Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today by Jane McGonigal — Here are my six lessons and takeaways

(Note:  there are too many “extra blank lines” in this post.  My apology.  Wordpress has changed something, and I can’t figure out how to get rid of them.  Sorry about that).


Taking in information that makes you uncomfortable isn’t something you do once. You keep it up, like a habit. And the more clues to change that you find, the more open and less shockable your mind becomes.

Imaginable“Look at how many specific forecasts from EVOKE are happening now! It’s uncanny. How did you get so much right?” And that’s a question I’m going to answer by way of this book. 

You could say one of the main reasons I’ve written this book is that I don’t want the drawing out of future consequences, especially around technologies or policies that could affect many millions or even billions of people, to happen in secret. 

Were the most shocking events of the recent past really unimaginable before they happened?  

Ideas about the future can be useful because they help us prepare for a challenge before it happens; or because they give us time to try to prevent a crisis; or because they open our minds and inspire us to make changes in our lives and communities today.

There is one kind of clue, in particular, that futurists are trained to detect and work with: signals of change. …You know you’ve found a signal if you can tell a story about it—a who, what, when, where, and why.

“Almost everything important that’s ever happened was unimaginable shortly before it happened.”

It’s clear that the problems we refuse to solve today will complicate and intensify the crises we face tomorrow. 

Jane McGonigal, Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today

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I think I may be close to figuring it out.  I think I may understand why people need to attend the First Friday Book Synopsis, or read my synopsis handouts; or read business books for themselves.

Sure, some people actually learn things they put into practice.  But the reality is that it takes an accumulation of ideas and strategies to add up to actions that propel companies and organizations forward.

But…back to the question:  why people want to participate is because they need a place to just think about the bigger issues of work without the constant bombardment of the “whirlwind” — “THE WHIRLWIND; The real enemy of execution is your day job!” (that’s a phrase from The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling).

In other words, the First Friday Book Synopsis provides something of an intellectual escape event into big-issue and big-challenge thinking.

This past Friday, I presented my synopsis of two books that were perfect for thinking about the bigger issues of business, especially this big issue:  “how do we really get ready for the next unexpected future?”

This post is about Imaginable.  I will soon write a post about the other book:  Competing in the NEW World of Work by Keith Ferrazzi.

Imaginable is a remarkable book; a terrific book.  It is part tutorial on how to be a futurist.  It is a reminder of the changes that have hit us hard; they hit our lives and our work in ways that we were not quite prepared for.

Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything—Even Things That Seem Impossible Today is by Jane McGonigal, who serves at The Institute of the Future.  That affiliation alone is enough to give her full credibility in my eyes. (I am a big fan of Bob Johansen of that Institute, and learned much from two books by him that I have presented:  Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present – Using Foresight to Provoke Strategy and Innovation and The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything.  In fact, I hosted a workshop, back before the pandemic, built around the ideas in his book The New Leadership Literacies).

As I do with all of my book synopses, I begin with this:  What is the point? of this book.  Here is the point for Imaginable:  Imagining a future tomorrow creates resilience, “future memories” to draw upon, and strategies to implement. Learning the skills of a futurist gives you survival skills for a rapidly, ever-changing world. 

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book is a tutorial on how to think like a futurist.

#2 – This book is a sweeping overview of the problems we suspect are headed our way.

#3 – This book will help us get ready for future problems; and future opportunities.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are a number of the best of the best from Imaginable:

And it’s not just that we didn’t see this coming. There is grief baked into these words. We use the word “unimaginable” as another way of saying “heartbreaking”— We use the word “unthinkable” to mean “unjust,” “cruel,” or “unacceptable”—as in an unthinkable failure to act, an unthinkable lack of concern for others. These two words that we use so frequently these days speak not just to shock but to trauma. How do we make plans for the future in an age of seemingly endless shocks?

Simulation participants kept telling me, in their own ways, that pre-feeling the future helped them pre-process the anxiety, the overwhelming uncertainty, and the sense of helplessness, so they could move more rapidly to adapt and act resiliently when the future actually arrived.  …They acted faster, because they knew firsthand how bad things could get.

What I see in my simulation participants’ reactions to COVID-19 is something almost like the fortitude of having lived through a real pandemic. Their minds were prepared to act faster and adapt faster. Less shock, more resilience.

A deep immersion into a possible future creates lasting mental habits, especially when it comes to watching the real world for evidence that the simulated possibility is becoming more likely.

When you think like a futurist, you think more creatively. Research studies have shown them to increase hope and motivation for the future and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As both a game designer and a futurist, I see my job as transporting people to imaginary worlds, to worlds that don’t exist. — My goal is to make sure that when people leave these imagined worlds, they feel more creative, more optimistic, and more confident in their own ability to transform those worlds, to take actions and make decisions that change the shape of that reality.

Futures thinking is an incredibly useful, practical tool to prepare your mind to adapt faster to new challenges, build hope and resilience, reduce anxiety and depression, and inspire you to take actions today that set yourself up for future happiness and success. We’ll heal and recover faster because we won’t be sitting around waiting for the next decade to happen to us. We’ll be making the decade together.

Well, it’s easy to prepare for futures that are similar to today. It’s the dramatically different stuff that catches us off guard.

If anything can increase your ability to influence how the future turns out, it’s this: planting seeds of imagination in the minds of tens or hundreds or thousands of other people who can help you make whatever changes you’re imagining.  …It’s what I call urgent optimism. Urgent optimism is a balanced feeling. It’s recognizing that, yes, there are great challenges and risks ahead, while also staying realistically hopeful that you have something to contribute to how we solve those challenges and face those risks. Urgent optimism means you’re not staying awake all night worrying about what might happen. Instead, you’re leaping out of bed in the morning with a fire in your pants to do something about it. Urgent optimism is knowing that you have agency and the ability to use your unique talents, skills, and life experiences to create the world you want to live in.

Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.—Mandy Hale, author.

In other words: things that are small experiments today in ten years can become ubiquitous and world-changing. And social change that seems improbable or unimaginable—well, in ten years that can change too.  …There is ample evidence that almost anything could happen on that timeline. And for that reason, ten years helps unstick our minds.

So next New Year’s Day, why not try a new tradition? Make a ten-year resolution.  …When you feel like you have less time to get things done, you do less.

Your brain really does not want to hear it—it actively filters out and rejects information that causes it discomfort, or “cognitive dissonance.”

Professional game developers will tell you that if you want someone to stick with a game, you have to give them an opportunity to be successful in the first few minutes.  …If we are given a clear purpose within the first minute of imagining the future—here is a choice you have to make right now—we feel more engaged.

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolded more like an asteroid scenario than like climate change. It motivated social sacrifice and global scientific coordination faster than any previous event in human history. …Instead, humanity reacted to the emergency it was.

A useful future scenario is like a tip-off you can use to investigate further. You discover that if you look in the news…  Coming up with ridiculous, at first, ideas about the future means having your eyes fully open… To do this, you also have to somehow find a way to trick your brain into noticing things it would ordinarily overlook.

This is how you become a pioneer. …it’s so much easier to come up with new innovations, to imagine new products and services and businesses and art forms, when you play with ridiculous, at first, ideas—because far fewer people are thinking about and getting ready for these “unthinkable” futures. You get to the ideas first.

Consider that, prior to 2020, one of the standard examples of an HILP event (High-Impact-Low-Probability)given in strategic foresight glossaries and textbooks was this: pandemic.

Whatever hasn’t happened will happen, and no one will be safe from it. — J. B. S. Haldane, evolutionary biologist.

Every form of creativity has its own raw material. For futurists, the raw material is clues. To find future clues, you need to develop a new way of looking at the world around you, a way to spot weird stuff that others overlook. “Huh, that’s strange,” and “Hmmm . . . I wonder why that’s happening,” and “Wow, this is weird, and I want to understand it better.” I call this way of looking at the world strangesight.

You become increasingly drawn to things that challenge your assumptions. Strangesight is a precursor to foresight.

William Gibson famously stated, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Many of my students tell me that looking for signals of change is the most enduring habit they’ve picked up from my classes—they describe this habit as “fun,” “exciting,” and “inspiring.”

The brain wants to believe that what’s normal now will still be normal for the foreseeable future. It wants to believe that if something has never happened before, it probably won’t happen anytime soon. …Things happen every day that have never happened before!

After you’ve created a memory of a possible future in your mind, you recall the details much more quickly the next time. Each time you reimagine a possible future event in vivid detail, you rate its probability of happening even higher.

How much empathy do you have for your future self?

It seems that understanding other people’s hopes and worries motivates and empowers us to be more helpful and caring. This, in turn, makes us feel better about our own self-worth. It’s a virtuous cycle, an upward spiral of social benefit.

Experts say that roughly 50–60 percent of people who endure a trauma will go on to experience at least one area of post-traumatic growth. …It is the direct result of suffering deeply and trying to make sense and meaning out of that suffering. It happens when we are forced to rethink our core beliefs, acknowledge our own vulnerability and mortality, and decide what is truly important to us. …Post-traumatic growth is usually thought of as an individual process. But now, for the first time, we may be seeing it play out on a truly global scale.

During COVID-19, more than one billion young people fell behind by an estimated average of six to twelve months of learning. pg. 271

What do we need more people doing in order to make a better world?

In countries without universal health coverage—there are 124, including the United States—one in four people each year skip medical care because of the cost.

Many just-in-time supply chains failed because they were based on prediction models using historical data of “normal” behavior. But during a crisis, normal no longer applies.

Now it’s time to practice the single most important future imagination skill: finding your own unique way to help. I describe this as “answering the future’s call to adventure.” In his famous model of the hero’s journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell the adventure begins when an otherwise ordinary person receives the “call to adventure.”

The future is a place where anything can be different, including how we simulate it.

Remember: the phrase “to make a difference” literally means to make something different. …the future is a place where anything, or one hundred things, or everything, can be different—even things that seem impossible to change today.

And, in my synopses, I include many key points and principles from the books I present.  Here are a number from this book.  (Sections in italics are directly from the book):

  • About Jane McGonigal, Institute for the Future
  • I’m a professional futurist and I’m a game designer. It’s not a common combination of career paths—as far as I know, I’m the only one in the world.
  • created the How to Think Like a Futurist workshop for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies program.
  • and, see her TED Talks
  • and…praise for this book’s documentation and research citations

• And, a word about Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present by Bob Johansen: I “got there early” and came down with it in early 2020 before anyone suspected the virus had arrived in the United States.

  • An encounter/conversation with the automakers, and the ten-year horizon
  • people will never want self-driving cars…ok; maybe they will — In the United States today, 40 percent of eighteen-year-olds have opted not to get their license yet.
  • “Strong opinions, lightly held.”
  • The 2008 “Simulation,” Superstruct — In 2008, I was the lead designer for a six-week future-forecasting simulation called Superstruct. The simulation was run by the Ten-Year Forecast.
  • A global pandemic — ReDS, short for respiratory distress syndrome.
  • For example: “Data suggests that if you lead a religious congregation or community of any kind, you need to plan now to create a space for virtual religious worship.” And: “If you’re planning a wedding, professional conference or networking event, or party, you should proactively cancel it now, because people will risk their health to attend these affairs even during a pandemic.”   
  • The 2010 Simulation, EVOKE
  • First the global spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, followed by the historic West Coast wildfires of the summer of 2020 that burned for months and required millions of people to evacuate their homes and relocate. Then, the rise of the QAnon conspiracy movement on social media, which created an “infodemic” of misinformation that COVID-19 was a hoax and vaccines would implant a microchip in your arm. Later, the “unthinkable” power grid failure in Texas that left three million people without electricity or water, blamed on “unimaginable” extreme cold weather that the aging infrastructure was unable to withstand. “Look at how many specific forecasts from EVOKE are happening now! It’s uncanny. How did you get so much right?”    
  • About Games, and Simulations
  • These simulations do more than stretch individuals’ imaginations. They build actionable collective intelligence, by revealing otherwise hard-to-predict phenomena and ripple effects. — “It’s better to be surprised by a simulation than blindsided by reality.” In fact, one way we measure the success of a simulation is by how surprising the results of the game are to experts in the field.
  • A future scenario is a detailed description of a particular future you might wake up in, a future in which at least one thing is dramatically different from today.
  • 3 Big Questions:
  • Question #1: When you think about the next ten years, do you think things will mostly stay the same and go on as normal ? Or do you expect that most of us will dramatically rethink and reinvent how we do things?
  • Question #2: When you think about how the world and your life will change over the next ten years, are you mostly worried or mostly optimistic?
  • Question #3: How much control or influence do you feel you personally have in determining how the world and your life change over the next ten years?

AND…

  • At the Institute for the Future, we call this using your positive imagination and your shadow imagination. Positive imagination asks the question: What’s something good that could happen? It builds confidence that the future will be better. Shadow imagination asks the question: What’s something bad that could happen? It builds readiness to face future challenges. 
  • Give yourself time to think, and to imagine, with “Time Spaciousness”
  • We become more optimistic and hopeful about what we can change through our own efforts. This has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as time spaciousness. On a ten-year timeline, we don’t feel rushed.
  • Setting goals for yourself (or your family, or your community, or your organization) on too short a timeline usually creates the feeling of being time-rushed. 
  • Did you know?…
  • that you think more creatively in a large room with high ceilings? — Studies have found that we also think more creatively and set higher, “maximal,” goals for ourselves when we’re in rooms with higher ceilings or outside in a wide-open environment.
  • So I like to think of a ten-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination. As one team of expert psychologists put it: “A maximal goal reflects the most that one could wish for, whereas a minimal goal reflects bare necessities or the least one could comfortably tolerate.”
  • Imagination Training
  • RULE #1: Take a Ten-Year Trip. — give you that magical feeling of “time spaciousness.” It will help you open your mind, take in new information, reduce your blind spots, increase your empathy, set more optimistic goals, and see a much bigger picture.
  • RULE # 2: Learn to Time Travel
  • Create memory and pre-feelings… — You can revisit this memory whenever you want and examine how it makes you feel. Does it spark positive or negative emotions?
  • Be Ridiculous, at first!
  • (Futurist Dr. Jim) Dator’s law:  “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
  • It’s ridiculous, at first, but the more you think about it, the more plausible it seems. This is the crucial second half of Dator’s law. …A useful future scenario is like a tip-off you can use to investigate further.   
  • Things to do!
  • Play more games
  • Join in on more simulations
  • Start your own simulations
  • Google stuff – stuff you do not normally google – stretch your thinking…
  • I recommend doing one search a month, to learn just one new thing.
  • Take your own ten-years-into-the-future trips: When Does the Future Start? I ask everyone: “If the future is a time when many or most things in your life will be different than they are today, how long from now does that future start?”
  • Envision in your mind – and/or write things down…
  • write down your to-do list, for ten years from today…
  • Look for clues that are signals of change
  • The easiest way to find a clue is to search “future of” plus whatever you’re interested in.
  • set up communication tools (Bluetooth is a possibility) off the internet/wifi network… 
  • Among the Future Scenarios in the book:
  • Future Scenario #1: Thank You Day…
  • Future Scenario #2: “Have You Checked the Asteroid Forecast?”
  • Future Scenario #3: The Global Emergency Sperm Drive  
  • Future Scenario #5: Don’t Face Search Me
  • Future Scenario #6: Have You Declared Your Challenge Yet?
  • Future Scenario #10: The Alpha-Gal Crisis Future Scenario           
  • A big takeaway challenge – as you become a more accomplished lifelong learner, learn, on purpose, about one big world challenge at a time…
  • And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Put in the time to learn how to think like a futurist.

#2 – Put in the time practicing thinking like a futurist. (Join in on scenarios; journal; think and ponder).

#3 – Link up with some fellow future time travelers.

#4 – Put this into practice in your workplace and work life. What are the actual (future) threats that your organization is not ready for?  What (future) opportunities is your organization not in position to take advantage of?

#5 – Become conversant in the big challenges and problems headed our way.  Become something of an expert in one or two of them.

#6 – Get far more serious about the lifelong learning challenge.

I have never worked as a futurist.  But I sure have enjoyed reading about, and thinking about, the future.  I am old enough that I read Future Shock by Alvin Toffler shortly after it was first published, and many, many “look-to-the-coming-future” books since then.  This one is now at the top of my “read this first” list.  It is absolutely worth your time!

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My synopsis handout cover

My synopsis handout cover

My synopsis of Imaginable with the audio recording of my presentation, and my comprehensive, multi-page handout, will be available soon on this web site.  Click here for our newest additions.

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