Stop Stealing From Your Future Self

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One of Benjamin Franklin’s maxims was, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. When you procrastinate, you steal time that potentially could have been used more productively. For a business leader, following this advice means empowering your enterprise to seize tomorrow’s strategic opportunities; but on a personal level, it also means empowering your future self to take on the adventures of a potentially 100-year life. In both cases, you achieve greater growth and impact.

Following this advice is more important now than ever before. Over the past decades, we’ve recognized that we now live in that volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world (subscription required). Events in the past few years (e.g., the pandemic, climate disruption, wars and economic challenges) have demonstrated that the pace is speeding up. Once-in-a-generation events are occurring more frequently. I believe the key to succeeding in these times is to empower ourselves to handle these events.

Empower your future enterprise.

After the pandemic changed our lives starting in 2020, McKinsey observed that while many companies focused on surviving, some thrived. In “From Surviving to Thriving: Reimaging the Post-Covid Return,” the authors share stories of companies that quickly adopted new systems to meet the needs of customers and employees. In some cases, projects that normally took months were mobilized in a matter of days and weeks.

What separated these resilient, agile companies from the rest? Further research such as The Future of Capability Building identified a number of factors related to empowering a workforce through intentional learning. By developing the mindset and skills needed to boost workers’ ability to resolve challenges, companies were ready to handle the unexpected. Indeed, they turned purposeful investments in workers into a strategic corporate weapon.

This strategy includes workers of all ages. When you enable “emerging leaders” to develop core leadership competencies, such as those identified by Google’s Project Oxygen (e.g., emotional intelligence and executive presence) and equip them to learn necessary technical skills, they are ready to take on critical pandemic and other projects. Indeed, these “purpose-pursuers” (as opposed to “task operators,” as Lior Arussy calls them) will nurture your culture and become its future leaders.

Similarly, given today’s talent shortages, companies that take these pathways smartly empower seasoned workers to share their expertise and experiences in projects involving innovation, relationships, strategic alliances, etc. Why let them consider full-time retirement if they want to continue growth-oriented work? They not only contribute but also serve as role models for younger workers.

Empower your future self.

It’s not just about investing now in your future enterprise; we need to do the same for our future personal selves if we want to lead truly healthy, fulfilling 100-year lives. This involves a change in our perception as we age.

When people are children and even young adults, they’re typically excited by their future-self dreams. The young talk about their future selves: The kindergarten graduate tells people they’re in first grade (almost). A high school senior is going to college (almost). You likely took your first job already looking forward to a career and were excited to share dreams about things you wanted to do, places to visit, people to meet, businesses to start. Entrepreneurs and business leaders are empowered by their visions for future companies.

Unfortunately, many people lose this mindset when they think they are “middle-aged.” They adopt a “retirement mindset,” with a focus on the (unnecessary) limits ahead. Instead of focusing on the opportunities of life ahead, they focus on losses of corporate identity, work colleagues and the daily routine. In short, we can lose the positive future-self mindset. As Dr. Daniel Gilbert notes in his TedTalk on the psychology of your future self, most people don’t expect to have the rich and varied experiences they had in the past 10 years in the coming 10 years.

Life-long learning is key to both types of empowerment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said, “Work (life) without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope without an object cannot live.” We need to nurture hope for our future self to stay vibrant.

Learning is an important life fuel. As a business leader, you likely have already seen the benefits of facilitating workers’ abilities to develop mental, physical and emotional health practices as well as the technical career skills needed today and tomorrow. This type of continual learning empowers the growth of a person’s future self at both the personal and enterprise levels, not only benefiting the business but also giving the individual a sense of personal fulfillment. By adopting this kind of continual learning, you empower your own capability for leading a long, fulfilling life as you work with agile, resilient and growing companies.

It’s important to treasure your time today and tomorrow. You can also fuel learning by increasing your exposure to role models who demonstrate life-long commitments to learning for themselves and their organizations. In just the past few months, three people have stood out to me as life-long learner role models.

• Henry Kissinger published his sixth book on Leadership at age 99. He followed it up with a Wall Street Journal Opinion. All his life, as a policy advisor, teacher and author, he’s been someone who shared expertise and experience.

• Iris Apfel received attention on her 100th birthday for being a fashionista. She just celebrated her 101 birthday by introducing a new line of rugs!

• Ray Dalio, an investor and hedge fund leader, stepped down from his firm at age 72 to share his expertise on life and work.

In Conclusion

As a leader, you need to address your personal and business future selves. It is a balancing act. McKinsey recently observed that today’s leaders need to conserve cash for an expected recession while also expanding workers’ capabilities to grow and take on tomorrow’s new challenges. In other words, we need to be “ambidextrous”: defensive for today’s survival and offensive for tomorrow’s value creation. Good advice. Be defensive with today’s time while empowering your own and your company’s future growth!