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The Right Way (And Wrong Way) to Think About the Future

Leadership keynote Tasha Eurich The Sweeney Agency Speakers Bureau

About Dr. Tasha Eurich

Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times best-selling author. She’s built a reputation as a fresh, modern leadership voice in the business world by pairing her scientific grounding in human behaviour – with a pragmatic approach to professional development. Over her 15+ year career, she’s helped thousands of leaders, from public company CEOs to early stage entrepreneurs – to improve their self-awareness and success.

In the third century BC, Greek historian Polybius argued that there was more change and uncertainty in his lifetime than any other period in history. Perhaps if he had known about the year 2020, he’d have changed his position.

With recent warnings that a COVID-19 vaccine might be elusive and the pandemic could last years, one of the hardest things about this crisis is having no idea when it will end.

Uncertainty is an inherently stressful state for humans. In one fascinating study, when faced with the choice of either receiving an instant yet painful electric shock or waiting for a milder one a few minutes later, 70 percent of participants chose to get shocked right away. The researchers concludedthat “dread is so painful that people will pay a significant price…to avoid it.”

Human consciousness is a truly amazing thingbut one clear downsideis our limitless ability to fear for our future. Generally, we worry because we think it will help us prepare for what’s ahead. And indeed, our ability to respond to danger has allowed our species to survive for millennia.

But there is collateral damage. When we imagine negative scenarios, our brains simulate the thoughts and feelings we’d have if these things were actually happening. So, for example, when we worry it will take years to develop a vaccine, our brains think that’s true.

I’ve noticed this whenever I watch the news lately—as experts speculate about what’s next for the pandemic (even though no one really knows), I immediately feel anxious and hopeless about what’s to come.

Luckily, there are better ways to manage our fears about the future. The first is somewhat counter-intuitive: to immerse ourselves in the worst-case scenario. 

Get a piece of paper, set a timer for 20 minutes, and let your worries run wild. List every worst-case scenario you can imagine: you or a loved one gets sick; you lose your job; your kids won’t go back to school this fall; you won’t see your friends or family for several months. Then, for each fear, write down what you would do if it were to happen, and if possible, what you can start doing now to get ready. In this pandemic, we can’t control the uncontrollable, but we can make a plan.

Finally—and this is important—when you’re finished, put your list away and say out loud, “I now have a plan if my feared future happens. Spending any more time worrying isn’t helpful.” Repeat as needed. (And, if you can, try to turn off the news, though I know that’s easier said than done).

A second approach is to counterbalance our fears with near-term hope. At the end of each day, spend two minutes imagining what tomorrow could look like at its best (you wake up ready to take on the world, you get a call from a friend you miss terribly, you close a deal with a client, etc.). And if you’re about to accuse me of being woo-woo, please note that this is not The Secret—it’s science! In one study, people who did this daily were happier and less stressed just two weeks later. Personally, I’ve been trying it for a few days and it’s made a tangible difference.

Now that we’ve addressed our future fears, let’s end with an angle that I think is even more important, both to survive a prolonged lockdown and build a better life when it’s over. As horrible as this situation is, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect on ourselves and our lives up to this point. We have the opportunity to build a new, better future.

In my team’s research on self-awareness, we’ve found that people who embrace these “alarm clock events” come out the other side with a new sense of clarity about who they are and what they want. Take advantage of this opportunity to ask: What kind of life do I want to build when this is over, and what can I start doing now to put myself on that path?

Here’s the truth: The coming months and years are going to be hard, but we will get through them. And as we prepare for whatever the future holds, let’s not forget this powerful perspective from Louisa May Alcott: “I am not afraid of storms,” she said, “for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

To Learn more about Dr. Eurich contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency. www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]