world that the future could be different from the past. From suburbs and freeways to home refrigerators and other time-saving appliances, many of the ideas we now take for granted began there on display. Running through it all was a sense of streamlined design and speed. We were going to make the future better than before. And, along the way, we realized that innovation brings its own problems. We didn’t realize that our philosophy mattered more than our plans, but failing at philosophy we just continue to plan. Sometimes we even come up with college degrees that are all about planning out the future.
  11. Since leaving the AIA board in 2013, I have lost a bit of my optimism about the future. Some of that came from getting older and being less enamored of constant change and part came from observing what got attention and praise from the AIA. While I was on the Golden Awards committee, they settled on an architect who does these concrete office monstrosities. The committee also considered another modernist architect and although I praised this person’s cleverness, I wondered out loud at its lack of beauty and if its facade which was already fading after only a couple of decades, would endure. This cause another rather prestigious committee member to bluntly explain how much I didn’t know about architects, architecture and probably even life itself. If you haven’t been lectured by an actual Lord of the Realm, your bucket list is not as cool as mine. I was struck by the elitism backed up by technology. As Churchill has said, “First we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Too often, the elites have spoiled the future for the rest of us.

This Website: A Cabinet of Futurist Curiosities

Before museums, private collectors would gather all sorts of things into cabinets. Some of those collections turned into famed museums. This was in an age of curiosity before curiosity became organized and thereby formalized. It was an age of generalized education for affluent young adults, and specialization came via apprenticeship. It was a special sort of age of discovery because most things had yet to be discovered.

Something has been lost along the way of finding all of those things. By separating them into morphologies and specialties, I think there’s less chance for the sort of cross-fertilization that leads to break-throughs. Sure, there are lots of people with broad general interests and even hobbies that encourage leaps of connections, but the average person should be just as curious and just as able to make new connections. Wealth is found in connections. What’s not yet connected?

My cabinet of curiosities is part of my process for crafting my own ideas. I collect quotations, graphics, and books… anything that catches my curiosity, and all within a condo furnished with furniture and art of Art Deco or Asian origin. At any point, there are about thirty books scattered about on any horizontal surface, some actively being read or reread, others perused to recall a line or notion that needs to fill a gap in theme. All of these brought together help the sparks of imagination.

The vintage graphics serve a special aspect of crafting ideas. A central theme in my Futurist work is that new does not necessarily mean good, and old doesn’t always mean outdated. Vintage illustrations are a fun way of connecting the past with the future. The question shouldn’t be are these outdated, but rather: What has enduring value? If it has a sense of timelessness with it, then it still has value. And, as someone wise once told me, the creation of value is the only reason to stay in business. How do we define value? That is one of the most important questions you can ask.

Since junior high, I’ve been collecting quotations, now with over 4000 in the database. Yeah, a database. It’s searchable, so I can throw in just the right or inappropriate notion at just the right time.

This website is my cabinet of curiosities. Unlike my talks, these entries are not presented in any particular order,  but more along the lines of what’s catching my attention right now. Wander around and be curious.

Limited Speaking Engagements

After over 1500 talks, I’ve pretty much spoken to every type of audience imaginable, large and small. Right up front, please understand that I am not a motivational speaker, nor am I interested in speaking at company events. My talks work best at association events, where people are away from the office, less focused on the bottom line, more thinking about the horizon. As I am only interested in limited number of bookings, these industries/audiences work best with my content and style. Fees are determined through a conversation about connections, expectations, time, venue and interests.

1. Design

This includes pretty much anything in the AEC industries. I’ve been on the board of both the American Institute of Architects-Wisconsin as well as the AIA National board. The majority of my talks in the last ten years were with design audiences. For a sense of my speaking style and content, see these videos: Designs on the Future delivered to the Society for Experiential Graphic Design and a mostly extemporaneous talk for the American Institute of Architecture Students, which was the fifth time I had keynoted their annual forum. As you might suspect, all of my talks are tailored to each specific audience.

Sitting down to the @DavidZach lecture at #AIAS #MidwestQuad. Mind, prepare to be blown. Charlie Klecha, AIAS 2014 President

2. Agriculture

My talks work really well within the ag industry. Maybe it’s because I grew up just outside of a small farm town and still have a lot of the values learned there. Agriculture is a natural for thinking about the future trends, avoiding fads and respecting principles. It might also be because I understand how much the ag industry has changed over the past few decades and how much hasn’t. About ten years ago while at InfoAg, I had wandered through the exhibit hall and was amazed at all the drone exhibits. One might be tempted to say, “This is not your grandparents farm…” but actually, it still is. The technology changed but the principles have not. If the principles have been lost, maybe that’s the problem. In my talks, I weave together future trends and future traditions. Just because something is new, does not mean it’s good. Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s outdated. It might just be old because it’s timeless.

3. Chambers and Economic Development

I’m a big believer in what some call “flyover country.” I grew up outside of a small town and love living in Wisconsin. Throughout my career, many would ask, “Why does a Futurist live in Milwaukee?” The implication was that city was not where the future was. It might not be where the dramatic, “hey, look at me!” future happens, but there’s lots of innovation going on there that’s paying more attention to the long-term. For more on the future of medium-sized communities, read The Human City by Joel Kotkin.

Here’s an example of a successful Chamber of Commerce event and how I approached it. Before speaking at the Rockford’s Chamber’s 100th anniversary I went for a visit, first virtually by searching for gems online, and then I drove down and spent a day wandering and visiting. One of my first stops: a cemetery. After all, anyone who had been a member of the chamber 100 years ago was long gone. Crafting a photo story of the names on the stones and who they might have been, along with the struggles of the day, made for a fun story that brought strong applause. The video for this 2010 talk can be viewed here. 

On my early visit, I also found a printery shop and gallery that participated in First Fridays. Turns out, it was the largest single event for Rockford’s First Fridays, but was completely off the official radar.  This led to introductions and a vast expansion of understanding of what else is happening on those evenings.

Finally, I wandered through a variety of shops in the downtown and ended up at The Coronado Theater. This is a beautifully restored 1927 atmospheric theater, popular in the early years of cinema theaters. Bringing images from my impromptu tour nicely tied together Rockford’s past with the present and with a sense of community commitment and vision, how those can lead into the next 100 years.

3. Technology

Remembering that I am a keynote speaker, and not an industry speaker, my value to this audiences is on that bigger picture. My job is not to know (or predict) the next bleeding edge direction of technology, but rather to ask “What else does this new technology mean?” We can look in the labs and the marketing plans to know what’s coming next. What comes after what comes next is where the fun starts.

My job is not to tell people about the future of their industry. If they’re asking me to do that, they’re in more trouble than they thought. My job is to have some understanding of their problems and opportunities and then point my knowledge and perspectives in towards their center. I help provide broader, often unexpected context to their decisions.

My keynotes make people think, but are done in such a way that they’re not threatened by such thinking. That’s why my talks are funny. Anything you can laugh at isn’t quite as threatening. Humor plays with paradoxes – and that helps the audience members see multiple sides of an issue and that gives them lots to talk about with each other during the rest of the conference. That’s the real value of my talks: after the keynote, attendees have something to talk about during the breaks and even in their calls back home. A frequent comment made after my talks is, “I wish my kids had been here to hear that.”

4. Association Conferences

Beyond the above industries, my fit with your audience needs to be determined case by case. And, it’s important to repeat here that I’m not the best fit for the corporate market. My talks are not about just the bottom line, they’re much more about the horizon. At an association event, people are more relaxed and more social. At corporate events, there’s always a little bit of tension. Another way of expressing this: I am not a motivational speaker. If your people are not motivated, that’s your problem. Most of those showing up at industry conferences are already motivated. They want to learn. They want to network. I can help inspire them and get them talking. The content of my talk gives them lots of conversations starters that will carry through the entire event and beyond.

5. Unique Experiences, Audiences and Venues

A key attitude towards the future is a willingness to be surprised, and sometimes first considerations about a speaker/audience fit can be reconsidered. I will not take a booking just to get a booking. If we’re not a good fit, I will be honest and try to steer you in a better direction.

Having said that, I can resist everything except temptation. Negotiations that require second glances often lead to great connections. For example, back in the late 1990s, I got a call from the president for the Juneau, Alaska School Board. They had a small budget for the commencement speech… and then he said that he and his wife owned a B&B. The offer: host me for a week: flight-seeing, wanderings through the local parks (Did you know that bald eagles up there are pretty much like pigeons are down here?), use of a car, and even fishing in Juneau Bay. I caught a 30 lb. King Salmon. The students were great and we had some intriguing conversations as they asked me about their career ideas and skill sets. Very fond memories. Negotiating for cool things works for me.

Divide Your Attention Into Fads, Trends, or Principles

When looking around your world with an eye towards the future, try to divide what you see into a fad, a trend, or a principle. A simple way of having that sense of that division between them is to play with fads, work with trends, and live by principles. Of course, that’s easier said than done because too often we’re seduced by fads, ignorant of trends and resistant to principles. Related to a sense of time, fads are momentary, trends are transforming, and principles are eternal.

FADS

Fads are like spice. You just need just enough to add flavor and flair to life. Fads are about being in the moment, particularly to enjoy that moment. In that sense, fads are very nice because they are very human. Fads can ruin things if they take too much of your time and attention, are seen as truth, or if a fad is embraced as a lifestyle. When fads are put in their proper perspective with trends and principles, fads are great.

Because of our economic and social obsession with trends, it’s not really surprising that there’s an almost equal and opposite reaction in our current obsession with fads. Too much of anything will cause a reaction towards the opposite direction. Even worse, we often are fooled into thinking that fads are really trends. Fads are marketed as the next trend of the future, oddly one right after another. Fads like to tell you’re they’re trends, so you’ll pay more attention. But fads don’t last.

You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

Fads are about attention, which is the most valuable resource in the economy today. If your attention can be captured and held, everything else will follow. People who start or lead fads are all about capturing that attention for profit or power. Why would you embrace a fad if no one else notices? In an attention-based economy, fads are lucrative because of the constant turnover of what’s cool. If you’re selling what’s cool, you can’t rely on old inventory, it has to move fast and be replaced just as quickly. Fads often go with adolescence– to do something different, to be bored with the same old thing, especially when the culture and economy join forces to help convince you that new is better, and old is, well, old. Fads help adolescents challenge authority.

There is nothing culturally more subversive than the modern commerce of quick turnover in ideas. Philip Rieff

Fads can give the illusion of progress. They’re anchors that stop movement, except when it’s to move away from whatever is expected of you and rejecting what’s already in place. Fads are less about creativity than they are about reaction. Art and artists are often quick to reject the traditional in favor of their new visions because nowadays that’s what sells as good art. That attitude has spread into business and culture, though they would be the first to deny it. Fads pretend to be trends.

To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

We should play with fads because they can be fun and help us to enjoy life. From styles of clothing to styles of culture, they are about being in the moment of life and reveling in being alive. Just keep them in perspective.

We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of either. G. K. Chesterton

Do you have enough fads in your life so that you’re not boring? Do you have so many fads in your life that you’re irrelevant? Just like with spice, enjoy them but if you use too much, you might spoil things.

TRENDS

Trends are about movement and transformation over time. Fads are like the waves on the water, they rock the boat and thereby capture our immediate attention. Trends are like the currents which move the boat. Currents are more difficult to perceive, but are far more powerful. One is able to navigate by learning more about the depth and direction of currents and stop obsessing about what just on the surface.

Trends are more adult-like because they take longer-term attention to notice. They often involve a sense of investment, whether that is with a long-term stock, the growth or decline of a company or even the way that we invest in the rearing of children. They take time and if we reacted to every little change with our investments, we cause more harm than good. There’s also a sense of delayed gratification with investment in trends. Fads are about today, trends are all about what comes after today.

We work with trends because that’s where our efforts will do the most good – long-term thinking applied to the notion of leveraging our resources and efforts to multiply the outcome. If you can pull some fads in to help achieve this goal, trends can work even better.

I don’t set trends. I just find out what they are and I exploit them. Dick Clark

PRINCIPLES

Principles are about the eternal. Things that don’t change, shouldn’t change, can’t change. These are difficult to defend in an age where too many loud people insist that there are no eternals, there are no truths. I believe it is truth to say that they are wrong.

Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others. Groucho Marx

This is not to say that principles are absolute. The fact is that they ebb and flow and interact with other principles. In some eras, some principles are more regarded than in other eras. For instance, ask yourself which is more important, freedom or equality? You’ll probably have an answer, but you can easily find someone who will disagree with you. This is because freedom and equality are both principles. They are both true at the same time and yet they are opposites. It’s a paradox, and a delightful one at that.

There are times when freedom is more important and other times when equality is favored. Freedom without equality would be a jungle, equality without freedom would be tyranny. Both sides are equally important even if they do ebb and flow over time, mostly because we as flawed, imperfect humans can’t quite grasp how to keep them in balance. The graphic above showing the scales of justice support that notion that an equilibrium must be found in the midst of all the contending forces.

For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails, the other dies. Will & Ariel Durant

Just as fads anchor you to a moment in time and trends cross time, principles free you from time. Principles are not simply about this time, they are about all time, they transcend time. We can have the sense of principles being more elder-oriented because for too many of us, we don’t seem to appreciate them until we’ve grown tired of everything else that competes with them.

We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine. G. K. Chesterton

FADS, TRENDS AND PRINCIPLES IN THE MODERN WORLD

Fads are about attention.

Given the vague statistic that the average person today encounters several thousand advertising messages a day, your ability to get your message through depends a lot on knowing which fads are capturing attention in this moment. When you’re trying to gain the attention of a younger person, be that your child or your new worker, are you able to use the right words, images and metaphors that work with them, without trying to be just like them? It’s not a fad that younger generations easily see and reject older generations efforts to manipulate.

Trends are about intention.

Which trends do you follow? Which do you ignore? Once you know about a trend, you need to form an opinion about whether it is useful. Which fads can you use to pull others into either supporting or resisting a trend? In navigating current trends, have a sense of direction and endurance so you can anticipate how to use it in your favor.

Have an understanding of both investment and delayed gratification with trends. Because trends take time, one has to have a sense of the endgame — where is this trend likely to lead us five, ten, even fifty years into the future? In the advanced economies, we have been so seduced by the short-term and quarterly results that we are quite fad-like in our planning. Older cultures might teach us about having a much longer sense of time. Our own history, in terms of what we have forgotten or choose to ignore, can also teach about the value of long-term trends.

Principles are about truth.

Imagine that you were asked to begin a document with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…“ how might you finish that sentence? How might you finish the entire document to declare what it is that you believe? Do you believe that anything is true– that truth even exists– or do you believe that everything is relative and one so-called truth is as good as another?

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principles, stand like a rock.  Thomas Jefferson

Unlike fads, which have tremendous marketing budgets behind them, principles are often left on their own and are not as easy to understand such that we easily are distracted from them in the day-to-day, busy world. In this world, the spoils go to the distractors— those best able to grab and hold your attention, and thereby gain access to your money— are the ones who get the gold and get to rule.

Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

Not all principles are to be equally valued, just like not all change is forward. The great struggle of our age is to define what should change and what should stay the same. It’s often said that in the future we’ll need more science and math in order to compete in the global economy. That’s true. What is even more true is that if we are to thrive in the future, we will need to study more philosophy, theology, history and biography. Science cannot tell us why we are here and what is the purpose of life. These four subjects may not be able to answer such questions either, but at least they lead us in that direction and that’s a good foundation from which to start.

Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty. Will Durant

Fads, trends and principles can be used as lenses through which to look at what’s going on around you. They are not always distinct from each other, as there’s often a little bit of principle inside of a fad. Trends are often revealed first through the fads that show up in a culture or an economy. Principles are often obscured by the modern obsession with both fads and trends, and the popular naiveté that say principles either don’t exist or shouldn’t…

Simply put, we should play with fads, work with trends and live by principles.

Thinking Into Other Boxes Article

Think Outside the Box is often bad advice that leaves too many people wandering around, proudly lost in thought. The better opportunities come when you Think Inside Other Boxes…

How to Think Inside Other Boxes

1. Value the box inside your mind. It took lots of money and effort to build it, so don’t discount it. Just don’t overvalue it. Expand that value by connecting it into other boxes.

2. Find other people with interesting boxes, so together you can look at the same things from different angles, bridging a wealth of talents, experiences, insights, and ideas.

3. Create multiple-point perspective in your thinking by exploring how you can see the same things from different points of view, adding both breadth and depth to thought.

4. Do this over breaks and meals in a casual setting — when you can break bread, you break barriers.

Rules for Thinking Inside Other Boxes

1. Remember, you’re a visitor. Be polite, be curious, be humble, be prepared.

2. Be open-minded about more than just the thinking you already agree with. Try to withhold judgments long enough to learn something unexpectedly useful. As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, suggests: “Listen as if you were wrong and wanted to know why.”

3. If you make a mess, apologize and clean it up — or you won’t be invited back in.

4. If you believe you’re right, learn to defend your best ideas logically, faithfully, and graciously. And, if you’re wrong, learn to admit it logically, faithfully, and graciously.

The advantage of thinking inside other boxes comes with the learning from boxes different from your own. Adapting the notion of multiple-point perspective, it’s bringing together different points of view about the same issue, but with a sense of common ground. Mutual trust is the thing that gives people the freedom to safely wrestle with the contentious issues. This works best when the sense of the shared underlies the sense of the divergent. It may mean connecting with someone from another country, it does not mean another planet. Find the connections first, then diverge.

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

Green colored winged dragon statue

Learning To Fight the Dragons Article

I’m a futurist and dragon fighter —and so are you. Except you probably don’t know you’re a futurist and you probably don’t even believe in dragons. We need to fix that. 

Let me explain. I may be making a big assumption here, but I’ll bet that you were once a child, and once upon a time you were told all sorts of things that began with the words, “Once upon a time ….” 

As a result, you probably spent half your days with your head in the clouds dreaming — of adventure, finding treasures, marrying some personage of royalty and along the way getting into all sorts of trouble. And, here’s the strategic thinking thing, getting out of all sorts of trouble. You weren’t just daydreaming, you were learning to be a futurist and you were learning to fight dragons.

Once upon a time, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they teach children that dragons exist, but that they teach children that dragons can be beaten.”

By imagining that you were fighting dragons, you were engaged in some of the oldest sorts of training there is, using your imagination to try out strategies and tactics that would help you into the future, as in, once you learned to fight the dragons with tails and scales, you could someday fight the more dangerous creatures — ones hidden behind fancy suits and lawsuits, armed with bad attitudes and layoff notices. Instead of fire-breathing, they’d fire off memos, “I want that report by 3:00!” or the more terrifying, “All the other kids have an iPhone! Why can’t I have one? It’s not fair! I hate you!”

A futurist is anyone who fights the dragons blocking the path into a better future. But the fight is not always to slay them, it is often the more difficult task of reasoning with them, taming them and when necessary, even being at peace with them while you wait for them to grow out of it. A futurist finds ways of working for a good future; problem-solving your way into a desirable conclusion, not only for the short-term but the long-term too.

Unlike a fortuneteller, a futurist really isn’t about being mystical. Rather than hiding the sources of their future visions, they find and reveal them so, in the light of day, they can be shared, studied, and improved. It’s not just making shocking predictions about the next invention, it’s really about making the shocking rediscovery that not everything new is good and not everything old is bad. If we could call futurism by just one name, we should call it common sense. And if more people looked at it that way and hung on to some of the common sense they learned as children, the future might make a lot more sense as well.

For instance, we’ve all heard the common-sense notion that patience is a virtue. Mostly we accept that, except when it comes to tomorrow’s technology, which we want to have today. Millions are spent on the latest tech, which in case you haven’t noticed, often works better in the demo, not so much in the day-to-day practice. Like little kids with our faces pressed up against the window of the candy store, we easily imagine how good something is going to taste and we’re seduced by the glitz and give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, don’t doubt the doubt. Run the promises of new technology through what’s called the mill of objection to see how it works in real life.

When considering new technology, we overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in five years. Lots of new technologies fall short of their alluring promises, and then people will discount the entire notion of that new thing. But if the idea is valid, watch for those closely watching the first efforts, learn from the mistakes of others and try it again. Too often, while you were still laughing at the early failures, some of those secondary efforts succeed beyond our wildest imaginations. Quick on the draw pessimists are not long-term thinkers. Patience is a virtue as long as you know what it really takes to make things work.

Futurists learn to look where they’re not looking and try to see what they’re not seeing. Another wild guess here, if you’re reading this you might have something to do with computers as a user or, bless your heart, in information technology or tech support — and the subject of technology takes up way too much of your time and attention. You obsess about technology to the point where an outside observer might just think you’ve got an addiction going on. Does the relationship you have with technology and the amount of time you spend on it actually match the real importance of it? Does the use of technology distract us from getting things done?  

This is no longer an age of specialization for those who want to be leaders. By default, a lot of you are specializing in technology and you shouldn’t. A leader asks how much of the technology world will be changed, disrupted, controlled by those who have nothing to do with IT. In all your searching for what’s happening next in IT, you’re going to miss something because you’re looking too closely at the subject at hand. What are you not seeing? Who can see what you cannot? 

Watch for the unexpected dragons coming at you from odd angles, the unexpected ones that fly into the mix to completely disrupt the way the future was going. Think of how much 9/11 changed the way redundant backups were innovated. How much has wireless changed the ways we work and where we work. How has globalization changed the location of workers and given more people access to success, no matter where they live. Consider how the pirates of Napster broke the old rules of information and how we now have many new rules. All of these things that we now assume were always part of the future, were each unexpected disruptions. The trick will be to spot the next disruptions before everyone else does. The best way to do that is to once in a while take your eyes off of the ball and start looking at the rest of the playing field. Dragons don’t always come from where you expected and they don’t always play by the rules because sometimes the rules are just your rules and not the rules of the larger, newer game.

Spread out your thinking — think in panoramic time — think past, present and future. Leaving the past out of your thinking is like ignoring half your tools. Don’t think of history just as an anchor, think of it more like a well-stocked toolbox, with many different tools to be used (or not) in many different ways. History doesn’t seem to have a lot of relevance when thinking about IT, but it does when thinking about people. Things change, but people don’t. How did people in the past fight the good fight? The lessons of history can tell you a lot about today.

Too much focus on the future is to live in a fantasy without the necessary respect due to those in the present. The future has been described as a convenient place for dreams. It’s a place to try out your imagination without the harsh consequences of today. If you don’t know where you left your imagination, ask any child, and they’ll easily show you where it was that you had misplaced it.

Finally, while we’re thinking about what children can teach us, also learn to be more playful. Learn to play with the future. One of the great flaws of adults is that they get the hardening of the categories. They stop accepting ambiguity and demand order. They take on all sorts of responsibilities and act just a wee bit too important. They obsess over work. They’ve lost their ability to see the world as they did when they were children. Adults are sort of obsolete children.

This is not suggesting that we act like children. This is not about immaturity, as anyone can look around today and see too much of that. What we need is more innocence along with wisdom. We are born with innocence and we grow into wisdom. Can we be adults but not forget the delightful ways that we saw the world when we were still had not (wrongly) grown cynical and oh so sophisticated? To remember what it was like to delight in the discovery of life and learning. 

The best defense against the dragons is a shield of innocence and the best offense against them is a sword of wisdom. This is a sort of sword that knows how to cut through things, not just to cut to the chase and reach the bottom line, but even how to cut ahead as you reach towards the horizon. Keep some of the innocence you were born with and find the wisdom that is all around you, together they help us fight the dragons no matter where they come from and no matter where we are going.

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David Zach is a Futurist who gives lots of slightly amusing talks on trends, traditions, and the choices between them. He frequently sees things that might be dragons.

This article was written for Paragon Development Systems corporate magazine in 2010.

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