Train your imagination to anticipate – and create – the future.
Don’t you sometimes wish you could have a crystal ball to look into the future and at least mentally prepare for it?
Like – truly? Right? Look at the times we live in.
Reading this is a little bit like that crystal ball – just better – because it actually gives you tools to prepare for uncertainty.
So what if you were a futurist and imagining the future was your job. In fact, that actually is Jane McGonigal’s job. The author of Imaginable.
And we’ll explore some of Jane’s ideas. There are a bunch of really great practical exercises that will help you prepare for the future. You’ll learn to upgrade your mindset and replace negative, defeatist thinking with creativity, resilience, and optimism.
Learn to imagine the unimaginable.
Can you bear with me for a second? We’re going to do a little time traveling exercise. You can also grab a pen and paper and write things down. That could be helpful. I’ll wait till you have those.
Ready? Okay. Imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning. Picture it in as much detail as you possibly can. Which room are you in? What woke you up – an alarm, a nudge? Is it light out? How do you feel? And now that you’re awake, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
Cool – you just took your first mental time trip! Easy, right? Now let’s try it again. But this time, imagine waking up one year from today. Take a few seconds to vividly picture this future moment. Are you waking up somewhere different? Is someone else lying in bed next to you? Do you look or feel different? Has your morning routine after waking up changed?
How did that feel? Notice how easy – or hard – it was to think of the details.
Okay, last one: close your eyes, and this time, imagine waking up ten years from today. I know. This is a bit harder. I’ll give you a few seconds to really trace out where you are, who you are, who might be there with you, what you hear, smell, and feel, and what you’re going to do next.
So. How was all that? It was probably pretty effortless for you to picture waking up tomorrow morning. Expanding your imagination ten years ahead, on the other hand, might’ve been a bit harder – perhaps like you were grasping at thin air.
Stretching your imagination the way you just did is a really good practice – your brain has to invent a totally new reality instead of just remembering what it knows already. But see what you just did? You made the unimaginable imaginable!
You can use your “memory of the future” to plan and prepare for what’s to come. Revisit this memory as often as you want. Really focus on how it makes you feel. Does it spark joy? Does it fill you with dread? These so-called “pre-feelings” indicate whether you should change what you’re doing today to make a possible future more or less likely.
This kind of imagination – the mental ability to spring forward in time and pre-experience the future – is what scientists call episodic future thinking or EFT. The name isn’t quite accurate though; you’re not just thinking about the future, you’re simulating it. Consider the difference between knowing it’ll be sunny tomorrow and actually imagining yourself in the sun, trying to pre-feel its warmth on your skin. The bright light blinds you. The smell of dry grass.
EFT includes asking yourself four specific questions: First, Where exactly am I in my future? Second, What’s true in this version of reality that isn’t true today? Third, What do I really want in this future moment, and how will I get it? And Fourth, How do I feel now that I’m here?
This tool helps you answer a simple but super powerful question: Is this a world I want to wake up in? And if the answer isn’t a resounding Yes! it helps you understand what you need to change in order to make it so.
To successfully simulate the future, you need time (specifically, ten years) and ideas (the more ridiculous, the better).
Ten years. It’s kind of a magic number when it comes to EFT. First of all, it’s the most common answer to the question, When does the future start? We’ve been somewhat conditioned to recognize the power of ten years as a conduit for change. Think about the ten-year chunks by which we categorize our lives (for example, you might say, you’re in your 30s or 40s) or how we differentiate history (the roaring twenties compared with whatever the nineties were, for instance).
We know a lot can change in ten years. At the same time, though, we have the mental space to get ready for the change, which allows us to be more hopeful and relaxed about dramatic shifts. This psychological phenomenon is called time spaciousness. It’s the empowering feeling that you have enough time to thoughtfully and methodically tackle the things that matter – and that way you can create the future you desire.
Right now, pick an itty-bitty task – like finishing this post– and give yourself ten years to do it. Put it in your calendar! Now, if you think that'll make you more likely to procrastinate, think again. Science shows that, in general, the less time you feel you have to get things done, the less you’ll do – and vice versa.
Your brain really needs to think it has a lot of time in order for this to work, so go ahead: splurge on your deadlines. Start giving yourself ten years to finish that work report or to master the art of brewing kombucha. Whatever it is, you might surprise yourself with how much happier and faster you complete tasks when you feel time-rich.
Ten years. It’s also a long way to travel all on your own. To guide you along your mental time trips, you can use what professional futurists call a future scenario. Basically, it’s a detailed description of a future where you wake up and something is drastically different from your current reality.
When immersing yourself in future scenarios, embrace the details, the drama, and the absurdity. In fact, futurists have a rule for that last one. There’s something called Dator’s law. It states, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
Being receptive to “silly” ideas will stretch your open-mindedness and creativity. To help unstick your imagination, here’s a little game.
First, make a list of five things (or 100, if you’re feeling ambitious) that are true today. Here is a couple to get you started: Shoes aren’t free. Most people own more than one pair of shoes.
Now assume that, in ten years, the opposite is true: In ten years, shoes are free. In ten years, most people own only one pair of shoes.
Try to make sense of these topsy-turvy worlds. How did this change happen? How does this new reality work? You might come up with some surprisingly plausible answers. In the future, for example, shoes might be “free” in exchange for your data – just think of Facebook. And people might own only one pair if there’s a significant decrease in consumption due to global climate action. Using your episodic future thinking skills, imagine how you’d personally respond to the opportunities and challenges of these possible futures. In one word, tell me . . . how do you feel?
You can also try flipping some facts about your own life. Again, write down five things that are true today. The author's list: "I’m a European citizen, I travel a lot, I’m a journalist, I sleep at night, and I love puns." Then rewrite them so that, in ten years, the opposite is true. And just embrace how absurd it is. For the author that’d be; "I’m a Canadian citizen, I don’t travel, I manage a taco shop, I sleep during the day, and I hate puns."
Choose an upside-down fact, and mentally time-travel into the future to see how vividly you can envision the change. Really imagine what might’ve led to this shift, how it feels, the things you’d do that you can’t do today, and why the alternatives popped into your mind in the first place.
You’re not trying to create a plan to drastically alter your life here. The point is simply to make your imagination bendier.
Clues about the future are hiding in plain sight – you just need to start looking.
It’s 2010, and McGonigal, Imaginable's author, has created a large-scale future simulation game called EVOKE. It’s set ten years ahead, in 2020. For ten weeks, nearly 20,000 players imagine what they’d do to help others during a conflation of future global crises – including a pandemic, a social media–driven misinformation campaign, and extreme weather events.
They predict how they’d feel and the specific actions they’d take. They’re looking at how these things might change their daily habits – would they wear masks? What social interactions would they avoid – would they stay home?
Wait a minute – we’re talking about a game, right? How come so much of this sounds familiar?
The fact that EVOKE’s storyline mirrors what we saw in the headlines of the real 2020 is no coincidence – McGonigal was inspired by future forces that global experts had predicted for years.
A future force is a phenomenon that’s likely to disrupt society. It’s sometimes described as a “megatrend,” “macro force,” or “driver of change” – and it usually begins as a small clue or signal of change.
A signal of change is a real-life example of how the world is shifting. Take the pizzly bear, for instance – a new hybrid species between a polar bear and a grizzly bear. Global warming’s making the poor polar bears go south into grizzly bear territory. There, though, the grizzly bears usually outcompete them for food. So, to survive, female polar bears have started mating with male grizzly bears.
This signifies that climate change is threatening biodiversity, yes. But it’s also a show of resilience when encountering sudden environmental change – which, by the way, could soon apply to humans. In the coming years, we’ll probably need to go through a similar migration, moving away from extreme climates and squishing together into smaller spaces.
Finding signals of change can be as simple as typing “future of [anything]” into Google. Try “future of mental health,” “future of prison reform,” or something sillier like “future of cake” – it’s up to you!
You can also discover the future forces hiding in plain sight by checking out the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report. It’s not light reading. In 2021, the report identified global warming, infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks, and social unrest as the forces that would have the biggest global impact in the next decade. When you consider future risks like these, you’re using what’s called your shadow imagination – you’re exploring what could possibly go wrong.
Now make your own personal list of the various future forces that you think will affect you and your loved ones over the next ten years. Let’s focus on the positives this time – look at your list, and pick one force that makes you feel especially hopeful. Take a brief mental time trip to a future in which this development is at its peak, and spend a few seconds with your pre-feelings: Can you vividly imagine the excitement, relief, and gratitude you’re going to experience? In this case, when you’re thinking about happy scenarios, you’re employing your positive imagination – you’re exploring something good that could happen.
Developing both your shadow and positive imagination, and then seeking actionable ways to shape the future, yields a fundamental takeaway of imagination training called urgent optimism. When you have urgent optimism, you feel balanced. You know there are challenges ahead, but you’re really hopeful that you can solve them. Urgent optimism means you’re not losing sleep over worries about the future. Instead, you’re stoked to get out of bed in the morning and do something about it.
Hard empathy can heal the world by helping you connect with others and your future self.
Your future self is a stranger. I’m not trying to be poetic here – it’s just a neurological truth. MRI studies show that when you imagine the future you, your brain acts as though you’re considering a totally different person. Your imagination literally switches from a first-person perspective, where you see the world from within your own body, to a third-person perspective where you experience your actions from an out-of-body vantage point.
That’s another reason mental time trips ten years into the future are so effective at stretching the imagination. They “unstick” you by allowing you to float above your normal mode of feeling and thinking.
But this weird neurological behavior also makes it more difficult to perform actions that benefit your future self. When your brain sees the future you as a stranger, it tends to exhibit less self-control and make fewer decisions for the greater good. You procrastinate more, give up sooner when frustrated, are worse at resisting temptations, and save less money for retirement. After all, why would you give away your hard-earned cash to a total stranger?
To counter this effect, it’s important to cultivate more empathy for your future self – to start treating the future you like, if not you, then a good friend. So how do you do this? Well, there are two types of empathy.
The first one is easy empathy. It’s when you can immediately relate to what someone is feeling because you’ve experienced it yourself. Say you were bullied as a child. If you see another child being bullied, you’ll probably empathize with them quickly and viscerally, reexperiencing your own anger or fear.
The second kind is called hard empathy because it takes more creativity and effort. Like when you fundamentally disagree with someone – and yet you still try to understand where they’re coming from.
A good way to cultivate hard empathy is to consult a news source and find a story about someone whose life is radically different from yours. Picture, in detail, your own life circumstances changing to be more like theirs.
Future scenarios (and video games) can transform learned helplessness into helpfulness.
Do you play video games? If so, you may be boosting your well-being! Studies show that gamers generally set higher goals for themselves in everyday life than nongamers. They’re more resilient in the face of real-world setbacks. And they’re more likely to ask for assistance from, and offer help to, family and friends.
How come they have such a strong sense of agency? Well, every game begins with a challenge or a threat – just think of those Pac-Man ghosts. Often, players are given very little information and have to figure out what they’re even supposed to do. And they have to discover which allies to recruit, which resources to collect, and what strategies will allow them to succeed. Ultimately, as players untangle the game and accomplish their goals, their confidence zooms up.
In other words, video games, like future scenarios, offer a therapeutic practice: the chance to practice learned helpfulness.
Learned helpfulness is the opposite of learned helplessness – the feeling that nothing you do matters. Learned helpfulness is having a sense of confidence and control when it comes to tackling problems. Every time you fill an unmet need or help someone who’s suffering, you strengthen the neurological pathways that make you feel like you can sway an outcome.
Finding your own unique way to help – or “answering the future’s call to adventure” – is, according to McGonigal, the most vital future imagination skill of all. So every time you approach a future scenario, ask yourself three questions: What will people need and want in this future? What kinds of people will be especially useful in this future? How will I use my unique strengths to help others in the future?
Spend ten days in a plausible future scenario to prepare for the real deal.
Okay, so maybe you’ve never thought of yourself as someone who has an active imagination . . . but I bet you’ve never played a long-form social simulation before either! To finish up, let’s try one last game – one that’ll immerse you in a world where something you take for granted today changes virtually overnight. That something is garbage. Close your eyes, and . . .
It’s June 1, 2032. You no longer have a garbage can. No more recycling bin either. Those services are obsolete, starting immediately. Luckily, compost is still being collected every week.
You thought the plan sounded cuckoo when the federal government announced it last year. But now we’re here. And to be fair, it’s not a total shock. Recycling never really worked, the landfills were overflowing, and the waste-to-energy plants were all shut down when it became obvious that burning trash was making people sick (duh).
So bye-bye trash cans. And hello 1,000 percent sales tax on any item sold with non-compostable packaging. Do you want an Americano in a plastic cup? That’ll be $22, please! On the other hand, you’re looking forward to a potential cash bonus to the tune of $10,000 – if the country can reduce its annual collective waste by 80 percent within a year. And the government used to spend trillions of dollars every year to bury and burn trash. Now that money goes toward health care, education, and universal basic income.
People aren’t mindlessly accumulating stuff anymore; instead, they spend money on experiences. Zero waste is the new normal. It’s a vibe – and you’re feeling it. You’re not the only one. People are feeling so good about the situation that psychologists have come up with a new word: Zerophoria.
It’s a brave, new world – and one you’re going to sustain over the next ten days!
We want to give the scenario enough time to simmer and really develop its flavors. So as you go through your daily activities in your current, real life over the next week and a half, keep the scenario playing in the back of your mind. Everything you do, each interaction you have, or place you go – how would they be different in that future scenario?
Record your immediate reactions in your future journal. This can be a physical notebook, emails, or a video diary – whatever you want. Here are some prompts to get you started: Describe your feelings in one word. What habit could you change that would decrease your trash right now? What would be the hardest thing to change or give up? Will you embrace this new post-trash society? Or will you resist it? Why?
Every day, set a timer for five minutes and take notes in your future journal. Freewrite about all the strange and surprising things you imagine without editing what you write. And share the experience with at least one other person – it’ll make the simulation feel more real like you’re in a collective dream.
This scenario is based on real future forces and signals of change – just search “the global waste crisis” or the “zero-waste movement.” So when it’s really ten years from now, who knows? You might have an eerie sense of déjà vu. But your experience of having seen and felt it coming will have prepared you to handle the real deal with confidence and optimism.
Alright. Here’s what we’ve learned.
When you think about a reality ten years in the future, you’re not necessarily preparing for a catastrophe. But instead, you get to bend your mind a bit. You can build up your mental resilience. If you start remembering the future in a way and imagining it, you can stay calm and practice urgent optimism when the time comes. Basically, you just got a bunch of tools that you can use to come up with some future scenarios.