How to practice being surprised

I’m part Brand Strategist, part Science Fiction author. Sometimes they’re very different worlds, but sometimes I learn something in one part of my life that’s very useful in the other. And the other day thinking about science fiction helped me realise something very important about prediction, and then about brands.

Tomorrow’s not what it used to be

When you’re an SF writer, people often think you’ve got a shortcut to the future. It can get a bit embarrassing, because in fact nothing dates like technology. Everyone had an iPod ten years ago. Twenty years ago mobile phones had only just stopped being bricks. And the very latest record player from the Eighties? It’s an artefact from a different time.

And that creates problems when you’re writing about tomorrow. The future’s the one place we’re all headed towards, all at exactly the same speed. And, because time always passes, when your readers sit down to read your SF book, they’ll be closer to the future you’ve invented than you were when you were inventing it. And that can make anything you’ve got wrong very easy to spot indeed.

Look at famously excellent SF movie ‘Blade Runner’, for example. It’s set in 2019. Now that we’re actually in 2018, it’s very easy to see that it’s not actually very accurate. Nobody in the film has mobile phones and none of them use the internet. We don’t have flying cars (an ongoing tragedy) or almost-human robots. And Los Angeles doesn’t look anything like Ridley Scott’s urban hellscape, which is actually quite a relief.

All the possible futures

So, if SF doesn’t predict the future, what’s it actually for? Well, ‘Blade Runner’ is still a great film to watch. Of course it tells a very human story, about love, mortality and loss. But it does something else very valuable. By showing you a world that’s not actually tomorrow, but is different from today in some pretty surprising ways, it helps you practice being surprised.

And what I realised about prediction. On one level, it’s impossible. Nobody knows exactly what will happen next – just ask the pollsters from the last election. But it can help you get ready for what might happen next. And that’s a very important thing to do.

To do that, you need to define the best of what you are now, about the genuine, constructive value you bring to the world around you. Then you test it out. You think about all the different tomorrows that could happen – most very sensible, some completely nutso. And you work out how you’ll bring the best of yourself to bear on all of them.

And whatever it is that always works, whatever it is that always makes the world better not just for you but for the most important people around you – that’s what you build your brand and all your brand comms on. Because you know that, whatever unpredictable things happen, it’ll always help you make the best of them, for you customers, your colleagues and for you.

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