When Does Future Determine the Present?

Occasionally an experience brings me up short. I was in a meeting focused on vision formulation. In previous meetings we prepared for this one. Each session was inspiring. These people were clearly talented and sincere, they wanted a real vision. Now we were very near to the actual specification of the vision. I asked each person to reflect on our previous insights and the possible future. Then I invited them to share their key impressions.
To my surprise, each person spoke of some logistical problem that had to be solved in order to move forward. Each point was legitimate but the exploration was now off track. If I allowed them to continue, they would have created a series of problem solving strategies. There would be no vision of an alternative future. The organization would continue to do what it had been doing. We made adjustments and progressed nicely. Yet I continually return to the experience. It was a potent illustration of the natural tendency in each of us. Based on much research, social scientists assume that people are path dependent. Here is an explanation:
Path dependence is the idea that decisions we are faced with depend on past knowledge trajectory and decisions made, and are thus limited by the current competence base. In other words, history matters for current decision-making situations and has a strong influence on strategic planning (Financial Times Lexicon).
According to this assumption, people tend to be reactive and the present tends to be determined by the past. Reliance on existing knowledge and current competencies leads us to favor knowing over learning, and compliance over creation. Our strategic vision and planning is often reactive rather than strategic.
I often ask, “When does the future determine the present?”
The answer is, when we have a purpose to which we are truly committed. When we imagine and commit to a desired future, the desired future begins to determine what we do in the present. When we wed a future, we break with convention. We begin to engage in unconventional actions and a new future begins to emerge. When we are purpose driven we are still influenced by our past but we are no longer prisoners. We integrate knowledge with desire and it takes us off the path of least resistance. We move from problem solving to purpose finding. This gives rise to learning and creation.

  • In your life, how much time do you spend solving problems and how much time clarifying your highest purpose? What is your highest purpose?
  • In your unit, what is your highest purpose?
  • In your unit, when did you last engage in purpose driven, unconventional actions?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

One comment on “When Does Future Determine the Present?

  1. I apologize for the length. It was not my intention, but my thoughts kept flowing out.
    In your March blog post titled, “From the Positive Past To the Positive Future” you spoke about a group that broke conventional decision making and were encouraged to face the present, thinking of the future versus the past as had been the norm. They had broken the conventional way of thinking and doing things previously, yet they still harbored fears and doubts about proceeding in this new way although less so now because it had worked once. Clearly there is a “path” that is being taken, but even more so we are training ourselves which “path” we will later, reactively or naturally turn to. In that example they had only truly been tested once in the new way and although they had been rewarded, they had limited experience and success with it.
    So, the “history of their decision making” as you say is still overwhelmingly the old way. I’m sure this is why you may be so disappointed when you help teach and train others about all the things you do, give them some practice with it, and then are disappointed when many immediately revert back to what they have historically done. (even in the very same session as this example dictates) We are creating a habit of how we choose to think about things and act on those thoughts. Either in faith in the future, or in fear of the past. Both are creatively useful I believe but the past can only be learned from while the present and future allows for full creativity and freedom. In training we say that “to adapt to training is to never fully adapt to training.” or said another way, “just when your body has all the answers, you have to change the questions.”
    To always be moving forward we must be able to discipline our thoughts and actions to be bold in pursuing what we need now and in the future to continue to learn, to grow and to thrive. I believe this is why a gratitude journal can be so profound and changing. You are disciplining your mind to find a reason to give thanks when you may not be inclined to or even think there is anything to be grateful for. Over time you find there are so many things you’re blessed by and it becomes natural to think so. But without the practice of that mindfulness and putting thoughts to paper, it would just be another “feel good” session. Practice makes permanent.
    I’ll share one last personal example. There was a habit I’d been trying to form in my morning routine that I wanted badly and did often but seemed to be unable to have the discipline to be perfectly consistent. I knew this would be a blessing in my life if I was able to do this thing every single day without fail. My aunt gave me this great article to read about the importance of finding and asking the right questions. A series of questions formed in my mind that I wrote down and a list of questions developed around this habit I wanted to form. The final question that came to me has changed my life. The question was, “what do I need to do, to make myself feel like doing it.” I knew my desires were powerful in getting me to act but could not always be relied on as motivations can change. So my question asked me what actions can I take to re-align my desires daily to then act again in this new way I wanted. It’s similar to the saying that “when you don’t feel like praying, you should pray until you feel like praying.” It helped me re-realize that I needed to act to move me to act again in the way I wanted.
    So as I read this post, it makes me think that what I’m really doing is giving myself more opportunities to act in a new way, thereby creating a new history that will impact my current and future decision making. The old history is fading away, the old thoughts and the old actions are replaced with an increased confidence in this new way. It’s this confidence as we create a newer history that seems to me to be the powerful influencer of path dependence. We can train ourselves to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

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