Excerpted from Imaginable copyright © 2022 by Jane McGonigal. Used by permission of Spiegel & Grau LLC, New York. All rights reserved.
You may be familiar with the saying “The future starts now.” As catchy as this phrase may be, it is fundamentally not true. The future doesn’t start now, or tomorrow, or next month—at least not if you want to get the most out of mental time travel. It takes much longer than that for the full benefits of the future to kick in. But when exactly the future starts depends on who you are and what your life circumstances are like. Let me tell you about a simple game I invented. If you play along, you’ll get a pretty good idea of when the future starts for you.
Every time I teach a futures-thinking class, I begin with a quick game of 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?” I ask them to write down their answer in days, weeks, months, or years.
This isn’t a trick question, and there’s no single correct answer. In fact, usually there are dozens of different answers, all of them valid: a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, twenty years from now. (If you want to play along, go ahead and think of your answer to this question now.) That said, 10 years is far and away the most common answer to the question “When does the future start?” In the responses I’ve collected from more than 10,000 students, almost everyone agrees: Ten years is enough time for society and my own life to become dramatically different.
What makes 10 years such a magic number for the mind?
Most of us have internalized the power of 10 years to create change through a combination of our own lived experience and social convention. We think about our own lives as a series of 10-year-long periods: our 20s, our 30s, our 40s, and so on. We use these milestone birthdays to reflect on what we want our next decade of life to be like. And we talk about decades as units of time in which society changes: think about how different the 1920s were from the 1910s, the 1960s from the 1950s, or how different the 2020s have already been from the 2010s. Anyone who has lived through more than one decade, or studied history, already has a clear mental model of just how much can change in 10 years.
If you look at recent history, 10 years really does seem almost like a magic number. You can find myriad examples of new ideas and actions creating a previously unimaginable social reality over the time span of a decade, give or take a few months. This is particularly true when it comes to social movements achieving historic victories, and new technologies achieving global impact. To consider just a few examples, it took, give or take a few months:
• 10 years for the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States to go from its first boycott of segregated bus seating to the successful passage of the federal Civil Rights Act (1955–1964)
• 10 years for the first international economic sanctions against South Africa’s segregationist apartheid system to lead to a new constitution that enfranchised Black South Africans and other racial groups (1985–1996)
• 10 years for same-sex marriage to go from being considered controversial when it was legalized by a country for the first time (the Netherlands) to being supported in global surveys by a majority of people in a majority of countries (2001–2010)
• 10 years for marijuana to go from being legalized for all uses in one US state, Colorado, to being decriminalized in 44 out of 50 states (2012–2021)
And it took:
• 10 years from when just 16 million people, mostly scientists and other academic researchers, were using the internet—they thought it would be used mostly to share scientific data—to when 1 billion people were using it (1991–2001)
• 10 years from the first iPhone release until a majority of people on the planet had smartphones, creating a new era of always-on communication (2007–2017)
• 10 years for Facebook to go from one user to 1 billion daily users, on its way to becoming the first product used by more than 1 in 3 humans on the planet (2004–2015)
• 10 years for Bitcoin to go from being a hypothetical idea discussed in a scientific article to having a nearly $1 trillion market capitalization, larger than the three biggest U.S. banks combined (2008–2019)
• 10 years from Airbnb’s and Uber’s foundings for a full 36 percent of U.S. workers to be engaged in some form of “gig work” (2008–2018)
• 10 years for Zoom to go from its first user testing session to becoming a critical lifeline for humanity during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the de facto tool for learning, work meetings, and staying in touch with friends and family (2011–2020)
In other words: Things that are small experiments today in 10 years can become ubiquitous and world-changing. And social change that seems improbable or unimaginable—well, in 10 years that can change, too.
Of course, not all goals for change can be achieved in a decade—many social movements take much longer. And progress doesn’t just stop after 10 years. The purpose of looking 10 years ahead isn’t to see that everything will happen on that timeline—but there is ample evidence that almost anything could happen on that timeline. And for that reason, 10 years helps unstick our minds. Ten years helps us consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss. Ten years even relaxes us a bit as we try to imagine preparing for dramatic disruptions or for a radical rethinking of what’s normal—because 10 years gives us time to get ready. And it’s for this reason that whenever I send people on mental time trips to the future, I almost always send them 10 years ahead. Futurists want people to go somewhere they believe anything can be different—even things that seem impossible to change today.
When we think on a 10-year timeline, it’s not just that we are more likely to believe that dramatic change can happen in the world. 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. It’s the relaxing and empowering feeling that we have enough time to do what really matters—to consider our options, make a plan, and act more confidently to create the future we want. It is almost impossible to create a sense of time spaciousness when we’re thinking in a matter of days or weeks. But when thinking ahead 10 years … ah, it’s so much time! On a 10-year timeline, we don’t feel rushed. We have plenty of opportunity to develop new skills, collect resources, recruit allies, learn from our mistakes, bounce back from setbacks, and do whatever else we need to do to get the best possible outcome. This feeling of abundance makes us less risk-averse and therefore more creative. We have all the time we need to play with ideas, try new things, and experiment until we figure out what works.
Interestingly, brains respond to abundant space in the same way as they do to abundant time. 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. With maximal goals, we focus on the upper boundary: What is the highest and best possible outcome we can imagine? So I like to think of a 10-year timeline as a kind of cathedral or Grand Canyon for the mind. It lifts the ceiling on our imagination.
When we feel time-poor, on the other hand, it’s like being stuck in a tiny, depressing room with no windows. We shrink ourselves and imagine less. We adopt “minimal” goals, which means we try to do just enough to avoid a bad outcome. 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.”
Do you have a sense of whether you’re waking up each day focused on maximal or minimal goals? Whether you’re feeling time-rich or time-poor? 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. So does being too busy, but that’s not something you can always control. So rather than drastically reduce what’s on your schedule, it’s much easier to control how far out in the future you’re imagining when you think about changes you’d like to achieve.
You may not be used to goal setting on a 10-year timeline. We usually think about making personal change year by year, most commonly by making resolutions at the start of the New Year. But a one-year resolution won’t help you think maximally, and you won’t feel a sense of time spaciousness if you’re trying to achieve a big goal in just one year. So next New Year’s Day, why not try a new tradition? Make a 10-year resolution. What could you (or your family, or your community, or your organization) accomplish if you had 10 years to do it? What would the long-term impact of a new habit be if you practiced it for 10 years? Let your mind play with some bigger possibilities. Now this idea may not sound appealing to you at first. When it comes to making resolutions, you don’t want to be different in 10 years; you want to be different as soon as possible! So go ahead and keep making short-term resolutions. And try to stretch your imagination a decade further too, while you’re at it.
If you want to get a taste of time spaciousness right now, here’s a trick you can try: pick a tiny task—and give yourself 10 years to do it. You might think that having all this time will make you more likely to procrastinate, and you’ll never actually get around to doing it. But procrastination, paradoxically, is more likely to happen when you feel time-poor. When you feel like you have less time to get things done, you do less. And when you feel you have ample time, you do more. Studies show this is true completely independent of how much “free” or unscheduled time a person has. What matters is whether your brain perceives an abundance of time. So give it a try. Give yourself luxurious 10-year deadlines. You might be surprised at how much faster and more happily you do things you’d otherwise put off when you feel time-rich, and therefore more in control of your timeline.
I want you to try this, for real: go ahead and put a deadline, or some other small goal, on your personal calendar, for 10 years from today. Google’s and Apple’s calendar apps will let you schedule things 10 years in the future. While you’ve got your mental or digital calendar open, let’s try a mental time trip. Imagine it’s 10 years from today, and you wake up incredibly excited about … something. You’ve got a special event on the calendar. What is it?
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To help you imagine this future more clearly, skip ahead in your digital calendar to 10 years from today. Now, fill in the blank space. What do you have planned, 10 years from today? Who are you doing it with? What will you be wearing? What supplies will you need? Why is this activity important or exciting for you? And how do you feel now that the day is here? Try to answer all these questions and imagine the day ahead as vividly as you can. Be sure to think about how you and your life circumstances might be different from today, and how those differences might change what you want or are able to do.
As with any mental time trip to far in the future, it may take a few moments for your brain to start filling in the blanks. Sometimes it helps to plant the seed of imagination in your mind now and come back to it later. Just keep the calendar open and keep playing with possibilities. My challenge for you is to put something exciting—maybe even something life-changing—on your real-world calendar for 10 years from today. You’ll have a whole decade to decide if you want to actually make it happen.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.