In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Ramya D’Rozario chats with futurist Ari Wallach about his new book, Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs (HarperOne, August 2022). It can be easy to table long-term problems in the face of immediate crises, Wallach says, but in his years of experience, it’s been the leaders who think about the long term who are better positioned to mold their company’s future to their liking. Wallach shares how anyone—CEO, organizer, and beyond—can curb short-term thinking and help ensure a better world for future generations by developing the “Longpath” mindset. An edited version of the conversation follows.
When and how did the concept of Longpath develop?
Longpath came about based on 20 years of accumulated experience and wisdom. During the day I was a futurist for Fortune 50 companies and other large global organizations, but at night, I was attending workshops on mindfulness and trying to figure out how to become a better human.
I remember one specific time when I was in a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, with the top leaders in the refugee response sector. I kept pushing them to think about how we are going to deal with hundreds of militaries of climate refugees over the next ten, 15, 20, or 30 years—as a worst-case scenario. What I kept hearing was, “Yes, we have to think about that. But right now we have an emergency right in front of us.” I said, “OK, but at the end of dealing with this emergency in this eight-hour meeting, can we step back and start planning for the long term?” While everyone in the room understood the ramifications of not dealing with the long term, there just wasn’t the space for it.
I realized at that time that the work we have to do externally as leaders of organizations has to be coupled with the kind of work that a lot of us do on our own, which is working on thinking more clearly as individuals in our relationships.
I realized that we can combine the two of those into one mindset, what I call Longpath, to help us think about the past, be in the present, and better the future, so we’re no longer reacting to what is happening—we’re able to have some control over what we want to see happen. We can then make a strategy that is a manifestation of those ideas. It’s in some ways a simple concept, but I realized in my research that no one had actually bridged these worlds yet.
In the current global scenario, how important is it to move away from short-termism and focus on the long term?
In the current global scenario, it’s really important that we shift away from short-termism to a long-term focus. Making short-term decisions is the equivalent of hitting a rough ice patch in the road and slamming on the brakes.
Making short-term decisions is the equivalent of hitting a rough ice patch in the road and slamming on the brakes.
What we find is when people hit the brakes, become short-termistic, and become very reactive, they’re no longer able to control their own destiny—be it as an organization, as a leader, or even as a parent. People become locked into past dependencies, and what is going to happen to them is no longer something they can control.
How do we rein in our short-termistic impulses on a day-to-day level?
On a day-to-day level, the best way to rein in our short-termistic impulses is with a really simple idea, which is to take a moment and pause. When something happens—be it a notification from your child’s school about a missed assignment, or something much bigger like a drop in your stock price—your amygdala basically takes over.
You’re no longer able to think clearly, and you’re no longer able to tap into your long-term prefrontal cortex abilities to think about where you want to go. The easiest way to rein in our short-termism is to build a pause into your reaction. In the book, we look at different ideas and different exercises to allow you to able to access this pause much faster—in many ways, almost automatically.
At the end of the day, having the ability to step back and ask, “Where do I want to go with this decision?” is going to be the most important way that you’re able to take control of a situation and move it toward an outcome that you want.
At the end of the day, having the ability to step back and ask, ‘Where do I want to go with this decision?’ is going to be the most important way that you’re able to take control of a situation and move it toward an outcome that you want.
How can organizations and leaders plan better for the future?
Organizations and leaders can better plan for the future by doing something that seems counterintuitive, which is going to the future. In the book, I talk about telos, which means ultimate aim. In our research and in working with organizations over the past 20 years, we have found that those with a clear idea of where they want their organization to go—who are not reacting to mega trends or being buffeted by the winds of change but have a clear vision of what success looks like in the far future—and who can articulate that in a purpose for being, are positioned to better plan for the future.
From that future—be it ten years, 20 years, or 100 years—you’re able to back-cast, which is to figure out what things have to happen for that future you want to occur. You may have a very bold vision about sustainability or some other large issue or problem that you’re working on. As a leader, having and articulating that vision and then recognizing the gates you have to pass through to get there is what helps you better plan for the future.
Those with a clear idea of where they want their organization to go—who are not reacting to mega trends or being buffeted by the winds of change but have a clear vision of what success looks like in the far future—and who can articulate that in a purpose for being, are positioned to better plan for the future.
The other thing that helps organizations and leaders better plan for the future is an ability to connect the dots internally in the present. That means you have a past, and you have to recognize what that past is as an organization and as a leader: What got you to this point? Looking at what worked and what didn’t work in the past is going to help you to not be knocked around by the current moment and better plan for the future, because you have an idea of what got you here.
You have to recognize that the things that got you to this moment as an organization or as a leader aren’t necessarily going to be the things that get you to the future that you want. That doesn’t mean you have to develop new KPIs or OKRs [objectives and key results], but having that vision for the future that you want helps you better plan in the present to make that future a reality.
How did the pandemic cause the Longpath mindset to evolve?
When the pandemic hit, most leaders basically pumped the brakes. They didn’t know what to do. This was so out of the ordinary in terms of what they thought was going to happen because this futures muscle—this ability to think in pluralities about what might happen—is something that we’ve actually let atrophy over the past, really, 20 or 30 years; at least most organizations have.
Everyone went into a fight-or-flight stance when the pandemic hit, but it was only momentary. What we saw at Longpath Labs, my organization, is that leaders started coming to us and saying, “We know things are not going to operate the way they normally do, so what do we do now? What do we do as an organization, both at the strategic level but also at the mindset level?”
What folks were seeing, from the C-suite to the front lines of major Fortune 20 organizations, was that people no longer had their ballast tanks full. While there was a movement around pumping the brakes—that short-termistic mindset—we’ve now seen people evolve out of that and realize they have to take their futures more seriously.
This is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have, not so much through the lens of resilience or risk mitigation but through the lens of how people push forward and help themselves think about where they actually want to go. It’s not just a bottom-line issue—people come to us and say, “We know what happened threw everyone off. What we want to figure out is how you make that not happen again. More importantly, how do we meet the needs of our workers, our staff, and our members?”
A huge side benefit of this thinking is that it has led to more creativity and innovation. It’s no longer from a risk-mitigation standpoint of “if X scenario happens that could be debilitating to our business,” and now more about, “What do we want to see happen?” It asks “what if” in a positive, normative way.
A huge side benefit of this thinking is that it has led to more creativity and innovation. It’s no longer from a risk-mitigation standpoint of ‘if X scenario happens that could be debilitating to our business,’ and now more about, ‘What do we want to see happen?’
In some ways, the pandemic has created a portal to a new way of thinking that allows people to avoid being caught on their heels. That being said, short-termism is still very much here, and it is very much amplified in this intertidal moment that we find ourselves in, but we also see people being much more open to new ways of thinking that allow them to be better futurists.
How do we as individuals balance the past, the present, and the future?
As individuals, it’s important that we balance the past, the present, and the future. We want to be in sync across all three of those. The first thing you can do to be in balance, especially with the past, is not hide from it, be it as a country, around its racial past; as a leader, around what they did or didn’t do in the past; or as a parent, around what did or didn’t happen as they were growing up.
What we found at Longpath Labs, and what’s in the book, is that the number-one way to be in sync “transgenerationally” with the past, present, and future is to have empathy across all three of these times. In the book we have multiple exercises to build your empathy with the past, with the present self, and with future generations. Why is that so important? Because at the end of the day, we want people to be able to make smarter decisions.
The way you make smarter decisions when it comes to the past—and people do this on their web browsers sometimes—is to clear the cache. That doesn’t mean you erase the past or forget about it. It means you confront it and reconcile it. The reality is that 100 years from now, our descendants are going to look back on us and ask, “How did they make that decision in the corner office? How did they make that decision as a parent?”
The fact of the matter is that we’re doing the best we can, so by having empathy across multiple generations, that allows us to have an honest conversation about how we want to move forward. When it comes to transgenerational empathy with the future, obviously those are folks we don’t know. They could be our kids or our future employees, 20, 30, or 50 years from now.
Empathy allows us to connect with them at an emotional level so we think about their actual needs. What you’re trying to do is elevate yourself to a place where you can make decisions that are in the best interests of the future without leaving the past behind.
What you’re trying to do is elevate yourself to a place where you can make decisions that are in the best interests of the future without leaving the past behind.
After researching and working on Longpath for 20 years, why write this book now?
I wrote Longpath after 20 years of working in the field of “futuring” and strategy because I felt that this is the book that we need right now. We’re in an intertidal moment, and the mindset that I was raised in just isn’t working for us right now.
What I realized is I had to write a book that gave people the mindset to operate in this moment. I wrote the book almost as a gift to those who are struggling to make sense of what’s going on in the world, who want to lead their organizations in a way that drives purpose, meaning, action, and impact for all stakeholders. When I say all stakeholders, I mean those within your community, your customers, and your clients, but also future descendants.
I realized there was a huge gap in the literature when it came to thinking strategically in that way, so I wrote the book for folks asking, “What’s going on right now? How do I navigate this moment in a way that sets up future generations—our descendants—in such a way that we wish would have happened to us?”
Daniel Gilbert at Harvard talks about this end of history illusion: we always think we’re at the end of something, that we’re on the tail end of history. The fact of the matter is we’re not on page 400 in the novel that is Homo sapiens—we’re probably on page one or two. I wrote a book for folks who want to think about acting less as a descendant and more as a great ancestor.
The fact of the matter is we’re not on page 400 in the novel that is Homo sapiens—we’re probably on page one or two. I wrote a book for folks who want to think about acting less as a descendant and more as a great ancestor.
How do we make decisions that, generations from now, people will look back and say, “They were great, they hooked us up, they did the right thing”? And when I looked around, I couldn’t find literature like that, so that’s why I wrote Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs.