Ari Wallach is a futurist who has worked with the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, Fortune 500 companies, and multinational NGOs. He has written for outlets like the BBC and Wired, ran Fast Company magazine’s “FactCo Futures with Ari Wallach,” and has been featured in The New Times, Yahoo Finance, CNBC, CNN, Vox, and more. He is the founder and Executive Director of Longpath Labs, an initiative fostering long-term thinking and behavior.
Below, Ari shares 5 key insights from his new book, Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs—An Antidote to Short-Termism. Listen to the audio version—read by Ari himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Our current way of thinking is flawed.
When faced with a challenge, we often go into short-term mode instead of long-term mode. It is common to default to short-term thinking because, despite the “humans shall have dominion over nature” narrative, every last one of us is basically an evolved ape. This means that there are biological hurdles in our pursuit of long-term thinking and acting. Understanding this helps us recognize what we could be capable of by outgrowing those ancient habits and cultivating new thought processes.
At some level, short-termism is a good thing—a necessary response for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Walking around 30,000 years ago, if you saw a bunch of berries, you didn’t eat a couple and presume more would appear eventually. You ate everything you could possibly stomach because instinctually you understood the need to take immediate advantage of available resources. To understand how this operates in life today, think about the difference between a digital and analog clock. A digital clock is just the time: Every time you look at it, it is just what it is right now. That’s how we are living our lives. When you look at an analog clock, however, you see the entire day with all 12 hours spinning around. You have a better sense of time.
The three Longpath pillars for moving from short to long-term thinking are (1) future thinking, (2) transgenerational empathy, and (3) telos, which means ultimate aim and goal. Moving from a short-term to a long-term perspective changes thought patterns and worldviews. Instead of seeing everything as happening right now, right away, you start seeing the bigger picture and your role in the grand scheme of things.
2. Now is the right time for a perspective shift.
We are all currently in an intertidal. It’s a period between what was and what will be. On a historic scale, there have been a handful of periods of dramatic transition in which human behaviors and environments changed, and in those times default ways of thinking and operating as human beings were reset. These windows include the Agricultural Revolution, Middle Age, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Industrial Age, and our present day. Intertidals invite both crazy creativity and crazy danger.
“We have to take advantage of this transitional period instead of fear it.”
The whole concept of an intertidal is based on the tidal zone at the edge of the ocean: sometimes it is a place free of water, while other times it is underwater. That in between of being not quite of the ocean and not quite of the land is the amazing part, and the animals which survive there basically can’t thrive anywhere else. This is why Longpath thinking and the Longpath mindset are important today. We need a new way of thinking that navigates the world’s intertidal state. Most intertidals last 20, 40, 50, and even 60 years. We are likely experiencing a 10 to 15-year intertidal, and for the first time in human history, we actually know we’re in one. So we can do something about it.
We know when we are in an intertidal because they tend to occur in the face of massive population shifts to urban cores, climatic changes, or technological leaps—check, check, and check, we are in an intertidal. The other way we know is because there is an accompanying loss of trust in institutions—another check. Sometimes intertidals go right, like the hunter-gatherers flowing into the agricultural revolution, but sometimes they go wrong, like the fall of the Roman Empire, which gave way to the Middle Age. Which path will we choose and how will we navigate it? The Longpath mindset is finding a way to successfully navigate our intertidal.
We have to take advantage of this transitional period instead of fear it. Many people will panic and amplify their short-termism in a frantic search for easy answers. Many will look for strong men or authoritarians instead of thinking about what they’d like the world to look like when we make it to the other side of this intertidal.
3. We must have empathy for our ancestors, descendants, and ourselves.
In Longpath, we call this transgenerational empathy. It is difficult to master because we all have a lifespan bias, meaning, when we think about what our time on earth is about or what makes for a good life, we think about it from our birth to our death. But here’s the thing, a bunch of folks came before us and a whole bunch will come after us. To navigate this intertidal we have to reckon with the past, or else it will persist into the present by dictating how we make choices about the future. We must recognize that the things that happened (good and bad) happened within a certain setting, certain climate, a certain way of doing things—the context of the past.
In the book, I talk about a woman who was connected to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Many years ago, she filled a jar with dirt from a lynching site down south. In the process of doing this, a hulking white dude pulled to the side of the road. She got a little scared so she kept digging, ignoring him. The guy walked up and asked, “What are you doing?” She handed him the flyer explaining the remembrance project and he said, “Do you mind if I help you?” He started digging with her and she realized he was crying. She asked, “Are you okay?” And he goes, “I’m afraid that this lynching that you’re commemorating might have been done by my great-grandfather.” There they sat, working together. It wasn’t a kumbaya moment, but it was a recognition that our past doesn’t totally define us.
“To navigate this intertidal we have to reckon with the past, or else it will persist into the present by dictating how we make choices about the future.”
As we reconcile with our past we can engage with ourselves in the present to deconstruct why we are the way we are. Self-compassion and understanding the emotional heirlooms we have inherited are important for unpacking the set of values that we have, and those which we want. If we start acting on the future only based on the pasts which were pushed upon us, then we will repeat the same choices of past generations and pass them down to the next generation. Longpath allows us to break away from the pasts which hold us back from the futures we want, both at the individual and societal level.
In Wales, they have a Future Generations Commissioner. Whenever there is a major policy decision, she judges the options against their impact on future generations. In Japan, it is common for people in small towns to call a meeting for deciding how to allocate budgets, and at these sessions, certain people are selected to act on behalf of future generations. They wear golden ceremonial robes and consider matters from the perspective of as far as 40 or 50 years from now—for example, will those future people want a park in this spot or not? They can actually vote on these things. These are examples of communities that have empathy for the future, based in the present.
Become clear on your place in time. You are not just from birth to death. There were many generations before you, and many will come after. Transgenerational empathy allows us to see ourselves in the great chain of being as opposed to as an individual link.
4. Imagination and intention co-create the future.
I learned about the official future from Nils Gilman, another futurist. The official future is a set of assumptions that we all share about what will come to pass. For instance, we consider it as a given that prices will fluctuate due to supply and demand, children will receive a formal education, politicians will kiss babies, and so on. The future is intractable. But, there are actually many external forces that we choose to put out of our mind because it’s cognitively taxing to entertain an overly open future. The forces of culture, environment, media, and religion shape thoughts of the future and drive specific narratives about how things will be. In an intertidal, these predictions no longer work.
“It’s unbelievably important to have something bigger, beyond your own lifespan, when considering telos.”
One relevant concept is a Voros cone. Imagine an ice cream cone on its side. The official future is going from the tip at the far left all the way out to the big circle in the middle. But the official future is a singular line. The Voros cone shows that the future is actually wide open, but contains certain mega-trends. Mega-trends help project a future within a cone of possibility. What we really want is an examined, desired future.
Part of the examined future is found by looking at the past to understand where the desired future came from. Within that is found the third pillar, telos—the ultimate aim. It’s unbelievably important to have something bigger, beyond your own lifespan, when considering telos. This could be human flourishing, both at an individual level, and for the flourishing of homo sapiens over the next several thousand years. We need to take responsibility for the future because it is being co-created from moment to moment through the smallest of actions, and through imagined telos.
5. Every small step matters.
When we think about anticipating the future, images of jet packs, monorails, and crypto come to mind. In reality, extrapolating our individual actions at scale and how we treat one another is what actually paints the future. Our daily interactions, how we treat our family members, colleagues, partners, and the emotional heirlooms we inherit, these things greatly influence everyone around us as well as future generations. Be intentional with life changes. They matter beyond the present, but potentially for thousands of years.
To listen to the audio version read by author Ari Wallach, download the Next Big Idea App today: