Imagine living in a world in the grip of a global pandemic due to a new respiratory virus, which is rapidly spreading around the world. If I ask you now, several years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, does it? But what if you’d been asked to imagine such a world back in 2008?
This is exactly what Jane McGonigal, a game designer and futurist, did. Back in 2008, she asked nearly 10,000 people around the world to imagine themselves living 11 years into the future—fall 2019—when a pandemic due to a respiratory virus was quickly spreading around the world. What daily habits would they change? What problems would they face in their daily lives? How would they react faced with government-imposed quarantines? This is the kind of imagination flexing that scientists call episodic future thinking—EFT for short. The purpose of the simulation was to map what the economic, social, political, and emotional impact of global threats might be. Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic—the real one, not the simulated one. People’s actual behavior and emotional response mirrored what the simulation had predicted 12 years earlier.
This wasn’t a random lucky guess. In 2010, Jane McGonigal ran another simulation involving some 20,000 participants, who were asked to imagine themselves in 2020. What situation did she ask them to envisage? Not only a global pandemic due to a respiratory virus but also conspiracy theories and disinformation spreading through social media, as well as several extreme events due to climate change, including wildfires on the West Coast of the United States and a collapse of the power grid. Does this combination of crises sound eerily familiar?
Yet Jane McGonigal argues the most meaningful role of such simulations isn’t to accurately predict the future. It is to “prepare our minds and stretch our collective imagination, so we are more flexible, adaptable, agile, and resilient when the ‘unthinkable’ happens.”14 She has found that training our imagination through episodic future thinking, in addition to making us better at spotting clues of what might happen, brings unexpected gifts: it strengthens our mental health, protects our cognitive abilities, bolsters our motivation, and boosts our creativity.
Multiple studies have confirmed that people who flex their imagination toward specific future scenarios tend not only to be more optimistic but also less likely to feel anxious or depressed. How come? Without imagination, hoping for a better future isn’t possible. Practicing EFT helps us control and channel our imagination so that it is neither too vague or inexistent, which is associated with depression, nor stuck in overdrive, which is related to anxiety. In addition to strengthening our mental health, training our ability to imagine future scenarios in detail also has cognitive benefits. A decline in that ability has been associated with conditions such as dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and post-traumatic stress. So exercises and games to improve that skill are being used in clinical environments.15 Third, spending time training our brain to imagine our future vividly has also been shown to boost our motivation to do things today that carry long-term benefits—the pull factor discussed previously in this chapter. And finally, studies have shown that participants who were asked to imagine a situation in the future performed a lot better in creativity tests afterwards.16
In short, flexing our imagination helps us become more resilient to future shocks, but also be more creative in the present— all skills and qualities that make us better, more effective human leaders. It gives what is typically referred to as our “right brain,” or the neural pathways associated with intuition, creativity, and emotions, space to expand—not literally of course, but figuratively—and taps into its natural ability to generate solutions that seem to appear out of nowhere.
Our imagination is our most powerful tool for change. When used properly, it helps clarify what’s important to us, who we truly are and can be, and how we want to incorporate this into how we lead. By helping us understand and connect with what drives us and the kind of human leader we want to be, this part of the mindbuild creates our compass and the engine we need to keep walking on our path of roses and stay on track. If this were not reward enough, it is good for our health, too, and teaches us to prepare and plan for an unpredictable future. We’ll see in Chapter 11 how exercising our brain in this way also helps us connect with others differently, which is at the heart of human leadership.
Vision without action, however, is nothing more than daydream. Now that you’ve built a clear vision of the kind of human leader you can be, it is time to turn this vision into reality.
Excerpted from The Unlocked Leader by Hortense Le Gentil. Publisher: Wiley, September 2023