Old thinking will break your brain.
Why updating the way we look at the world is so critical now, and so hard, and how we can get better at doing it.
You’re not ready for what’s coming.
You’re also not alone in your unreadiness.
I increasingly think none of us are ready. We’re not ready for the depth of planetary crisis we already find ourselves in, and completely unprepared for what's on the way.
Here’s the biggest way we’re not ready: We’re trying to understand an unprecedented future with the worldviews of an older age, formed on a different planet. We’re working with slightly broken brains.
What’s a worldview?
A worldview is a set of beliefs or a mental model of reality that influences the way people perceive, think, know, and act in the world. [International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Second Edition), 2020.]
It’s the set of ideas we’ve absorbed that help us understand the world, feel at home in it, and make smarter choices as we move through it.
Those of us with active minds are constantly gardening our worldviews. We adjust our perspectives as events around us unfold, as age and experience inform our received wisdom, as we learn new facts — and as cultural change around us pushes us to think differently. Even in extremely stable and slow-changing societies, there are always some people doing this gardening
But this is not a stable society, and today gardening is not enough.
We grew up in societies built upon certain assumptions about how the world works, and how the planet around us should be seen. We now know those assumptions were wrong in profound ways, and in one human lifetime we have altered the climate and biosphere, squandered vast natural riches and destabilized a myriad of systems we depend on. We have made the circumstances of our lives discontinuous with everything that came before us. The societies we live in are now catastrophically unsuited for the planet we’ve made. Yet we still see the planet around us with worldviews formed inside of those societies.
This is a temporary condition. Sooner or later (and likely sooner), ready or not, our new reality will force us to see it more clearly (or to spend a lot of effort denying that we see it).
Thinking well about the future demands building a worldview that has at least some rough fit with external reality — it’s hard to plot a good course forward if we don’t know where we’re starting from.
Seeing with fresh eyes is something we can learn to do. It offers real advantages. At very least, an updated worldview means being able to stand in the surf and face the ocean, to see the waves rolling in, giving us a better shot at not getting plowed and dragged when the next sleeper wave suddenly surges up and hits us.
Many of us can’t be the people we’re trying to be without at least a somewhat clearer view on the changes around us. Working to upgrade our worldviews is urgent. Urgent for our own futures. Urgent for our future together.
It is urgent, but it’s also hard as hell.
I’ve written about the experience of personal discontinuity — the sense many of us have, when we first understand the magnitude of the crisis unwinding around us, that if the world is not what we thought is was, then our lives are not the lives we thought we had. Discontinuity, once seen, can snatch away the future we imagined for ourselves and our loved ones.
At that point, each of us finds our own struggles. Some of us feel wrenching grief, some overpowering rage. Some of us experience an alienation from the once-familiar landscape around us. Some encounter a form of persistent nostalgia for the future we thought we had. Some of us just refuse to believe such changes are possible, embrace reactionary politics, go mad with Doomerism or paranoia (See: Chinese Hurricane Bombs). Still others slip into a warm, numb futureshock, and kick back for the end of their world, drink in hand.
However it occurs for us, at the core of the struggle is worldview collapse. The worldviews we’ve lived inside — worldviews that have provided the structure for the emotional and imaginative worlds we’ve built up in our own heads — have suddenly caved in under the weight of new facts. Staggering out of the dust and debris, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land.
Right now, rebuilding our worldviews involves a lot of labor-intensive personal exploration. Being native to now demands finding insight, not just receiving it. It demands teaching ourselves how to learn new things, when both the course of our study and the lessons to be absorbed are complex and constantly evolving. This is a real challenge when we have such busy lives. A lot of people will decide to worry about it later.
Some of us are forced, though, by our work or values or life circumstances, to think about the future on a regular basis. We can’t put off the work of learning to see more clearly.
Smart, creative people trying to do good work already often invest significant time and energy keeping up-to-date: learning new skills, updating perspectives, educating ourselves about the systems and changes around us. But in the heat of discontinuity, that investment can rapidly wilt. Evergreen expertise is an endangered species, now.
The greatest danger in any work that asks you to think systemically about the future is getting locked into the worldview that made sense to you when you first began, that you built your successful career on.
We all have limited time and energy. Building up an insightful mental model of how the world works takes a lot of both. The pay-off is in the profit and sense of purpose gained from one's expertise. It is very common, when you're highly rewarded for a given set of working insights, to commit more to those insights as your career unfolds, to begin even to defend those insights from challenging new perspectives (ones you fear might devalue your intellectual stock in trade). This "sunk-cost expertise" can easily become a set of shackles.
Not getting chained to outdated expertise is harder than it used to be. A century ago, an expert could learn a way of looking at things and build a lifelong stable career off that platform. (Max Planck joked that science advanced one funeral at a time). Even 30 years ago, working thinkers could easily balance career and the pace of professional development needed to stay current. One good set of insights, steadily updated through inquiry and learning, could easily last the three or four decades of a normal career.
Not anymore. For most of us, it’s no longer enough to take a training now and then, to pick up a few new perspectives at a conference, to scan to the news in our field, to read the occasional provocative book. The speed and scale of the changes around us mean that the shortcomings in our worldview are themselves systemic. They are failures to see the pattern right, and new information can’t by itself correct those failures. We have to not only “think in systems” but learn to see new ones, with new interconnections.
All this is to say that the very process of worldview-building is undergoing an unprecedented shift. The planetary crisis is swallowing the world we thought we knew, whole, in one great gulp.
The world is full of mayhem. More (much more) is coming. This crisis may or may not be worse than we think — depending how bad you think it is now — but it’s almost surely happening faster than we think. Indeed, the firestorm at the heart of this crisis, the central truth raging at its core, is that change is happening faster than we find it easy to understand, much less easy to talk about. Our sense of the tempo of change is outdated.
This planetary crisis, climate change and all, is not an issue, or a set of issues, but an era. The rules have been rewritten. We don't take the planetary crisis seriously enough when we fail to understand how quickly natural and human systems are now being transformed— and how quickly the rate of change is going accelerate in the near future. That rate of change is blowing one discontinuity after another our way, like whitecapped waves on a rough sea under a dark sky, and the big storm has not yet reached our horizon.
Worse: because we’re surrounded by denial and delay, cultural inertia and political reaction, we haven’t even seen how much systemic change has already been happening, for decades. As we come to understand what’s already happened, a huge rush of newly perceived change is going to wash past us, and for many of us, it will feel sudden. We’re already up to our knees in the storm surge.
Being swamped by discontinuous changes for which we are unprepared, and changes we didn't realize had already happened, is creating unprecedented reactions through every human system around us. Our unreadiness for all three has strapped explosive truths to the piers holding up every community, government and society on Earth. That sudden recognition of unreadiness is itself becoming a source of tremendous upheaval.
The Snap Forward is how I describe that recognition — the sudden recalibration of assumptions, plans and priorities in the face of the truth of our moment. That recognition forces us to admit that our worldviews don’t scan very well anymore; that we live in a time of discontinuous realities and the loss of predictable outcomes; of new needs and disruptive solutions; of transapocalyptic tragedies and fierce political fights to increase the pace of action; of looming failures of systemic value… and scales of opportunity with no historical analog.
I’ve spoken and written for years about the planetary crisis, and explaining how I see that crisis is the focus of the forthcoming book I’ve been co-writing with Justus Stewart, The Snap Forward. (By the way — there will be more about that in my next email).
Right now, though, the thing to remember is this new era simply cannot be fully grasped or boldly met with the thinking of the last era. There’s no point in tinkering around trying to make time-worn points of view fit what we’re seeing. Snap-forward thinking is not a patch to fix outdated beliefs, it’s a set of tools for building new worldviews.
Yes, that’s a lot of worldview to rebuild. We have no other real option.
In fact, a core truth of the planetary crisis — and one that churns up strong emotions, as people actually grok its meaning — is that the continued worsening of the crisis eliminates choices. The larger the crisis grows, the more kinds of change become inevitable. The worse things get, the narrower our options.
The narrower, too, grow the options of our children and future descendents. Our job is not to decide the future, but to leave the future as many options as possible. The most sustainable society is the one which passes forward the best possibilities to future generations. Being a good ancestor means leaving open doors to a wider number of good futures. We are not being good ancestors, in part because we refuse to acknowledge the nature of the world previous generations’ choices have forced on us.
We don’t get to choose whether the context of all our work is an unprecedented, all-encompassing planetary crisis. It simply is. There is nowhere to stand outside of it. We can pretend that’s not true — insist that our lives or work or special concerns will remain untouched by ecological catastrophe and societal upheaval — but in the long run, we’re just fooling ourselves.
Similarly, we can assert that this crisis still lies ahead of us, or can be reversed with the right techno-wrenchings or revolutionary radicalism or whatever, but it’s simply not true. Continuity is gone, and it’s not coming back in any of our lifetimes, under any even vaguely plausible scenario. We don’t get to choose that outcome: all our available tomorrows lie on this side of the chasm that now looms between us and our past.
Even if we succeed wildly in spreading sustainable prosperity and restoring the biosphere, this crisis is not going calm down. It’s going to continue to get weirder and more unprecedented, to twist and rush and transmogrify our expectations. Already, the Twentieth Century way of seeing provides less and less acuity — its lenses on the world murkier and more kaleidoscopic by the day.
There is only one antidote for our unreadiness: rapid, intentional engagement with new realities.
Rapid engagement is exactly what we’re not getting, though.
It’s clear to me (from the evidence of my own experience) that a great many people are desperate to engage the planetary crisis, to understand what it means, and discover what we can do about it. And good folks are pushing hard across the entire range of human endeavors to find new ways to see, better ways to work. Yet I’ve also heard from these same people, time and again, how hard it is to break out of the professional constraints of convention, common practice and assumed continuity. How hard it is to get those with assets and authority to listen.
This is no coincidence. It’s a predictable pattern, playing out across a range of disciplines and professions. And it has to do with the sunk-cost expertise I mentioned earlier.
In every institutional context, our expert value, the stability of our investor confidence, even the credibility of our leadership — all rest on our worldview, and others’ confidence that we have it right, that we know things they don’t, that we’re the ones worth backing (and paying well).
A challenge to the worth of someone’s worldview is a challenge to their personal power — doubly so if they find themselves unwilling or unable to invest in rebuilding that worldview as the change in era demands. In the interval of predatory delay that we’re seen over the last few decades, too few experts and leaders have proven willing to make the commitment to worldview renewal.
This is entirely understandable, as one of the dangers of acknowledging the need to think in new ways is to find yourself needing, at least in some sense, to start over. When you let go of the methods and practices for which you are rewarded today, you risk finding yourself less able to practice the new than people who began the process sooner, or are just bolder or fiercer. Why take that risk?
The costs of that ongoing refusal have become dire, though. We're seeing vast swathes of expertise made obsolete, assumptions overturned, well-established practices revealed as utterly insufficient. Much of what we think we know is no longer really true, and many of those we turn to for guidance don't know any more than the rest of us. Worse, all this is becoming obvious to more and more people, right at the moment when the necessity (and thus value) of new thinking is being made clear. Outdated expertise is over-valued; it’s a bubble.
If you find yourself deep inside a bubble, you have two basic strategies: exit fast, in the hopes that you get out before the crash comes; or play for time, and take the earnings while you can. Much of the professional discussion about how to understand and respond to the planetary crisis is dominated by smart people who (whether or not they admit it to themselves) have chosen the second strategy. This is why we see such widespread embrace of strategies I think of as “triangulation” and “boundary policing.”
The strategy of triangulation attempts to prolong the value of an outdated asset, system or practice. Triangulating institutions don’t deny the need for climate action, sustainable systems and ruggedization in the face of escalating risk, but instead structure their public engagement with that need in such a way as to minimize the demand for large-scale, rapid change. Now that outright denial no longer works, expectation management is key.
Most commonly, right now, that means three steps.
First, the institution involved declares support for big-picture goals (Science-based targets! Net-zero emissions! Zero waste!).
Second, it announces some near-term, non-disruptive, incremental actions towards those goals.
Third, it frames those incremental steps and other plans or positions and future processes as proof of commitment to those large goals. It spins the steps being offered as a strategy for bridging the gaps between actions and targets.
By triangulating, the lagging institution can both deflate pressure (from the public, regulators or activist stakeholders) to change more quickly and shore up the power of management and experts who would otherwise be forced to admit that they don’t really know what they’re doing. Triangulation may look on the surface like action, but it’s not a way to change institution priorities — it’s a way to protect institutional priorities from change.
Triangulation has two fatal flaws. The first is that the audience must take the frame — they have to accept the triangulated strategy as evidence of commitment and wise leadership. The second is that it leaves the institution without a strategy for succeeding in the real world we live in. The two are connected.
Let’s start with the second problem.
Today, crafting strategies for success means preparing plans to prosper in a planetary crisis. Reality matters. That means being ready to understand, anticipate, and prepare for a radically different strategic landscape than most insitutions have ever faced — as I’ve said before, discontinuity is the job, and that job demands different approaches than what has worked in the recent past.
For millions of those currently in positions of influence, though, new approaches lie outside of their acumen and authority. Their expertise is expiring, they lack enough insight into what’s happening now to anticipate what’s emerging, and the forms of strategic thinking they’ve mastered largely cannot turn discontinuity into opportunity.
As long as the interval of predatory delay holds, such short-term triangulation can seem savvy. The problem is, it will not hold, because too much danger and too much opportunity are piling up behind it. The torque grows with every minute. And the strategies needed to avoid danger and seize opportunity are not at all in line with the kinds of efforts that most often are presented and climate, sustainability and risk-management strategies today. Being a triangulator doesn’t prepare you to deliver those strategies — indeed, it actually entangles you in ways that make you less able to innovate and disrupt.
Triangulators are, as I said before, shackled to their sunk-cost expertise: the financial value of their expertise depends on not their not being forced to deliver what they don’t know how to build.
That means they have to do their best to see that the larger debate (on climate and sustainability, risk and ruggedization) is kept within certain boundaries. To hold a triangulatory frame in place, discussions of what’s happening, what’s possible, and what’s realistic must be limited to positions that don’t undermine the claims for strategies of gradual change.
I’ve talked elsewhere about the ways in which those boundaries are policed. For now, let me just point out that the core of boundary policing is an often open hostility to serious re-examinations of our assumptions. Existing experts, we’re told, already know what to do. Our job is to stand back and let them work. Updating how we see the world is treated like some flaky New Age notion. Younger workers and students are often enlisted in holding the line, taught "best practice" perspectives that are in fact old and obsolescing. It's hard to tell what's genuinely new, when you're just starting out. And for older people with expert value to defend, even a small wall of proteges and followers can be useful, especially if you can convince them that they are a vanguard. This leads to a paradox of sometimes finding the young to be the fiercest defenders of rusted old notions and those who prosper from their continued use.
The ultimate boundary policing move, though, is pronouncing the death of foresight.
A growing chorus of slow professionals have been throwing their hands up in the air, saying the future is essentially chaotic and unknowable. They deny that we can develop worldviews that ready us for what’s coming, with the obvious implication that if we can’t learn to see and strategize and succeed in new ways, then we have to go with the best we have, which are the established old ways. The old answers may not work — they may fail to offer acumen fit for the future — but they’re all we’ve got… And thus we come to one of the strangest spectacles of this time, that of triangulating experts essentially declaring the end of expertise itself. Après moi, l'inconnaissable.
Events being unprecedented does not make them beyond comprehension. The loss of continuity does not mean a descent into blind chaos. We can learn to thrive amidst discontinuity, disruption, upheaval. There are thousands of people teaching themselves how, right now.
Their success or failure may be the most important challenge facing humanity.
How quickly we act is the future we get: speed is everything. In a better past, we would have been both limiting the extent of the destruction we now face, and increasingly the rate at which we deployed solutions. This might have won us the opportunity to head of disaster with much disruption. But there’s no point hoping for a better past. Grand collective actions can no longer produce an orderly transition.
One of the clearest implications of our not being able to secure an orderly transition is that the tempo of progress will not be set by what we all agree to do together, but by what those pushing for faster change can succeed in doing themselves, despite barriers and opposition. Therefore, what matters most is how fast we get climate, sustainability, ruggedization and development actions that build capacities and weaken barriers: spikiness. Spiky successes change the strategic landscape. With a lot of spiky victories, we have a chance to recover a good future from the ruins of our previous efforts. Without them, well… it ain’t good.
That means that the people working for fast change must succeed. Not in general, not sometime in the future, not only in the ways that might be optimal in a world with more choices; no, we need these people, in their current efforts, to win, especially when their victories are disruptive.
Everyone should do what they can, but we have to get real about acknowledging how little those willing to do only a little can contribute. Those willing to do all they can, to find ways to leverage larger changes, are absolutely vital to humanity’s prospects; their personal commitment holds open the prospect of a better future.
My work has been to explore how the planet and our societies are changing, and how those shifts accelerate and transform each other — thinking about how foresight works in discontinuity. I aim to make that exploration useful to others who are rebuilding their worldviews, in the hopes of enabling more purposeful success by those attempting work that matters. In other words, I try to see what’s coming and help people get ready to do something about it.
Over the last five or six years, I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask hundreds of smart, interesting, committed people what they seek, what they need, and how I might help. Those conversations have convinced me that, in this moment, the challenges of those who are hungry to succeed with purpose are simply different than the needs of most folks. In particular, they are passionate to improve their worldviews, to have skin in the game, to succeed and to scale up their impact.
Having the heart to learn boldly.
The first quality I’ve been seeing is an intellectual courage. There’s a ferocity to learn, to really know, to grow a worldview that’s anchored in reality, not bound by professional politics, ideological blinders or cultural orthodoxies. It’s easy to pick up a few fresh cocktail party hot takes or enough thin knowledge to not say the wrong thing in an important meeting. It’s hard to lay a new foundation for seeing the world.
We are all at the start of a thing. There’s integrity in having the courage to point out thinking that no longer works, and the humility to acknowledge all that we don’t yet know. Combine that with the confidence to explore boldly despite deep uncertainties, and we get the strength to exchange some of our authority and professional identity for new insight. (This also brings the not-trivial gift of being able to be emotionally honest about how we see the future with the people we care about. We can actually include children and grandchildren in our learning and exploration, and not just offer some palliative activism or performative outrage to show them we care about the future they’ll inherit. Inviting the people we love — especially the younger ones — into a conversation about the planetary crisis and what it means to our lives is one of the biggest gifts we can give them.)
Having the guts to let go of broken ideas and bear the discomfort of learning without certainty is how we build acumen now.
Being serious about securing a future.
When the oxygen drops on a rough flight, as the saying goes, put on your own mask first. More and more people are realizing that we’re not all in this together, that we can’t count on the higher authorities acting at the needed speeds, and that securing a better future starts at home. This demands not just talking about what should happen, but putting skin in the game.
Personal ruggedization is critical. While no place is “safe” from the impacts of climate change, ecological collapse and social strife, some places are definitely safer than others. Similarly, no living arrangement is future-proof, but there are ways of reducing dependencies and preparing for extremes that can safeguard ourselves and our loved ones against a wider range of extremes.
Financial security is certainly a part of that, especially in a world so jaggedly divided between those with money and those without. It’s never a good time to be poor, but the next few decades may be worst in living memory, for many. Having the resources we need allows us to make it through the coming bottlenecks, and be in a position to help others. (Making smart moves is obviously even more important as we head into what could be an unfogiving downturn.)
The more central the planetary crisis is in our daily work and thinking, the wiser it is to pay attention to our mental health. Community helps. It’s pretty hard to grow when we’re surrounded by people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do (or worse, have incentives to see us fail). Climate isolation is real, and connection is the answer. Building friendships and community with those who share our aims and ambitions gives us space to find our way past our own personal discontinuities, to feel again at home in the world in which we now live.
Foresighted personal choices are the table stakes for making a difference.
Building fast, purposeful successes.
If you’re not planning to succeed
As I explained above, the success of people pushing for fast institutional action on the planetary crisis is now the central means of securing a better future. We may be able, later, to turn policy, diplomatic agreements and societal norms towards the future we need — and thus spread the spiky gains we’re making today more widely and comprehensively — but right now, acting with purpose and securing concrete wins are the same thing.
Luckily, building a worldview designed to help us act with purpose also reveals where the opportunities ahead of us can be found. As barriers fall — as the interval of predatory delay comes to an end — greater readiness is becoming a huge advantage. And in the real world, readiness begins with the recognitions of The Snap Forward. Purposeful engagement and the pursuit of new opportunities are increasingly interwoven
Those of us trying to do the new in any sector face all the traditional challenges of enterprising people — of inventing things, starting things, finding resources, running things, pushing for growth — but now shot through a timewarp. Now, we need to do that whole dance — but to a much faster beat.
It’s worth it. This moment positively crackles with the energy of possibility. What might be about to happen is lit up like a Tesla Coil.
Conflict is the site of opportunity. That is, the systems most angrily defended by predatory delay and rentseeking behavior are often the weakest, once the barriers protecting them fall. (I’ve talked about why this is, and how the interconnection of legacy systems makes them more fragile, elsewhere. Regular listeners to the podcast will remember discussions of ideas like the fungability of sustainability innovations, disaggregation, reaggregation, the weaponization of risk and the competitive advantages of ruggedization.)
There is real power in those interventions that deliver the capacity to grow fast as barriers drop. Where markets and constituencies are large, breakout successes can spread and scale and innovate at rates that seem implausible when judged with older worldviews.
Catching lightning bolts and making them really hum gives us the power to collaborate, amplify one another’s work, and assemble large-scale impact.
Scaling through systems.
We have a lot of work to do. Indeed, just getting our heads around the scope, scale and speed of the challenge is a key step in rebuilding our worldviews.
Saul Griffith has framed the U.S. decarbonization fight as replacing one billion machines. More precisely, he says, “It’s about one million large machines and one billion small ones.” It’s a smart way to layer some simplicity and clarity over a monumental and complex undertaking.
Of course, decarbonizing energy is only one part of the job we face. Climate mitigation (reducing all the causes of warming, from deforestation to the darkening of the Earth’s surface) is bigger than just energy. Reducing all of the impacts of our civilization on the biosphere — for instance, biodiversity loss, topsoil destruction, resource depletion, toxic pollution— is larger still. Managing the human consequences of the planetary ecological crisis is an even greater challenge, in part because it’s going to involve building and rebuilding and repairing and moving communities and industry and infrastructure on an almost unimaginable scale. A giant building boom is what success looks like.
If we are to tackle the problems we face, we need to make a vast number of decisions differently over the next couple decades. If taking America’s energy system to carbon zero is a billion-meaningful-choices problem, the totality of human responses to the crisis now underway may well be a trillion-meaningful-choices problem. Or ten trillion, or a hundred, depending on our definitions. Point is, it’s a staggering number of decision points, and each one matters.
But here’s the thing: the vast majority of those choices will stem from a much smaller set of decisions made by almost entirely by people whose job it is to make them. There are eight billion people on the planet, but only maybe a few tens of millions have critical roles in the institutional conflicts over strategy and approach that will decide the fate of humanity. That is unlikely to change very much in the near term.
The success of those individuals who are committed to fast action and bold response to the crisis is, it cannot be emphasized enough, vital. But to win a better future, we need efforts to amplify each other in unexpected ways, to help new networks and constituencies to grow. Mutual acceleration and scale is the best way to do some large-scale good in a world full of sociopath oligarchs, sleepwalking publics, corrupt governments and irrational markets.
It’s by comprehending the sheer scale of success that’s still possible that we start to feel at home in this crazy world — and begin to understand ourselves as forerunners of a future worth fighting for.
The reason I do this work — instead of something more sensible and profitable like investment banking or alpaca speculation — is because I know at least some remarkable people, worldchanging people, find it useful. In the early days a massive change in eras that will define humanity’s choices for millennia to come, what else is really worth doing?
Building foundations upon which we can raise up new worldviews is the key to turning chaos and fear into manageable discontinuity. My ultimate project is trying to see a little farther, and a little more clearly, so that I can help others have impact and reach the purposeful successes they seek by developing acument suited to the era. I hope I am able to approach the complicated, tragic and transcendent realities of this moment with some humility, kindness and collaboration… and a bit of fortitude.
Anyways, enough about me.
Let’s talk you.
Don’t let anyone convince you to live your professional life in the rusting wreckage of an old worldview. Get out of the ruins, and seek a bit of elevation. Some people need to go the mountain summit, are ready to gear up and climb, have a need to see the lay of the land for themselves, to get a glimpse of the trail ahead. As I see it, that’s who I’m in conversation with now. The mountaineers. Maybe you’re one of them.
It’s a huge adventure. Pack the essentials. Wear good boots. Stick together.
PS: If you know someone who might benefit from this letter, please consider sending it to them…
or giving them a subscription to The Snap Forward…