When people hear that Brian David Johnson is a futurist, they typically want him to offer up some predictions for what the world will look like 10, 20, 50 years from now. But Brian will explain to them that being a futurist is less about predicting the future than envisioning possibilities for it, choosing the one you want to build, and figuring out how to get there from the present.
Brian works through this process of futurecasting for Fortune 500 companies and the military, and in his book, The Future You, he shows individuals how they can apply it to their personal lives. He shares what that looks like with us today on the show, beginning with the importance of envisioning the future not as something set that you’re helplessly hurtling towards, but as something you can actively change and shape. We then talk about how to do your own futurecasting by figuring out what you want the life of the future you to look like, and identifying the tools and people that can get you there. Brian then explains how to get going towards your desired future and why that future is local. We end our conversation with what all this has to do with a quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.”
Resources/Articles Related to the Podcast
- AoM Article: Wants vs Likes
- AoM article on Eisenhower’s principles for planning and decision-making
- AoM series on crafting the life you want
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. And when people hear that Brian David Johnson is a futurist, they typically want him to offer some predictions for what the world will look like 10, 20, 50 years from now, but Brian will explain to them that being a futurist is less about predicting the future than envisioning possibilities for it, choosing when you wanna build, and figuring out how to get there from the present. Brian works through this process of futurecasting for Fortune 500 companies and the military, and in his book, The Future You, he shows individuals how they can apply it to their personal lives. He shows what that looks like with us today on the show, beginning with the importance of envisioning the future not as something set that you’re helplessly hurdling towards, but as something you can actively change and shape. We’re gonna talk about how to do your own futurecasting by figuring out what you want the life of your future you to look like, and identifying the tools and people that can get you there.
Brian then explains how to get going towards your desired future and why that future is local, and we end our conversation with what all of this has to do with a quote from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.” After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/futureyou.
Brett McKay: Alright, Brian David Johnson, welcome to the show.
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to be here, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you are a futurist, so what exactly do futurists do and what do you think are the biggest misconceptions people have about your profession?
Brian David Johnson: So as a futurist, I work with organizations to look 10 to 15 years out in the future, and I model both positive and negative futures. And then I’m an Applied Futurist which means that I turn around and look backwards and say, “Okay, what are the steps we need to take today, tomorrow, five years from now, to move towards that positive future and move away from the negative.” So probably the best example where I’ve done it in the past is, I was the chief futurist at the Intel Corporation, the chip company. And the reason why I was there is ’cause it takes them 10 years to design, develop, and deploy a chip, so it was a vital business importance for them to know 10 years in advance what people wanted to do with technology, and that was my job. So I’m an engineer and a designer by training, and really it was my job to write a requirements document for what people would wanna do with computers 10 years in the future, and then we would use it for, not only the design of the chip, but we’d use it for hiring, we’d use it for patents. So it’s kind of a really applied, really specific process. And now I work with different organizations, whether it’d be with large corporations, which I still do, but I also do a lot of work with the government and the military, kind of looking out at these possible and potential futures and then enabling people to take action.
Brian David Johnson: That’s so much about what I do. And so, Brett, I think some of the biggest misconceptions are that I predict the future, I think that drives people nuts, is that they hear I’m a futurist, and then they say, “Okay, Mr. Futurist, so tell me the future of this or that,” and the thing is I refuse to make predictions, really. Ultimately, what I do and what I teach my students to do at Arizona State University is to work with individuals and work with organizations to not only envision their future, but really map out the steps it’s gonna take to get there.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So you’re not making predictions, you never say like, “Oh well, by year 2020, all the robots will have taken our jobs,” you don’t do that kind of stuff?
Brian David Johnson: No, no, not at all. But I do look at parts of that, so we can say, “Okay, well, what will the effect of this technology be? Where do you wanna go?” And so a lot of it really is kind of very action-oriented to say, “Okay, what do you… What do you need to do about it?” So yeah, very rarely will I, “Here’s when the robots are gonna rise up and take over humanity.” I get asked that all the time, and oftentimes… I can answer that if you want me to answer it, but a lot of times I’m like, “That’s really not the type of futurist I am.”
Brett McKay: And what do you think when people think about the future, people… Like the misconceptions people have about, when they think about the future?
Brian David Johnson: Well, I think the biggest misconception is that the future is set. People think about the future as this place that we’re all running to, helpless to do anything about it. It’s like, “We’re all going to Des Moines, Iowa or Boise, Idaho.” And people always ask me about it, like, “Hey, BDJ, what’s it gonna be like in the future? How do I prepare for the future? What’s the future of this? Or what’s the future of that?” And really, the grammar and the vocabulary around that is all wrong because the future isn’t fixed. And so I always tell people, “Where do you wanna go? It’s not this specific place that you’re headed towards.” And now granted it’s based on facts, where the technology is going, where is culture going and economics and all that type of stuff, but I think people have a lot more control over their future than they really know.
Brett McKay: So the future is not like Back to the Future, Part Two, where there’s a 2015 that you can go to and everything is gonna be like flying cars. Who knows what it’s gonna be like? There’s so many factors that could change all that.
Brian David Johnson: Right, and I’m a huge science fiction fan, I’m also a science fiction author so I’m a nerd, so I love Back to the Future, I love the whole franchise, but I always have to remind people, and sometimes I’m a little wet blanket when it comes to it, and it can be a little sobering, I tell people, “That’s awesome, and it’s a great movie, and it’s really fun. You do know Back To The Future is a movie, right?” It’s not the future, it’s a movie, and the movie is there that you may have a good time and that it does, it’s a really great movie, but it’s not the actual nuts and bolts of going about and building the real future, the capital F future.
Brett McKay: And how do you think this misconception of thinking that the future is determined, how does that stiney organizations but also people from moving forward with their life?
Brian David Johnson: Well, I think for most folks, what I’ve seen over the last 25 years is people feel powerless, people feel, “Well, the future is set, and so where can I go? Okay, what’s gonna happen? How do I prepare?” And they really don’t feel like then that they can start taking action. And on one level, it gets people to feel, if they have some agency and they feel kind of comfortable and they have maybe some means, they’re trying to make the right moves to maybe prepare for the future, and that, actually, from a business standpoint, and from a personal standpoint is really the wrong way to do it, I can tell you, that’s really my job, is to work with organizations to go, “No, no, you can actually take steps to actually help form that future in different ways,” and I work, as I said, with large organizations and trade associations and things like that to do it, but I think the really dangerous part of it is when people are not active participants in their future, they’re not actively trying to shape it and what that means is you’re being a passive participant in your future, and if you wind that out a little bit more, it means that you’re being passive when it comes to your future, which means you’re letting somebody else design your future for you, and that never works out great, that result never works out great.
And so I always… That kind of worries me about people as it takes away their power and it takes away their agency to really shape their lives, and sometimes that can be really dangerous with folks because they really do feel like they’re unmoored and they don’t really have the ability to make changes and make decisions in their lives, and that’s why I always wanna remind people. And I’ve seen it in their faces, it’s one of my favorite things and why I like working with individuals and talking about this stuff, is you see people, you see their faces light up and their eyes light up. All of a sudden you see, “Oh my gosh, I can actually start shaping that future.” And that to me is really exciting.
Brett McKay: Well, so then, you work with individuals, but your bread and butter is working with large organizations to help with their high-level strategy. How did you start working with individuals, and why did you end up writing a personal development book from a futurist’s perspective?
Brian David Johnson: That’s a great example, Brett, and that’s a really interesting ride over the last 10 to 20 years, so you’re right. Yeah, my day job is, I work with the United States Army looking at the future of weaponized artificial intelligence, or I work with the defense threat reduction agency, looking at the future of digital weapons of mass destruction, sort of these big things. Or like with the Intel Corporation or with companies like Mastercard looking at the future of threats to fraud and security, so yeah, it’s really serious stuff and it’s something I really enjoy, and I love my job, I absolutely love my job. But what’s been really fascinating is people will pull me aside, ’cause I… I’m the Future Guy, so I’m talking about the future. And I think a great example is one of my clients has a manufacturing company in the Midwest of America, so big traditional manufacturing company. Really awesome. I’ve been working with them for many years, and I’m also a big baseball fan. So they always know when I come to town, it’s like, “Oh, let’s go take, take BDJ to the ballpark.” And one of the things that they did is they said, “Well, let’s give our CEO just some time with BDJ, or you get some off the record time with the futurist,” and so we ended up getting this really fancy suite, which was nice, and basically it was all off the record, so this CEO could ask me whatever he wanted, basically for an hour or two before the rest of the team showed up.
And we sat there and we were having a beer and we were watching the game, and every single question he asked me was about his kids, every single question was, “How do I make sure that my kids are prepared for the future? How do I… What do I do?” And so to me, I take those types of questions really serious because I realize if somebody’s asking me about their life or even more about the lives of their kids, that’s something that’s more important to them than their own life. And so I really, really, very early on, took that really seriously, and so I would start talking to people and what I would tell them is that, “Look, I can’t tell you your future. I don’t make predictions, again, if… ” I always tell people, “Beware of predictions and people who make them”, ’cause why are they making this prediction about… ” Especially about your life, like they don’t know anything about your life. And so again, going to that empowerment and say, “Look, I can’t tell you your future, but I can tell you how I think about it, how to think like a futurist and how to get prepared for it.” And I would do that, so I would do it in keynotes at conferences, I would go to schools, K-12 schools, and kids would pull me aside and it just became this thing that really wasn’t my day job, it was just this…
I just cared and I was like, ’cause the future matters to me, and so I started having these conversations. And then I realized, a couple of my friends said, “You really should write a book about this stuff, you do it for governments and militaries and big corporations and you care more about average people than you do about technology, than you do about big business, why don’t you write a book that enables them?”
Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, The Future You, you walk people through on how to apply the process that you use when you’re consulting in the military or the Intel Corporation, how to… And I wanna particularly get an idea of what a possible future could look like and how you can get to that point or how to avoid a potential future. So let’s walk through some of the stuff. So there’s two types of casting that you do, there’s futurecasting, and then there’s threatcasting, now let’s talk about futurecasting for a sec. What’s the overall process and then maybe we can get to some details here in a bit.
Brian David Johnson: Sure. So futurecasting, as you rightly called out, that’s generative, it says basically, asks a very simple question, “What’s the future you want? What do you want?” It’s the hardest question that we’ll all have to answer, and that’s what we do in the book, is there’s lots of examples and lots of ways of being able to answer that question for you, and so really it says, “Okay, so what is that future you want?” And it gets you to get really specific and those details are really important and walks you through… Okay, here’s how you can get an understanding of that. And my professor shows, and people like to say, I am a professor. So even in the book, there’s a thing called quick questions in almost every chapter that just kind of interrogates it and how it allows you to interrogate your future to really ask all of those different questions, ’cause it’s in those details, it’s telling that story of the future you which is so important because that’s gonna give you that raw material to really understand what’s gonna propel you towards that future, and then also figure out what are the steps you need to take today, tomorrow, as you move into the future to get there. So that’s futurecasting.
Brett McKay: Alright. Okay, let’s talk about that first question, which is figuring out what you want. Like you said, this is the hardest. I think it’s probably the… Yeah, when I think about like, “What do I want for the future?” If someone would ask me that, I’m like, “I don’t… Well, I just wanna be healthy, I wanna be… ” I typically give vague answers. So what are some questions or how do you drill that down so it’s more detailed, so you know what exactly that it is you want for the future?
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, and that’s… I think, Brett, you call out a great… I think your way of answering the question is how most people do it. So if you want to, we can do some straight up futurecasting for you right now on the fly, no, but…
Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s do it, let’s…
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, I’ll give you an example and then we can do you. So this is an example in the book, but it’s one that I use all the time because it’s… I like to have a little bit of fun with it, as well, you can’t… The future is a very serious subject, but you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. So I was talking to a woman, she was kind of mid-career, kind of not really happy where she was, in a good relationship, but just professionally didn’t really like what she wanted. So we were having a chat and I was like, “Well, what do you want?” Just like you said. And she said, she didn’t know. She goes, and she goes, “That’s why I’m here talking to you.” And I kept asking some little questions here and there, and she was getting kind of annoyed with me and I said, “Okay, fine. Let’s have a little fun with this.” I said, “Do you wanna be rich?” And she paused and looked at me, she’s like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Do you wanna be rich?” And she looked, like looked at me like I was an idiot, and I’m like, “Well, answer the question.” She goes, “Well, yeah, I wanna be rich.” I was like, “Okay, awesome, great. Now we have a start. You wanna be rich. Cool. What kind of rich do you wanna be” I said, “And you have to give me details. Rich is not enough. It’s like saying, I wanna be alive in the future.” It’s like, “Okay, fine, I get that. Great, so what kind of rich?”
And so she didn’t… She was like, “I don’t understand what you want me to… How you want me to answer that.” I said, “Okay, let’s try this. Do you wanna be yacht rich?” She still didn’t get it yet, and I was like, “Do you wanna have a yacht? Do you wanna have enough money, and I’m not meaning like a boat or a fishing boat or anything like that, I mean like a full on yacht, and a captain, a crew, big, big, yacht.” And she’s like, “Oh gosh, no, I don’t want a yacht” And I said, “Okay, great, now we know that. Let’s go to the next one. Do you wanna a mansion? Do you wanna be mansion rich?” She kind of thought about it and then she was starting to get it, and now she was like, “Not really.” I said, “Yeah, do you want a staff and maids and grounds and a groundskeeper?” She goes, “No, no, that’s… That’s too much. That’s too much.” I was like, “Okay, great,” and we just walked her through to kind of figure out… When you describe these things, you just keep interrogating, keep asking in more detail, more detail. And part of that is then I always, you try to get people to say, “Okay, so in your future, what does a Thursday look like? When you wake up, what’s it like? What do you do in the morning? Where you get your coffee or your tea or your water, what’s it look like when you walk around?” And you really kinda get people to tell that story.
Because there’s power in that story, not only in the details, ’cause it gives you things that you can do, but it gives you power, again, to be in those details, and so you can see yourself in that future and really interrogate it, to say, “Okay, this is the kind of future I want,” and those stories will become a really important tool when you go on this journey and start working with other people and talking to other people and thinking about these future forces and all the backcasting and all the things, Brett, that you know now as a part of the process, but that story part is really good. But I will tell you the flip side of that story, was I was talking to somebody else and I was doing that rich thing, ’cause it’s kind of funny. And I was talking to this one guy and I said, “Do you wanna be mansion rich?” And he looked at me and he went, “Yeah, yes, I do.” And I was like, “Well, great, that’s awesome, man. Cool.” And we talked about it and we really talked about… And he was down in Silicon Valley and stuff like that, so I was like, “Hey, I’m not gonna judge that. Fine, great.” And I’ll tell you, I ended up getting a text from him a little while after that, and I just got a quick text like, “Yeah, I’m mansion rich now and you should stop by for a drink,” and I was like, “Wow.” And he did it, yeah, he ended up… He did some investments, again, he was in Silicon Valley and he got mansion rich, which I was like, “Good on you, good job.”
Brett McKay: As you were talking, something I thought, as… ‘Cause I was… You’re about to ask me what I want. I’m thinking I’m really good at saying… Describing what I don’t want, but I have a hard time coming with a positive, like what, what it would look like, what I actually want, does that make sense? Like, I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna go bankrupt, I don’t wanna run out… I don’t want my kids to have problems in the future, but I can’t… It’s hard to be like, “Well, what does a positive outcome like?”
Brian David Johnson: Well, I think there’s two things in that, Brett, so one, that’s the cornerstone of threatcasting, as you mentioned, you said there’s two types of casting. There’s futurecasting, this is generative, what do I want? Where do I wanna go? And then there’s threatcasting, which is as it sounds, it’s preventative, so what do I not want? And it really… And that’s… Threatcasting grew out of these types of conversations, in my professional life, but also in, when I was talking with personal folks around… ‘Cause as you said, it’s oftentimes easier to say what you not want, what’s the future you don’t want, because then you flip it over and you look at the converse and then say, “Okay, well, that’s… Okay, so if you don’t want that, that means this is what you want,” so it’s a way to get into having that conversation. So there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Okay, this is the future I don’t want.”
Brett McKay: Gotcha.
Brian David Johnson: But the difference then, because, you had asked about futurecasting and threatcasting, the real main difference there is with futurecasting, you say, “Okay, what do you not want? So that you can then have a conversation about what you want.” And let’s be clear, most people, again, don’t give themselves the time to think about this stuff, they just don’t. Oftentimes… And you’ve probably had it, and many people have it, and a lot of guys have it, I call it, the people call it the 3:00 AM Terror, when you wake up and you’re thinking about your life, you’re thinking about your health, you’re thinking about your family or your community, recently, what we’ve all been through in the past year, year and a half, we’ve kind of seen some of these really bad things. And that’s also where threatcasting comes in, because threatcasting says, “Okay, well, let’s talk about the threats,” and it goes real dark real fast, and we get straight into it, and I do write about this in the book. Some big threats. In the book, I talk about war and pandemic and things like that. And really saying, “Okay, what does that mean? How do you prepare for it?” But again, the whole goal is again, to get into the details of it, is to say, “I don’t wanna be bankrupt.” and like, “Okay, great, let’s talk about that.” I write…
There’s a couple of parts in the book where I talk to people who were really low, were on the edge of bankruptcy and were really, really without a lot of means, and so, well, we can talk it through, we can say, “Okay, well, okay, well, and what do you not want? And what does bankruptcy look like, or what is making sure and having enough money looks like?” Or I… During the pandemic, I talked to a lot of small business owners, and a lot of small business owners really like this book as well, because it’s not just your personal life, but as many small business owners or many entrepreneurs, probably in your audience know, is it’s kind of intertwined with who you are as an individual. And a lot of small business owners, we’ve had that conversation to say, “Well, what do you want” Or “What do you wanna avoid?” And they say, “Well, I don’t wanna go out of business.” I’m like, “Great, I totally understand that. Well, what does that look like?” Does that mean you wanna keep the store that you have right now, exactly as it is? Maybe. Does that mean you’d be okay with staying in business, but going to a smaller store, or would it mean going maybe just fully online for a while, or is it all about growth?”
“Is it about going to a store that’s 2X or opening another store?” I use that as a way to start engaging in those conversations with people. Again, and also, it’s not that they don’t know, Brett, I know you probably know, it’s just generally, you’re not given the space to do this, you’re not given the space to have these conversations with yourself or with other people. And again, that was part of the goal of writing the book.
Brett McKay: Well, here’s a question, what if someone who says they want something, and then they get it and they find out, “I hate this.” So how do you avoid that?
Brian David Johnson: Well, that’s the… That’s part of it, and there’s actually a funny story in the book about that as well. So, I think one thing is you gotta let yourself off the hook. Again, remember the future is serious, but don’t take yourself too seriously. So, know that the future will change, it will always change. As we said before, the future is in motion, it’s not set, that doesn’t mean it’s not a single set place, it means it’s always in motion, things are always gonna change. And so, with that, you gotta give yourself a little slack to say, “Hey, the future might change,” which means the future you might change, what you want out of that future might change. So as you follow the process and say, “Okay, this is the future I want, and these are the steps I’m gonna take, and these are all the future forces,” and that’s cool, but know that as you’re going through this journey it might pivot a little bit.
And that’s not a problem. That’s a win. That’s the a thing, I always tell my students, She or he who kind of breaks their vision first wins because now you’ve made it better.” So I think it’s embracing that idea that it’s gonna change, and the more you learn, it’s gonna change, and the more people you talk to, it’s gonna change and actually, the closer you get to it, it’s gonna change. So there’s a story in the book which I really, really enjoy, was a guy by the name of Maddox and Maddox is super smart biologist. He was in Boston, and we were at a conference and we were hanging out and talking and we were walking around and he was thinking about his family, his partner, he’s got some kids and they wanted to move to Boston, so he wanted to get a house.
And he was trying to think, “Okay, how do I get ready for this?” And I’m not a financial advisor, but I was like, “Well, here’s how I think about it… ” And we were talking it through and he was really thinking about he wanted a house for his kids and he wanted the yard, and he wanted the… And so, we were talking about, “Okay, well, think about that future you and tell me about it,” and I said, “Go inhabit that future.” I said, “Not only go talk about it with your partner and your family, but go live in that future. If you… Go and look at the listings and you may not even have enough money right now, that’s cool, but look at the listings now. Number one, find out what it might cost and what you might need to do to help you get your finances to straight, but then, go to that neighborhood, go have coffee in the neighborhood where you wanna live or where you might wanna live or if you can afford it, get an Airbnb or Vrbo and actually spend the weekend there, take a vacation in your future,” that type of stuff is always fun.
And they actually really got into it. I kind of joked with, “The family who future casts together stays together”, they had a great time, they actually went and did that And so, they went off and did it, they really did the work, which I was really impressed. And then we swung back through Boston, and we were having a barbecue in Matics. And he actually, well, he had an apartment at the time, so we were out on his balcony, we’re having a beer and we were barbecuing, and he says, “I gotta tell you something, BDJ,” and we were talking about this future casting. I was like, “Okay. Yeah, what is it?” He goes, “I really learned something about myself.” I said, “What’d you learn?” He goes, “I hate grass.”
I was like, “What?” And he goes, “I hate grass, I don’t want a yard. I went to this and I realized I hate yard work.” And so he kinda went off and he had thought, like many of us, he wanted that very traditional house, and it turns out as they were kinda doing this and going down this journey, they turned out he hated grass, and I was like, “Awesome, now you know. Imagine how awful it would’ve been if you went through all this and you actually bought a house that had a huge yard and you realized that you were gonna have to spend your life working on all this grass and all this stuff.” So no, I think it’s a good thing when it changes and I think you can kinda have fun with it.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now, back to the show. Alright, so figure out what you want, and you gotta get specific. So to start, do you just keep asking yourself… The other questions you can ask and just like, “Do I wanna be rich?” Like are there starter questions you go through with people?
Brian David Johnson: Yeah. And so first up, it’s getting into so “Who is that future you?” And is it about… Again, getting specifics, was it about… Are we talking about relationships? Are we talking about career? Are we talking about, like with Maddox, houses? What is it first? What are you… ‘Cause like I said, I mentioned there was the woman who I was asking if she wants a yacht, well, she had a great relationship. So her in the romantic, sex, love side of things, she was great, it was more career. So I think first to figure out, it’s often helpful to say, “Okay, well, what aspect do I wanna do?” That kind of helps. And then you start thinking about it, okay, and you go through and questions are then “What would a day in the life be like?” And it changes depending upon what you’re talking about. The future you when it comes to a house looks really different, say for a career.
So it’s really getting into those details and saying, “Okay, describe it,” and you really gotta write it down, and this is what I tell people. And now, this could be… You could type it in your phone and type it on your laptop. I’m a big pen and paper guy, I write it down. Because even having it written in your own hand writing is really important, but you’ve gotta take the time to live in your future, even if it’s just your brain, and really write down those really specific areas around whether it be like I said, is it grass or is it… What does a day of your work life look like? And again, really specific like, “Who is it like? Who are you working with? What kind of autonomy do you wanna have? What do you wanna do?” All that type of stuff, even from a finance standpoint, you can sort of…
You can think about what all those details are. But I think the real important part isn’t just that. You don’t have to get it right the first time, but you do wanna, you wanna get good with it, you wanna be able to have a good story about the future you. And then the first step in the whole process is to identify your people, like “Who’s your team?” We’ve all got a team, a squad, and it’s usually your family, your close friends, it could be… If it’s a small business, it might be the people in your business, it could be the people in your community, it could be people in your church, it really depends upon who you are in your life, but we’ve all got people, right? And first is to identify those people and go tell them your story, and it’ll be really hard in the beginning because you’ll feel a little silly, but don’t, right, you can just tell them this crazy bald bearded futurists like myself, was the one who’s pushing you to do it, so go do it.
And then, tell them that story and you’d be surprised how people will be really interested in it, how they’ll be really interested in that story, and they may ask you questions about it and you’ll get more details and you’ll get more information about it, or they might tell you they disagree with it, that’s fine, and then have a conversation about it, go back and forth. And it becomes this really interesting way to make that future feel more real and more manifest. And now, also what it’ll help you do is it’ll help you identify the toxic people in your life, and we’ve all got them.
And you know what I’m talking about, these are the people who are there to tear you down, these are the people who will tell you, “That’s dumb, you can’t do that,” so you need to get rid of those people, that’s not your people, that aren’t your… That’s not your team that’s gonna help propel you forward. And then really, this will help you identify those people really well. So now, once you’ve done that… And actually the more you tell the story, the better you’ll get at it and the more details you’ll have, and it’s kind of fun after a while. And then also, especially if it’s your family or if it’s a partner or something like that, it’s a really nice conversation to have, to see what that looks like as you do it together. So that’s number one, sparing who your people are. Then once you’ve got a clear vision of that, you start identifying, “What are the tools that are gonna help you get there?” And these could be things like technologies or apps, they could be trade associations or local community thing, local community organizations. To be quite honest, it’s podcasts like this. [chuckle]
If you look at all the info on the backlog of this podcast, it’s pretty amazing. So you can kinda go through and say, “Okay, these are kind of the technologies and organizations that are gonna help me kinda get myself educated, give me more information, connect me with other people. And then the next part, now that you’ve got this story, is to go find out… Find the experts. Who are the people who’ve done this before, who are the people who’ve achieved your future? Or maybe not exactly your future, because you’re an individual and everybody’s future is different, but who are the people who maybe live next door to your future? And so go ask them and get their advice.
But again, by having that story about the future you, you’d be really surprised, because anybody who’s been able to achieve anything in life knows it’s all about people, that everything we do is about people. It begins with people and ends with people. It’s all about that social network and connecting with people, and you’d be really, really challenged. You’d be really surprised, actually, how people will be kind of giving up their advice and what they know.
Brett McKay: This process of finding people, finding your team, finding experts, finding tools, organizations, this is analogous to finding future forces, part of, what you do for corporations, correct?
Brian David Johnson: Exactly. Yeah. Those are the three main forces that help propel you towards that future you.
Brett McKay: And so, along the way, you were asking these… So when you talk to an organization and you’re trying to figure stuff out for them, you’re looking at often, this big picture, cultural, political, technological factors. Should the layman look at that sort of stuff too or will they get too overwhelmed with that?
Brian David Johnson: I think that’s up to the person. I think it’s really… There’s no right recipe for it. Certainly, when I do this for corporations in the military, yeah, it’s a very rigorous method that looks at everything from social science to technology, to cultural history, we look at economics, we look at trends, whether those be regulatory trends or cultural trends, and then I spend a lot of time interviewing people who are actually building the future. And it’s a very rigorous method in the process of going through and doing it, and I think when you do it for yourself, part of it is whatever works, and again, that’s the engineer in me.
So whatever gives you enough detail to feel like you need to get started. It needs to be rooted in reality. I think that’s a really important thing, it’s gotta be rooted in reality of what you can achieve and what you can do. And I’m a big baseball fan, and I can guarantee you, Brett, I’m not gonna play professional baseball. This is not gonna happen. I was a pretty good first baseman a long time ago but it’s just not gonna happen. So part of it is as much as you need to, number one, get it rooted in reality, and number two, that gives you enough information to start the journey. I think that’s the thing, is that you just need to get started, ’cause that’s really the hardest part. And then as you start going through those future forces, it’s really in those conversations where a lot of that information will come out, so it’s really getting started to the point that you feel like you’ve got a good story that you feel comfortable with, and then it’ll just get better and better and better as you work through the future forces.
Brett McKay: Now, there is one example of a young woman that you talked to in the book where she wanted to be a CPA, and her mom was like, “You gotta talk to her because computer is gonna make CPAs obsolete here in 10, 15 years.” And you went to go talk to her, she’s like, “Oh no, I’ve looked into this, I wanna… I love math, I love numbers, but I wanna work for a company that’s basically making algorithms, like artificial intelligence.” She saw that future force when she did her investigation after talking to experts, and I thought it was a example of someone who got based in reality and was in a pretty good decision about the future they wanted.
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, it was great that she was… She really didn’t need me at all. She had done her homework and she was a CPA who was gonna help get rid of… Automate the CPAs, just like back in the 1990s, how a lot of travel agencies got automated and things like that, but she had done the work. And yeah, she was a very smart young lady.
Brett McKay: Alright. So first step. Figure out the future you want, get really specific. The next step is find people that can help you make that happen or give you more information to help you make that future you want happen, or help you refine what it is you want, and then this third step of futurecasting is called backcasting. What is backcasting?
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, but so before we dive in it, so your teams, you’ve got it right, but I wanna… Your team also is gonna hold you accountable.
Brett McKay: Okay, right.
Brian David Johnson: So this is a thing that people ask me a lot, which is, “How do I keep going?” You can get started, but we’re all busy and we’ve all got lots going on, so how do we keep going? Also, your team is gonna be… You’re gonna check in with your team and they’re gonna go, “Hey, how’s that going on? What’s going on?” ‘Cause again, as we know, if you involve other people and they’re involved in your future, it’s gonna really help you stick to it and keep it going, and it’s just that level of accountability, I think is really helpful. And even for you, like anything we do in life, like going to the gym or learning a new skill, having somebody else there to hold you accountable and to ask them to hold you accountable is, I think, a key part of it. So yeah, those are those forces. And then the backcasting part, so this is where the rubber meets the road, this is where it gets really serious.
So now, you’ve identified the future you want, you’ve identified the people, the tools, the experts that can kind of help you get there. Now, you’re gonna say, “Okay, if this is who you want, this is the future you”, now you’re gonna turn around and look backwards and say, “Okay, great, that’s where I wanna be. This is the future you, this is what I want.” So then you ask yourself, “Okay, great. What will get you halfway? So what is the thing that you could achieve?” And this is super specific, this is why I say I don’t know your future, nobody knows your future but you. So this is a thing that you have to answer for yourself. In your gut and also in the story that you’ve done, and the work that you’ve done, what will make you feel like you’re halfway? If it’s a job thing, it could be getting out there and getting a degree or getting an additional degree, a little bit of training. If it’s a home, a house thing or a finance thing, it could be a certain level of savings or a certain level of connections, that’s what I mean, it’s so personal, but it’s…
Okay, you gotta write down, “Okay, what gets you halfway?” So then you look at that and say, “Okay, this is where I wanna be, this is my half-way point,” and then I want you to split it again to say, “Okay, well, what will get you part way? What’s that thing that… ” You’re not all the way there, but it’s gonna show you, “Yeah, I’ve made some real progress. Like, I’m doing it, man, I’m there, I’m on my way. It’s starting to happen,” and then you write that down as well. And then, the next thing you ask yourself is, “Well, what’s the thing I need to do on Monday? What’s the one or two things that I could do on Monday that is gonna be simple?” Could be a Google search, it could be calling somebody on the phone or making an appointment or going to a community group around something, it doesn’t matter. But what is the little thing that you can do that won’t take much time or energy, certainly will cost any money that will say, “Wow, yeah, I really am taking that first step,” and then you write that down and you get to it. So I think in that way, it makes it really, really methodical. That’s one of the things that a lot of people have come back and their feedback on the book and on the process is like, yeah, it’s work. It really his work.
I’m gonna tell you, this is not just imagine your future and it will happen to you. [chuckle] I will not tell you that’s gonna happen, but what I will tell you, if you go through and you give yourself the time to do it, and you go through and do it, it really becomes accomplishable. You really feel like, “Okay, yeah, I’m taking those steps, I’m kinda getting there.”
Brett McKay: No, yeah, I think everyone has experienced that with a big goal, if you just think about the big goal, you get overwhelmed, but breaking it down like this, it actually makes it approachable. I especially like the thing like “What can I do, Mondays? What can I do the next few days to make it happen?” And I love the example you give them the book. Oftentimes, it’s not as earth-shattering as you think it needs to be, it can be as you said, as simple as a Google search sometimes.
Brian David Johnson: Yeah. And it shouldn’t… Like I said, it shouldn’t cost any money or take too much time. I’ll give you an example in the book, kind of going back to somebody who was really down and out, she didn’t know where she was gonna get her rent from, and she had hit bottom and we’ve all hit bottom at one level, whether it be financial or personal, or professional, whatever. So don’t shy away from that. And she had hit bottom and she really didn’t know, again, like I said, where she was gonna get her rent from and she was in crisis, and I totally get that. ‘Cause again, in my professional life, I do a lot… I’ve done work with refugees and I’ve done work with other folks with, I mean bad, like really, really bad. But then they pause and go, “Okay, but let’s do it. Let’s figure out what we need to do.” And so we were talking about what she wanted and I said, “Listen, I know rent and the finance part, that’s really important, but put that aside for a moment, let’s take a breather from that and let’s think about the future you want.
One of the things she wanted, really important to her was to go back to school. She really wanted to go back and because of some financial, some sort of physical and mental health stuff, she couldn’t do it, and that’s one of the things she really wanted to do. She wanted to go back and I said, “Okay, great.” So we were working on that and writing it down. And so, we kinda talked through a lot of that stuff, and her thing on Monday, I said, “Look, go on the website of the local school that you might wanna go to and find out who are the admissions people are, who are the people who it’s really their job to help you be a part of this,” and it was a large public or state university type thing, so they had those resources there. I said “It’s their job to help you.” I said, “So go on Monday and go find that university and see yourself at the university, but not… Or even better, email that person, email that admissions person and say, “Hey, could I get a 15, 20-minute conversation with you about what I need to do and how I need to start thinking about this stuff?” Because it’s that person’s job, and again, it won’t cost you any money, only gonna cost you about a half an hour.
And she did it, and it was so empowering for her because all of a sudden she was like, “She could see that future you, she could see herself,” and it also made all of the other real hard problems that she had to deal with, she had then had all this energy because she was like, “Oh my gosh, I could actually do this, I could… ” Because talking to this person who was like, “Okay, here’s what you need to do and you need to do this, you need to do that and here’s how we can help you, and here are these things.” And they weren’t gonna solve all her problems for her, but all of a sudden the future got so much bigger for her, so that those smaller steps in the beginning just became so much easier.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this process helps people, helps increase people’s sense of agency, which allows them to do more.
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, that’s exactly… That’s the heart of the book, right there, you hit it, nail on the head. That’s the soul of this book, is to sort of, to help dispel the fear, but really give people agency and say, “No, you have the power. You have the power to do this, and it really is up to you to take it.”
Brett McKay: And what’s amazing is, this is… People are like, well, this is such a simple process, I just gotta figure out what I want. I just gotta… And then I figure out tools and people that can help me, and then I do the backcasting, but it’s simple, but like you said, it’s not easy. Figuring out what you want, that’s probably the hardest part. And then this stuff takes… Well, that second part definitely takes a lot of work, and that third step, the backcasting, that takes work too, you can’t just sit and let it happen. You have to be an active participant in it.
Brian David Johnson: Yeah, and I think it’s accomplishable. I think that’s it. Is it hard? It can be sometimes. Like I said, having some of the conversations, I can guarantee you the first time you write down that story of the future you all by yourself, and the first conversation you have with somebody is gonna be a little hard, it’s just… It’s hard, ’cause you’re making yourself a little bit vulnerable, but I think it goes back to that, right, that it’s accomplishable, that you can do it, you just have to do the work. But anything in life that’s worth doing is gonna be a little bit hard, that’s also what I tell folks when they’re doing this, is when you feel uncomfortable and you feel like it might be a little bit hard, that means you’re doing the right thing, that means you’re actually taking the steps to meaningfully change your life, whatever you want to do it, whatever you’re… The life you’re getting to, if you’re doing that, if it is a little bit hard, if you do feel little bit comfortable, that’s the way it should be, that should tell you that you’re winning, that you are doing the right thing.
Brian David Johnson: If it was super simple, I joke with my students and say, that’s why we call it work, is that it’s hard. If it was easy, we’d call it watching TV, so the idea is that it should be a little hard because you really are working on your future and your future is important.
Brett McKay: So there’s a phrase you use with clients you consult, it’s “The future is local.” So the future is not a place like 2015, then back to the future, but it is local. What do you mean by that?
Brian David Johnson: There’s a couple of things in that. So the future is local, number one, tries to get people to understand that the future happens where they are. So if you were gonna build your future, the future happens where you are, and you gotta understand that. So there’s the people around you, the businesses around you, the schools, the communities, that’s the way to your future, that’s really the most important part of your future, is all of those things. So the future is really local. And I write about this in the book in that for some people though, their future might not be where they are.
So there was a young woman who her dad brought me in to help her and she wanted to be an animator, she wanted to be an animator for Pixar and things like that, and she was really talented. And I was talking to her and I said, “You know… ” And she didn’t live in Emory, though, she didn’t live in California, I said, “Well, you may wanna think about… If that’s the goal, you might need to move there. You might need to go and try to find a job and you might need to move.” And the joke I told, and it was, “If you wanna be a lumber jack, you have to move to the forest.” So there’s a few times that you may have to move through your future, now not always, but it’s having that conversation with yourself, I think is important.
And then if you realize, “No, no, my future is local, my future is right here,” awesome, so then you start thinking about, “Alright, so what is around me? Who am I working with? What are the things around me? What are the… Who are the people?” And it really starts to focus you and get you thinking about what that might look like. And then also to understand that it doesn’t happen over in Washington DC or in Silicon Valley or in London or in Beijing or anything like that. The future is that kind of local. And what I’m trying to do is then it goes back to the empowering of people to really get them thinking about, “Okay, what are the resources and people around me, that are gonna help me transform that future and to focus locally?” The other thing that I’ve really learned in the past year, and this is what the pandemic really taught us back in 2020, is the future is really local. When it comes to these large events, I think we’ve all seen that it really is about the people around you, and it really is about the community that you’re in and really embracing that and how important that can be. And so I think that as well, can be a really empowering way when you think about the future.
Brett McKay: So in the book, you are talking to a general, I think it was at West Point, is that right, West Point?
Brian David Johnson: Mm-hmm.
Brett McKay: And he was basically, “Oh, I like what you’re saying,” but he said “Basically… ” He said like, “Plans are useless, things are always changing rapidly, complex environments, you can’t figure it out, so it’s probably not very useful.” What was your response to him?
Brian David Johnson:[chuckle] And so, yeah, there’s this great Eisenhower quote that… And he used it a couple of times throughout the 20th century, that basically, “Plans are useless, but planning is everything,” which he’s right, actually, he’s very right. And it goes back to kind of what we talked about a little earlier in the podcast, is that it’s the act of thinking this way, it’s the act of planning, and I told him that we basically are agreeing, because again, that future is not fixed, and it goes back to that idea that, yeah, you can have a plan, but know that that plan is gonna change, that’s planning, And to me, it’s that muscle of thinking in this way, thinking like a futurist, thinking about the future you, talking to people about it, going and making changes and being okay when things change. And again, from a military standpoint, what do they say, “With strategies, the first casualty of a battle is the plan or is the strategy going in” because things change so much, but I think by accepting that and not thinking that is failure, but actually using that as a way to continually change, you go, “Oh yeah, well, I knew something would happen. Oh, that’s interesting. How might I make it change? What might I do?” It allows you as an individual to be more resilient, it allows as an organization or a family or a business, for you to be more resilient as well.
Brett McKay: Mike Tyson said it best, he said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face.”
Brian David Johnson: [laughter] Yes, exactly. And here’s the thing, going back to Tyson and going back to this, is that one of the things also over the pandemic and things like that, it’s the training, so the training of thinking this way, you’ll find that, and I do this with my clients in my private practice, is organizations who do this, people who do this, people who have trained themselves to think this way, that… And you’re right, even when you do get punched in the face, you know what to do, and you’re like, “Okay, now I know what to do, I’ve been punched in the face before, I thought about this,” or you’ve made a change, you say, “Oh okay, I’ve been thinking about this future and this technology comes in. Oh, okay. Well, that’s new.
How might that affect me? “And actually, there’s some research that was done back in 2020 with some trade associations, I do a lot of work with supply chain trade associations, and of course, as you can imagine, during the pandemic, they had a lot of problems and they found actually that organizations that thought like this, that thought like a futurist, that used this futurist work, actually were able to adapt to this global destabilization for about three to four months in advance of their competition, which gave them a strategic advantage. And that’s all that training, that’s all about going through that training so that when these things start to happen, you’re like, “Oh okay, I’ve kind of thought about this before, I’ve trained for this before,” and then you know what to do.
Brett McKay: Well, Brian, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Brian David Johnson: So, I think probably the best place is go to my Twitter feed, that’s where I try to just post everything about what I’m doing and what I’m writing, and that’s just @BDJFuturist, that’s really probably the best way to track me down.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Brian, David Johnson, thanks for you time. It’s been a pleasure.
Brian David Johnson: Brett, it was a great chatting with you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Brian David Johnson, he’s the author of the book, “The Future You”. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. If you’d like to learn more about this book and delve deeper into this topic, make sure you check out show notes at aom.is/futureyou.
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