Thinking long

Photo by Steven Van Loy on Unsplash

“Successful long term planning is vital if society is going to survive and flourish, rather than collapse”.

Jared Diamond; Collapse (p.523)

Over the summer break I sat with a close friend having coffee and reflecting on more than five decades of knowing each other. As we sat in conversation, we reflected a lot on the extent to which our modern society has become focused on the short term, and not the long game. It’s very much about ‘me’ and less about ‘we’ and of instant, personal gratification over sacrifice for longer-term, communal benefits. Decades of being told we can do anything we want and can have anything we want have resulted in a society of individuals, obsessed with personal gain and status at the expense of what others may need or want, and at the expense of the planet we share and enjoy life together on.

As we were contemplating our plans in life over the next decade my friend challenged me by asking; “imagine we’re sitting here in ten year’s time – what would the future Derek be advising the Derek who’s sitting here at the moment?”

It’s a good question. A decade can seem a long time away, and yet, it can also pass without us noticing. The decisions we make today can have a profound impact on our lives in that time. For example, how I invest my money, the time I spend with my kids and grand-kids, the jobs I take, the choices I make about maintaining my fitness – or the diet I choose.

The question has been on my mind for a couple of months now. In contemplating my response I could take a very selfish view – thinking purely about what I want and what will benefit me. But inevitably I run into having to consider the impact of things beyond my control and the ways these things may constrain or limit the options I really can consider. For example, I may decide that having a house on the beach somewhere might be a good idea – but it’s unlikely I will be able to avoid the spiralling house prices and potential impact of climate change or sea level rise as factors to consider in making such a decision.

It’s these longer term, and potentially higher impact concerns that present bigger challenges when it comes to decision making. It’s easier to make a decision based on the immediate return I may experience, but it’s when the longer term consequences are considered that things get complicated.

I found myself thinking first as a parent and a grand-parent, taking my thoughts down the track of being concerned about whether I am in a position of providing sufficiently for my children’s and grandchildren’s future – both materially and in terms of the love, support and guidance I provide through the relationship I have with each of them. Do I give them enough time? What could I do more of here? etc.

And then my mind drifts to imagining the sort of world they will grow up to inhabit – a complex world of unimaginable opportunities, yet under threat as a result of human action. I think of the things that I could be doing now to ensure the world they inherit has at least a fighting chance of providing them with the quality of life to be able to thrive and in turn make a difference for others.

This perspective is argued well by Roman Krznaric in his book, The Good Ancestor, subtitled ‘how to think long-term in a short-term world’. Through his book Krznaric refers to the cultural practice of seventh-generation thinking, based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. It applies, for example, to decisions being made about our energy, water, and natural resources, and ensuring those decisions are sustainable for seven generations in the future. (After reading Krznaric’s book I’ve quietly vowed that’s what I want to be – a good ancestor!)

These are high and lofty goals, I know, but without them I fear my life becomes rather miserable, focused only on the immediate and what benefits me. I fear so many of us have become like this – indeed, our society reflects much of this ‘short-term-ism’ in the way we behave at elections or in response to political decisions targeting the longer term, but having a short term impact on our pocket, for instance.

Then I think about the profession I’ve dedicated my whole career to – Education. If any profession has a responsibility for ‘thinking long’ it is ours.

Our job isn’t simply about teaching today’s lesson or even this year’s curriculum – but is about creating the future through our investment in the lives of those in our care.

While I know a statement like that will tug at the heartstrings of many dedicated educators, the reality is that we’re slaves to a system that demands short-term returns. Whether determined by the three, six or twelve month budget cycles, our ‘annual progression by age’ structure, the 3-5 year ERO review cycles or the impact of our 3-year election cycle – all too often these things end up limiting our ability to think and act long in the work we do. We’ve no sooner begun on a significant change strategy than it is curtailed due to the cessation of funding or change in policy or personnel in key positions. (Think here about the seemingly endless string of government education initiatives that are discontinued because the initial funding stream ends and no provision was made for a sustainability plan, or where a change in leadership heralds a different set of priorities based on a set of personal beliefs or ideals.)

Ove my career I’ve had the privilege of working with many schools that have defined for themselves some truly inspirational vision and mission statements, identifying the values that will permeate how they operate and creating graduate profiles that provide a picture of what they seek to achieve in their learners – encouraging stuff!

But so often, in the turmoil of the present, meeting imposed deadlines triumphs over time available to explore, make mistakes and the development of deeper learner qualities. Reporting systems emphasise curriculum achievement and standards with precision and evidence, but become more vague and unspecific in terms of the development of learner capabilities and qualities such as empathy, patience, resilience etc.

I was reminded of this tension again just this week while in a conversation with a group of principals who were being consulted about a current initiative. I’d been trying to articulate a ‘bigger picture’ of what was being considered, providing an image to illustrate the interrelationship between many parts of the issue. The principals were genuinely engaged in the conversation, but as we got the point where decisions had to be made about taking this thinking further, one principal commented, “Derek, you’re always looking ten years out – but what my teachers need is something they can work with today.”

And here lies the tension. He’s not wrong. We have to support the work of our educators in the present – but we also need to do so with a clear view of where we aim to be in the future. It’s not a binary choice. It’s just that so often the immediate takes precedence.

All of this thinking brings me back to my friend’s challenge over coffee back in January – what advice might my future self give to my present self? Here’s where I’ve landed so far…

  • keep my eyes on the horizon, but feet on the ground – I mustn’t feel bad about thinking long, even when my ideas and convictions about the future are dismissed by others. BUT I must also make sure I remain connected to the current realities, and so remain committed to working on the ground with educators in schools and collaborating with them to find practical solutions to immediate concerns – ensuring those things set a trajectory that is future focused.
  • don’t sweat the small stuff – it’s too easy at times to become pre-occupied with the minute of the present, and allow small things to irritate me or consume my thinking – all of which causes stress and distraction from the more important things and bigger picture. I need to take time out to appreciate and enjoy family, friends, and the things that will endure long after these things have passed. Thinking long has always been a key strategy in my thought processes that has enabled me to do this.
  • go with my gut – I’m privileged to have enjoyed a long career in education, and that, for the most part, that journey has allowed me to follow my passions rather than feeling tied to a specific career path. I want to continue that way now – being led by the things I feel passionate about, the things that will inform and shape the world that my grand kids will grow up to thrive in. Whatever I do, create and commit myself to in the next phase of my life must be passion-led and inspired by things that matter. There’s simply no time left to prop up aging bureaucracies, creaking hierarchies, and any part of our system that perpetuates inequity of any kind.

These are the reasons I’ve founded FutureMakers – hopefully creating a space to share ideas, build connections and create foundations for some different ways of doing things – things that matter, and things that will endure and be sustainable – for the good of all.

4 thoughts on “Thinking long

  1. Love this perspective Derek thank you – thinking out 7 generations is a truly long term perspective that shapes our thinking in a totally different way!

  2. Derek-
    I will never forget late 2019– how kind you were to this retired (somewhat) educator from South Carolina during a sad cruise to New Zealand. You might not remember, but our cruise was shortened due to an offshore volcano explosion. You scheduled a luncheon with Marg and me. She gave me valuable insight into New Zealand education and even toured me through some schools. I needed that break from the horror on the ship, as many passengers lost their lives or were severely burned. This article was the highlight of my day as I am currently working on a strategic plan with an amazing Upstate of South Carolina District, Superintendent, and Board. Bless you, my friend, perfect timing. Your words are far-reaching. Thank you so much. Char Burgner

    1. Kia ora Char – indeed, I do remember that occasion! Great to hear from you again via this post – and appreciate your kind words here. Do reach out of you want a conversation about your strategic plan – it’s what I’m currently working on with our MoE here in NZ (with Marg as it happens!)

  3. “We have to support the work of our educators in the present – but we also need to do so with a clear view of where we aim to be in the future. It’s not a binary choice. It’s just that so often the immediate takes precedence”.
    Agreed.-But it does need to be bi-focal: one eye on the longer-term important goal,
    the other on the day by day actions now which lead to realising that goal, so the urgent doesn’t drive out the important.

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