“It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”
It is said that Bill Clinton had set his eyes on becoming president of the United States before he finished high school. More often, our dreams and aspirations change based on individual development and changing reality. If you want to help a friend find her next professional step, or if your own future deserves some creative thought, try this short exercise. (I call it Life Scenarios.)
Inspired by improv-comedy, Life Scenarios taps into the creativity of someone else to describe paths for your future. Not limited by previous thinking or value judgment, your partner(s) in this exercise can spark new ideas and uncover what makes you tick.
This exercise is best done in trios, but can be done in pairs. (I’ll use Person 1, Person 2, and Person 3 to name the different participants.)
Estimated duration: 15–20 minutes per participant.
Tools: Pen and paper, voice recorder, stopwatch.
Step 1: your long-term vision
Duration: 60 seconds
Person 1 describes what his life will look like 15–20 years from now.
The goal of this step is to provide Person 2 (and Person 3) with a long-term basis to build their scenarios on.
Example: “In twenty years I will have started and grown multiple organizations providing education to people who have insufficient access today. In twenty years, I will be an adviser to different young entrepreneurs and I’ll be involved in government. I will have traveled much, and be happily married to my husband, caring for our two children.”
Step 2: rapid fire life scenario
Duration: 60 seconds
Based on Person 1’s long-term vision, Person 2 imagines and pitches a scenario for the next 3–5 years. Example: “A newly-started accelerator focused on technology start-ups that focus on education, recruits you to lead scouting (i.e., finding companies to join the accelerator) and fundraising for the inaugural year. You travel around the United States to tell start-ups about your program, mostly traveling to college campuses, and to raise money from investors and sponsors to finance the accelerator program. After the inaugural program, you decide to stay on for a few more years as part of the 4-person leadership team, fulfilling the same role.”
Step 3: scenario evaluation
Duration: 60 seconds
Person 1 provides feedback on the scenario sketched by Person 2, using the following framework:
- Pro’s (What do I like about the future described?)
- Con’s (What do I dislike about the future described?)
- Grade on scale of 1–10
Example: “I like traveling, and I like to speak to audiences when I’m campaigning for a cause. I love the focus on education. But I’d rather start my own initiative; and I don’t like fundraising. I’d give this a 6 out of 10.”
Go through several iterations
Based on the feedback on the first scenario provided by Person 1, steps 2 and 3 are repeated. If you do this exercise with three people, Person 3 is the next to sketch a scenario. If you work in a pair, Person 2 sketches a second scenario. The goal of Person 2 (and Person 3) is to get to a scenario which is graded 8 or above by Person 1. You can stop the exercise once that grade is reached, or continue to explore more opportunities. I typically try to sketch out at least six scenarios.
End of exercise
Once you have reached one or more attractive scenarios for Person 1, take a moment to reflect on the exercise.
Ask Person 1: “What insights did you gain? What was surprising?”More often than not, Person 1 will be delighted to see a different future path and/or have gained clarity on what characteristics are important in future work. Person 2 (and Person 3) can share too what was surprising for them in the answers of Person 1.
The best way to find what you enjoy doing is by trying things. The fact that you think you will not like an activity does not mean you won’t, or that your preference will stay static in the future. (Do you ever notice how many children complain about hiking to their parents and love walking years later?) If you notice internal excitement listening to one of the scenarios, why not give it a try?
A beautiful vision is not enough; hard (and/or smart) work is required to build your future. The point of this exercise is to expand your view on your future, it’s no guarantee that you will realize these views. (Although there are plenty of quotes along the lines of “what you can imagine, can be done.”)
One goal of this exercise is to explore what characteristics you value in future work, reasoning through concrete examples. Example: you may think “freedom”is most important to you in your work, but realize that you consistently give the highest rating to scenarios in which you’re speaking on stage. This may mean that being the center of attention is more important to you (now) than freedom is! Once you realize this preference, you can change your decisions.
A side-benefit of this exercise, when you do it with friends, is that you can deepen your friendship because each party is by definition open and vulnerable by sharing their future dreams and how they respond to different scenarios.
Finally, please see this blog as an inspiration to pick parts from and blend with other ideas. Try to change things! Let me know what works.
A special thanks to Franziska Becker and Ted Gonder for going through this exercise and reviewing this post.