Stories of Change & Creativity

Amy Webb - Leaning into Uncertainty

June 07, 2020 Amy Webb Season 1 Episode 12
Stories of Change & Creativity
Amy Webb - Leaning into Uncertainty
Chapters
1:40
Career path - What is a futurist?
4:49
The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity
10:27
Scenario Modeling
14:26
Family Influence
18:52
Value different ways of thinking
21:26
The science behind uncertainty
21:58
Zoom Fatigue
23:21
Perception
25:38
Lean into uncertainty
28:37
What keeps you up at night?
32:37
China & the Pandemic
35:40
Fear
39:34
2 Strategies for the future
Stories of Change & Creativity
Amy Webb - Leaning into Uncertainty
Jun 07, 2020 Season 1 Episode 12
Amy Webb

Show Notes

The COVID-19 virus has impacted the way we work, learn and live our lives.  On this episode, I talk with Amy Webb.  We recorded this interview on May 15, 2020.  Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist and a bestselling, award-winning author. She is the Founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures.  She's also a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business. During our interview, we'll hear about Amy's career path and get her thoughts on how we can deal with change and lean into uncertainty. 

Bio Info

Webb is a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University’s Säid School of Business, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, a Fellow in the United States-Japan Leadership Program and a Foresight Fellow in the U.S. Government Accountability Office Center for Strategic Foresight. She was a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where her research received a national Sigma Delta Chi award. She was also a Delegate on the former U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, where she worked on the future of technology, media and international diplomacy. Webb has advised CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, three-star generals and admirals and executive government leadership on strategy and technology.

Webb is the author of several popular books, including The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, which was longlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Digital Thinking Award, and won the 2020 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology, and The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, which won the Thinkers50 Radar Award, was selected as one of Fast Company’s Best Books of 2016, Amazon’s best books 2016, and was the recipient of the 2017 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology. Webb was named by Forbes as one of the five women changing the world, listed as the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020, and the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led.

"As a futurist, I'm always saying, what would it take for X to be Y?"  - Amy Webb

Future Today Institute: http://www.futuretodayinstitute.com
Twitter: @amywebb
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FuturistAmyWebb
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amywebb

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Show Notes

The COVID-19 virus has impacted the way we work, learn and live our lives.  On this episode, I talk with Amy Webb.  We recorded this interview on May 15, 2020.  Amy Webb is a quantitative futurist and a bestselling, award-winning author. She is the Founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures.  She's also a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business. During our interview, we'll hear about Amy's career path and get her thoughts on how we can deal with change and lean into uncertainty. 

Bio Info

Webb is a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University’s Säid School of Business, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, a Fellow in the United States-Japan Leadership Program and a Foresight Fellow in the U.S. Government Accountability Office Center for Strategic Foresight. She was a Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, where her research received a national Sigma Delta Chi award. She was also a Delegate on the former U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, where she worked on the future of technology, media and international diplomacy. Webb has advised CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, three-star generals and admirals and executive government leadership on strategy and technology.

Webb is the author of several popular books, including The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, which was longlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year award, shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Digital Thinking Award, and won the 2020 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology, and The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, which won the Thinkers50 Radar Award, was selected as one of Fast Company’s Best Books of 2016, Amazon’s best books 2016, and was the recipient of the 2017 Gold Axiom Medal for the best book about business and technology. Webb was named by Forbes as one of the five women changing the world, listed as the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020, and the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led.

"As a futurist, I'm always saying, what would it take for X to be Y?"  - Amy Webb

Future Today Institute: http://www.futuretodayinstitute.com
Twitter: @amywebb
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FuturistAmyWebb
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amywebb

Judy Oskam:

Welcome to Stories of Change and Creativity. I'm Judy Oskam, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University. On this episode I talk with Amy Webb. She's a quantitative futurist, founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute and a professor in the NYU Stern School of Business. Webb is also a bestselling author of three award-winning books that focus on emerging technologies, uncertainty and corporate foresight strategy. Webb pioneered data driven technology, led foresight methodologies and processes. She and her team advise CEOs, government leaders and organizations about strategy and the future. I'm honored to serve with Amy on the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. I'll include more bio information in the show notes. During our interview, Amy talks about her unique career path, how to deal with change and focus on what you can control. We discussed the current state of affairs with the pandemic and what it means to all of us. Webb says, when you don't know what the future is and you don't have control, it's important to lean in to uncertainty. I hope you find our conversation interesting and insightful. Thanks for listening. Let's start a little bit with your background. How did you become a quantitative futurist and what, what is that, what does that mean?

Amy Webb:

I can answer the first part of the last part of that question first. It's the easy part. I'm a futurist is somebody who models complexity and uncertainty in trying to understand next order impacts. So contrary to what a lot of people think, our job is actually not to make predictions. It's preparation. It's creating a state of readiness for what might come, you know, what might come next. Um, now how did I get to this point? I got to this point because I was a, I was not a fun person to have in a newsroom. So I started out as a journalist and .you know , I was pretty early to what was then called computer assisted reporting. That was a spreadsheet jockey and I was based overseas. So , um, I had very, like in the mid nineties, I had very early access to, you know, the first mobile phones that were connected to the internet. I'm sorta proto smartphones and the latest and greatest , um , gaming technology and stuff like that. I remember a friend of mine I had bought, had gone to , must've been Korea and come back and he, he bought a camera, a digital camera that also was an MP3 player. So like I was the epicenter of tech. And , when I came back to the United States, I just had a very, very difficult time fitting in. It was like I had, I had traveled back in time on a time machine and , I , I was at that point much more interested in experiential , storytelling and hacking business models and like all the stuff that none of my editors wanted me to be working on, which totally makes sense. I was, I was supposed to be a reporter. Uh , so I get all of that . And um, we , uh, I , I, I left slash got fired from my last job in journalism and decided , uh, to found a little R and D lab , where I was just testing out and trying to build , um, the future of news distribution really is how I got started. But then that was almost 20 years ago. So, so I went from that, studying strategy and taking courses in strategy. And I happened upon this area of strategy, strategic foresight, which is about, you know, data-driven models , trying to understand the future. And my academic background is game theory and economics anyways, so I think journalism was probably sort of a short stopover , on the way to the thing that I was always meant to be doing.

Judy Oskam:

I've listened to your the audio version of your latest book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and their Thinking Machines could Warp Humanity. And I'm telling you, Amy, I found it both fascinating and terrifying a little bit, especially listening to it during this time period. But what was your primary goal? Writing the book. What was your main thesis there?

Amy Webb:

Yeah, so terrifying and fascinating is actually a way that I get described a lot. So what was the, what was the point? So, you know, I really focus on emerging technologies. I, I always have, and I would say in the past 10 years or so in all the research that I've been doing I keep coming back to AI and and that was true, you know, in 2007 2008 around the financial crisis while we were looking at the future of the housing market and the future of the recession and everything else, I kept veering off into quantitative trading and, you know, high frequency trading funds and quant funds and stuff like that. Anyhow , so AI has kind of been there and in the past several years as I'm doing the research that I'd be doing anyways for work, I kept coming back to these same companies over and over and over again, six are in the United States, three are in China. And having lived in China for a while , and also Japan and also the United States. You know , I started really thinking through the geopolitical and geo-economic implications. And you know what, what it means when a technology that is really fundamental to everything that we do because it's the third era of computing. It's not a thing. You know, what happens in a free market economy with basically no regulations or restrictions and what happens in a closed society in , in the CCP where you've got an authoritarian ruler with a considerable in a country that owns a considerable amount of global debt. What happens when AI is developed there? And then more importantly, what happens if the developmental track of artificial intelligence is totally bifurcated going forward? So that's really what led to it. And I thought, you know, the AI community is pretty far into the weeds thinking about the future of the tech side of things. Regulators tend not to pay attention , to something until it reaches a critical mass in public consciousness. And then they get excited. And wall street has no patience and demands continual returns. And while all of that's been happening in the U S in China , AI has now intersected with a bunch of top level policies that range from repatriation of experts in academics to emerging markets, programs and other things. So all of this is leading to a very, very bad place. And I thought I should read, I should write a book that helps everybody get on the same page.

Judy Oskam:

I love how you, you explain from the business perspective the importance of business versus government and those roles and how they're intersecting or not intersecting. And I think that's it's, and you know, your writing is, it's a readable, it's funny, I mean, I've loved some of your humor. I think it's come through, but it kind of helps explain in what could be seen. Yeah. Scary kind of a forward movement here.

Amy Webb:

Yeah. And that's the, so the book is structured in three parts. The first part is sort of a here's what you missed on Glee version of artificial intelligence. It's a quick history. It's very dense, but it's like a, actually, totally sidebar here. But, so the book got nominated for several awards and it won some things. It got nominated. Amazon was listed as Amazon, one of Amazon's best history books. It's a, it's a book about the future, but it was named one of the best history books written for 2019 and then also one of the best books about tech. But the history component , um, is because I think a lot of people don't realize that artificial intelligence has been in some form of development now for hundreds of years. The third part is how do we fix the future. The second part a re these scenarios. And so there's an optimistic framing, a neutral framing, and a catastrophic framing. And optimistic doesn't mean sunshine and rainbows. I t just means we made the best possible decisions that we could given t he data that we have. And I, when I was on book tour, I got asked all the time, which one of those scenarios do I think is going t o happen? And at the time, so the book came out last a year ago, so last March. At the time I said, you know, I feel like we're in that neutral camp, which is where AI becomes excessively commercialized and we have this new stratification of digital haves and have nots and privacy is dead. And some people would argue that was the catastrophic framing. But I k ind o f thought that's where, y ou k now, we were going to be i n t hat situation with the emergence of the pandemic, a nd the erosion of privacy and now AI being used to track and quantify people. A nd with China now deploying a lot of technology that it was already hoping to use anyways, but this acted as a catalyst. I think we are in that catastrophic framing, which is not good.

Judy Oskam:

You talk about the methodology that you go through to model. Can you take us through sort of that, that scenario process?

Amy Webb:

Yeah. So there are futurists that really just focus on scenario modeling, scenario planning. So, and , and the modern version of that comes from a guy named Pierre Wack, who in the seventies , uh, was at Royal Dutch Shell and the tradition of modern scenario planning was really born there. Now foresight as an academic discipline and a social science goes back a hundred years. And before we got to scenarios, there was risk assessment, risk modeling and what we would call today trends analysis. I just offer that because it is a serious discipline. It is very rigorous. It is not a matter of reading a couple of trade publications and sort of going with your gut. This is rigorous , data-driven work. Now in our case , there's a lot of groundwork that leads up to the scenarios process. So , we, we use different frameworks to model longitudinal trends, but once we get that process done, then we build out scenarios. That's a multistage process for us. Everybody does it differently. We began with something called the axis of uncertainty, which is like trying to create a taxonomy of like all the things we don't know about in categories. And those categories tend to be things over which no one entity has control. So we try to figure that out. We create a bunch of two by two matrices and select different uncertainties and sort of basically write headlines. If these two things were to happen, then what? And from there we prioritize all of that information and then write first-generation scenarios. I mean, this is where the journalism training comes in. So we, we, it 's just that we use a very formulaic set of inputs. Well, actually, so it's not unlike writing for a ne wspaper p aper, right? You've got your lead, yo u g ot your, your significance graph. You know, I mean this is, it's a lot of the same. Yeah, it is.

Judy Oskam:

It's strategy.

Amy Webb:

It is. Yeah. Uh , so I think it's similar. We use a framework that forces us to think like very broadly. And then once we have a bunch of scenarios written, we say, okay, given what we know to be true, because they should be based in evidence. Right? Use the similar to how you would write a data driven. Yeah . I mean it's reporting, right? It's good reporting. Um, then we say, okay , now let's define our preferred future state, right? So you can end with like, here's how the world, here's the catastrophe, here's the optimistic framing. Or if you want to get to strategies, say, okay, well this is our preferred scenario and then we backwards engineer that. But you do that, your company with , uh , governments, businesses, corporations, institutions, right. So we, the work actually began with news organizations. And I got so frustrated. (laughs) so now we, we work intentionally, my team and I work across different industry sectors. There are futurists who specialize in health for example, or specialize in the energy sector. And I think that there is , um, depending on the type of work that you're doing, you know, sometimes it's better to have somebody with extensive domain experience, you know , sometimes it's useful to have people with more of a cross-functional or cross-disciplinary experience. And that's us. So we work with fortune 100, we work with , some government agencies. We also do some fun. I mean, it's pretty heady strategic work, but sometimes we , for fun , um, we, we do advise , uh, people making television shows and movies. We serve as script consultants. We've worked on some shows and commercials and television, movies and stuff. You mentioned your Dad in your opening credits, did your, how did your family nfluence your thinking? Because I'm fascinated with how your brain works and I've , I've seen you in meetings over the years and , and I just, I love kind of watching you think and , and , um, percolate while things are going on. But did your family influence you? I mean, I have a very, very tight knit family, but on sides of my family they are radically different. My mother's family are immigrants. Eastern European. Jewish and , came to the United States, worked and worked and worked and worked at , you know, very, very, very poor , worked incredibly hard, hard work, productivity and education were more important than anything else. My dad's side of the family are evangelical Christians. Um, and we're at one point, some of them are Pentecost , so deeply, deeply religious. Also , Oh, very, you know , very poor at , were very poor. My dad was family, was very poor growing up, subsistence farming and , but hard work, productivity, you know, paramount and education. My dad was the first to graduate from high school and his family. And with those, with my last name and our family, I'm the first to graduate from college. So I think , um, you know, and , and now the thing that I pray that , that I prize more than anything else is hard work and productivity and forward momentum. So , I think that that my family influenced that now on the future stuff. I kind of knew what I wanted to do when I was in elementary school. Like I kept journals from a pretty young age and was prolific...I wrote a lot. I didn't have a lot of friends. I wrote a lot. Um, so I've always wanted to do features work in some way or another, even when I didn't have the vocabulary to describe it.

Judy Oskam:

Before, it wasn't a career path that people really thought about. I just wonder about that and.

Amy Webb:

Yeah. Um, I mean I've , I want it to be solicitor general. Like, that was my, I was like 10 and for a heartbeat, like I thought I wanted to be president and then I, I don't know, I guess it must have been something about Reagan in the eighties and somehow I just thought like, I , you know, I'm looking at the, I'm looking at the world through like ten-year-old eyes. So I don't, obviously there's, there's a lot there that, but I think at some point along the way it was like the executive branch doesn't have all the power that I think it does. President doesn't. I should be a Supreme court judge. I'll go to law school and that's what I'll do. And then I thought, I don't want to, I'm not a good team a nd I 'm not probably a good team players, just solicitor general. I want to be arguing. I want to like, y eah. So t hat was my dream job. Yeah. Like, I want to show up and like, you know, figure out the puzzle and l ike try to rearrange things and I out think everybody, s o that's what I wanted to do and I made a last minute decision not to go to law school.

Judy Oskam:

Have you ever, ever rethought that. Have you ever thought about that?

Amy Webb:

No. I um,

Judy Oskam:

so it was the right decision then?

Amy Webb:

I didn't. Yeah, I mean, and that's the, I think one of the failures of American education is that we don't challenge kids enough to think differently. You know, we, we really, it's weird, like we seem to, like we seem to want to reward individual thinking and achievement and like, you know, the American spirit, all these things. And yet we just do a terrible job of helping kids understand that there's a great constellation of potential opportunities. And even , and then I think that even happens in college, you know, I had a scholarship to music school, music conservatory which I, sort of knew was going to...I got recruited when I was in ninth grade, so I didn't have a lot of options. My parents said I could go to college anywhere as long as I had it paid for, Sure. So I was going to go to music school and when I got there I wanted to take a bunch of other classes. I wanted to major in other things. Also I was told n o. Eventually I dropped out of the music program and y ou k now, c hanged my major and I, there was no way for me to study all of the different, like I couldn't, the credit hours, the major, the whole system was set up so that, yeah. Yeah. So like if I wanted to major in political science, like I had to follow this set of ideas or, or i t was either that or I could do economics or I could do. And what I wanted to do was k ind o f study computer science, math, political science, game theory and economics. There was just no way to combine all that into one major, you know? And I was thought like I would be so much better at my job today. I think I would be a more productive member of society if I had had a broader constellation of um, classes that I could have taken.

Judy Oskam:

Well, and , and I have to ask you, are , do you play or do you sing? What's your instrument or are you a singer?

Amy Webb:

I was a clarinetist. Oh , clarinet. Okay . My sister is an opera singer. Oh , okay. So yeah, that's great. Do you play?

Judy Oskam:

the guitar.

Amy Webb:

Oh cool. Yeah, yeah, do you read music or do you chords ?

Judy Oskam:

I'm a chord person. Yeah. Just the chords and um , I'm going to try and write a little song or two during this covid thing, but just kind of have a little fun. My daughter graduated from college last week.

Amy Webb:

Oh, that's great.

Judy Oskam:

I'm trying to think about doing something for her because she's sort of self quarantining a little bit with her group. So she, she's one of those that I think, you know, now she's got the whole world in front of her and the path is so wide and I, and I agree. Think we all can do a better job of saying to students that there is a wide world out there. And the options are what you make of it. Um, and I think , uh , I think, you know, you know, you're the perfect example. You've got some great tools on your website that talk about the modeling and some downloads that I think can help organizations of all kinds as they think through some of these processes of change.

Amy Webb:

Yeah. You know, I know that we are all dealing with a soul crushing amount of uncertainty. And when you are dealing with deep uncertainty, the limbic system response that a lot of us have is to just preserve the status quo at all costs or to revert to what felt comfortable. And there's a biomechanical reason for that. You know, o ur, our brains like patterns and you know, what's happened since effectively January is that e very d ay we're having to learn a not insignificant number of new patterns that range from Zoom meetings. You know, people talk about zoom fatigue and there may be some of you who are like, how hard is it to just click a button and talk to somebody on the video? And the answer is you're actually asking your body and your brain to start engaging in cognitive processes that h ave, it's never had to do before. So it's a little bit like waking up one morning and running a marathon. Technically, can you do it? Yeah. You've got, you know, if you're, if you c an walk, right. U m, b ut, but all b ut think of every single muscle, Oh, we've got all these tiny little muscles and muscle fibers, right? They're going to be screaming at you. L ike, y ou k now, why are you doing this? It's a similar situation that we're all in right now with just, you know, with everything. But I'll focus on zoom for a minute when we're no longer around other people, all of the c ues, u m, that we process automatically. U m, you know, we have to kind of we're like breaking in all these new cognitive muscles, right? So it's, it's equivalent. U m, you know, cause your brain is not used to processing a two dimensional v irtual grid, a four by four grid of faces. And we're not used to not hearing everybody. I mean it's just, it's a totally different, it's totally different. And so it's a little bit like forcing your brain to run a marathon when it's only ever walked around the block before. Right. Now that being said, I would argue that part of our current challenge is perception. You know catastrophe can be a catalyst for change if you allow it b e. I think the problem is a lot of people are not willing to be o pen m inded and think about alternative futures. Whether that's our u niversities where I think this is a major, major problem. U m, you know, or some of our government agencies that like refused to allow people to work remotely for some reasons that were valid. Other reasons that weren't and are now just trying to figure, you know, like we've created a lot of problems that were avoidable. So what does that tell us about the future? It tells us that, there are physical, there are things outside of your control that can't be helped. And then there's all t he stuff that's within your control that you can do something about. If you're graduating from college and your plan was to go work at some company and that job has been furloughed or it doesn't exist anymore, o r the internship doesn't exist anymore. Okay, now we know that we've got that data and now l et's recalibrate and figure out the next step. U m, and sometimes that can be easier said than done, but if you don't actively challenge yourself to b e u p for the task, u m, then, then you don't get anywhere.

Judy Oskam:

I think it's a good point to think of it as data and a data point because it sort of puts it in a, a more objective state that I think some of our students are wondering what shall they do now? And some of the faculty are wondering how they're going to accomplish this. Yeah.

Amy Webb:

I mean, I'll tell you, I , you know, cause I also teach, I'm a professor at NYU Stern. I've always , I teach a very intense class. It's a little bit like everybody's going into battle together and on the end of it , all of my alumni and I, you know, we , we stay in touch. I have like a series of Slack , groups, usually one for each class and there's a big alumni channel. You know, and the answer is, y ou have to be willing to the way to, so when you don't know what the future is and also you don't have control over everything, you have to lean into uncertainty. Otherwise anxiety takes over and you lean into uncertainty by saying, I'm willing to pilot to sort of quickly iterate. U m, an iterative action is more important than, than sort of sticking to your guns or trying to create huge changes. So what does that mean? That means every day y ou, y ou k now, if my end game, if my end goal is this, then today I'm going to try this thing. I'm going to quickly experiment, learn, tweak, gather data, and then recalibrate and move on over and over and over and over and over again.

Judy Oskam:

I would think too , I've enjoyed how you kind of, how you approach things in meetings and you talk in terms of sprints. And I think we're in a series of sprints with..

Amy Webb:

I think can be, you know, and I think we should be, but that's not, listen, I've had the extraordinary luxury of not working for somebody else now for I guess, 16 years, which means while I do a tremendous amount of work with corporate America and with government, I am not an employee. And even when I was a journalist, I really only spent about three months inside of the main newsroom. I was always in a, you know , um, so I've had the luxury , uh , especially in the past 16 years of not having to operationalize change. And that's hard. I've also had the luxury of being outside of the politics of teams and departments and you know, so my perspective on this is wildly skewed and it's easy for me to meeting to say let's approach this in this other way, which makes totally like perfect logical sense to me. But for everybody else that's , that would be a fairly seismic cultural shift. So I like, I acknowledge all of that. I don't think it's a reason not to try something different. But know ,

Judy Oskam:

Well, my brother is fond of saying that that, you know, the solution or the answer is simple but not easy. It's very clear and simple, but it's not easy. And I think that's probably true. But I wanted to ask you what, what keeps you up at night? Because I , I just wonder and I really enjoyed reading, especially that section of the book where you talk about the future and I'm seeing this pandemic is going to drive us there sooner rather than later.

Amy Webb:

What keeps , keeps me up? Like what am I worried about?

Judy Oskam:

Yeah. What keeps you up at night? Uh, when you, when you think about future.

Amy Webb:

So I would say that I am a pragmatist. Um, so, and if anything, I'm, I'm, I'm very emotionally detached when it comes to what the work reveals. I'm very emotional, like I'm very dedicated to the work. I think if I allowed myself, when I, when I wrote the big nine and got to the catastrophic scenario, which is all about AI, it's actually not about AI r obots coming to murder us in our sleep. It's, it's worse than that. U h, i t's, it's, it's a giant, geopolitical shift and economic turmoil and a bunch of other horrible things.That felt so visceral and real to me that I went I was in a pretty dark place writing that section of the book. And that's pretty unusual for me. Normally I'm pretty detached and I think, you know, I think I have to be My, I sort of trace my lineage futurists, strategic foresight and futures work. Y ou k now, it's kind of a weird f ield. There's not a huge number of people who have done it. And if you go back in time, there's a couple of different schools of thought. U m, I would say that I follow the school of Herman Kahn who was at the Rand corporation at the height of the cold war, u m, i s actually the reason I invented the word scenarios at least as it relates to strategy work. And, u m, was the person who wrote on Thermo, thermonuclear war, which described what it would be like fo ur p eople, especially children to survive a nuclear attack by Russia, this unreadable. And it was, u m , t he, the, it was all rooted in data. It was not speculative. It was so disturbing. It was so horrifying. Did you ever read it or no?

Judy Oskam:

No. No. But I've saw some of the Rand stuff before.

Amy Webb:

Yeah. So it was so horrifying that , uh, people, when it became public, people lost, like lost it. And there's a really interesting slash hilarious interview between Herman Kahn and Margaret Mead and Margaret Mead is just like ripping into him. How could you possibly, you know , this is basically saying, just like, go ahead and drop the bomb and everybody will survive and this'll be the aftermath. And he's like, and everybody misunderstood. Um, the point was not to say go ahead and drop the bomb and now this is how we live. The point was to scare them. Hell out of everybody. If this is the next order implication, if this is the impact, and we have to come up with some kind of disarmament plan. Right. Um, so he would say, and did say that his job was to imagine the unimaginable. And I think that that's my job too , right ? So I have to concern myself with a future in which China has waged economic warfare and we don't realize it. And in the United States, we're so politically divided that by the time we can align on what to do next, they have literally locked us out of global trade. I know that doesn't sound a plausible right now or be all that scary, but if you think through the implications of that, we are not a self-sufficient nation. I mean, that would that think of what everybody is going through right now. [ You know, quintuple that negative feeling. So, I'm always, and I tend to think more doom and gloom than , uh , you know, but I also believe that if you can spot risk early enough , you then you have an opportunity to mitigate it or better turn that into some kind of opportunity. And that's like the really sick, that's the, that's the rub with this whole pandemic as far as I'm concerned. China, there's cultural reasons why this would not have happened, but China could have in December said, Hey, world. Um, we just, we, you know, we don't know where it came from. We discovered this crazy, scary new virus. Uh , we'd like other scientists to work with us, you know , work with us on this. We don't know where it came from. It's really bad, but don't worry, we are going to be the heroes and we're going to figure out what it is. We're going to lock everything down and we're going to share information and we're going to come up with a cure for it or a vaccine for it. And you know, we're, we're going to be good. They didn't do t hat. And they could have, they would have had so much political capital if they had done that and such an ability to k now. So they didn't do that. But conversely the United States had a huge opportunity to into some , and I should mention, I'm politically independent on on purpose, right? Obviously because of the work that I do and I don't feel drawn to one side or the other, but it is difficult to look at our current situation and not think, you know, we also had a massive opportunity in December to say something like, we know there's intelligence saying there's a virus in China. Historically speaking, they don't contain things well. So let's come up with decisive action and we'll be the heroes for the world. We will be the first, we'll we'll have like a five month head start on a vaccine. We will have a coordinated response. We won't just, you know , create a new supply of masks and PPE and all this other stuff. We're going to invent anti-microbial face jelly or whatever. Right? We could have seen existential risk and said, okay , this is going to become an opportunity and this is the, this is the one of the big failings of the Trump administration. They could have done this and they could have done it in a way , um, that , uh, bolstered the Republicans and could have effectively insured . Know everybody got to stay in office by saying we're going to be the heroes. We're gonna put our politics aside for five seconds. We'll go back to arguing. Don't worry, there'll be fun. But , but right now , um, we're going to be the heroes. We're going to , you know, some in the full night of American ingenuity and we're going to solve the world's problem and you're all going to have to rely on us. We're going to make a ton of money in the process. Yeah .

Judy Oskam:

Do you think though, people just don't want to see problems and just avoid problems?do you think that's human nature?

Amy Webb:

Well, I think I don't know. I mean, I can tell you China, I can see culturally, yeah. The country would , would not. Yeah . Well there's like a, there's also sort of a, an issue of face and whistle. Like there's a pride issue, you know, I think , um , you know, the , the word FOMO, fear of missing out was kind of the thing that everybody would talk about. Yeah . Over the past couple of years. And I, I really feel like we've traded FOMO for just abject fear in the United States. We are fearful in ways that we haven't been before. And I think that that is not a one sided problem. I think that that has certainly come out of the White House and been amplified by all media outlets on all sides. Um, so I think we're feeling afraid. And my hunch is that in times when people are feeling afraid, they don't want to explore uncertainty. Right. And that cause that just makes you feel more afraid, but okay . It's a different type of fear. Fear of the unknown is, I think more challenging than being afraid of a boogeyman , you know? So.

Judy Oskam:

How do you think media's played into all of that?

Amy Webb:

Well, I mean, how do you think the media is? You should tell me. How do you think they played in ?

Judy Oskam:

I think it's been a little overzealous on a lot of fronts.

Amy Webb:

Yeah, I would agree.

Judy Oskam:

And I think I'm how organizations have acted and reacted has not necessarily been the right thing. And it's interesting to me how the States are trying to open up because we can't kill our economy over this. And that's another issue, but...

Amy Webb:

Right. I think you're right. And I have a sort of a concrete example, there's a short podcast produced by the Washington post called The Daily 202, which I don't know if you've listened to. It used to be pretty good. It's, it's like used to listen to it in the morning cause it was quick and it's just sort of like, like here's some stuff you need to know today. And it was sort of a preview of what was going to be in the paper for the day. Um, and I, I really liked it. That morphed about a year ago into the daily Trump bashing. It was just like new day, just like really, you know, sort of melodramatic way . Yeah, the Trump administration is not a ton of bad stuff, but I think you start to lose some of your effectiveness when you go so far. You know and now it is a daily, it's just daily stories in unnecessarily using detail that I don't think helps...advances, the narrative in any way of people who are dying or businesses that are closing to the point where I just have stopped listening to it. Not that I don't care, but it's like, I don't know how this is, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this information.

Judy Oskam:

And is it helping move the right country forward or not?

Amy Webb:

It feels more gratuitous. It feels gratuitous. It feels like there is an attempt to, to sort of get at an emotional response. And I think we could use fewer, fewer media attempts to get emotional responses from us. And I think we could use more guidance, strategic guidance and just helping us understand stories. And to that end, I think, I mean I'm not the only one who thinks this, but The daily, which is the New York Times 40 person audio. I mean that's a huge team with a huge budget . But what I actually think they're doing it , it's , it's the same. It's the same type of product news product. I think they're doing a much better job of it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I , I just think it's a, it's a , it's a crazy time and I think , uh, um, I think as far as you're concerned , you know, with your background, what do you think are some two , two strategies that you think listeners can take forward about how they can deal with the future? I liked your comment earlier about leaning into uncertainty and I think that's probably a good one. Yeah. So maybe, let me unpack that. So cognitive behavioral science tells us that when you are feeling panicky or anxious about something,. Our typical response is, is avoidance. So most people will do whatever they can to avoid having negative thoughts. Um, and they don't treat that content as content. It feels urgent and at some point it starts to feel like reality, even though whatever that is is either unfounded or it hasn't happened yet or whatever. So leaning into uncertainty is really about allowing those anxious feelings to happen and observing them, categorizing them , you know, with, and , and sort of doing that one step removed. And, and the other piece of that is acknowledging that none of us has complete control over the future, if any of us did. And so, as a futurist, I'm always saying, what would it take for X to be Y ? So what would it take for any one person to have control over the future? Well , we would have to be living in somebody else's simulation and you would have to be the, the computer master, right? Or somehow you would have to be omniscient and have all data at all. It would have to be Dr. Manhattan from the Watchman. All right . So, so we're , we're not ever going to have all of the data that we need, therefore acknowledge it. And if we can't have all the data and we cannot know exactly what's going to happen and we can't control exactly what's going to happen either. So it's a , you know, I know it sounds maybe sort of like a no brainer, but it's actually much more profound. And once you accept that, then the strategy becomes constantly creating a state of preparedness for the future. Now this is where you don't want OCD to take over because when OCD takes over, you become a prepper. So , um, not always the healthiest approach, but yeah . So that's the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is , uh, you know, if you are analytically inclined, you know, or somebody who prefers data and sensing versus intuition, then like find yourself a framework. I've got something called the axes of uncertainty. So if you just Google my name and axes of uncertainty, I have a step by step explanation for how to use it. But you know, we're find somebody else's, like there are all these roadmaps and canvases and frameworks and tool kits. Just like find one that feels right and start using it because , um, the nice thing about a framework is that it's just a guide to help your thinking about what to do next and then the pressure's off because you're not making a giant decision. You're making a whole bunch of incremental decisions that get you, you know what I mean? That like get you to the right place. It's like making a series of small bets versus one big bet .

Judy Oskam:

And that can be, if you're looking for a job or changing your location or moving or you can take that and on a, on a micro or macro level, I would think too,

Amy Webb:

Right? I actually know somebody right now who's in a job transition and really struggling. And I think the problem is that she hasn't articulated what she wants to be when she grows up, you know? And that's fine. Um, you don't have to know the name of the job title that you want to have. I mean, I didn't know that there was a , I think as a futurist, you know, but can you articulate the core values and the , you know, there's, there's a , Ikigai there's like a Japanese framework. It looks like a giant, horrible venn diagram, a mistake, but it , it asks you to think about your values and you know, what makes you happy, all those different things. Figure that out. That's the hardest thing to figure out. And then, and then worry about the job title and then that helps guide your search. You know ,

Judy Oskam:

I think it's so hard for students because as you know, my daughters trying to look for that right now. I'm going to find, I'm going to find her a framework because she won't listen to me.

Amy Webb:

Well, I will tell you, I, for a long time, I used to not tell people what I did for a living. And in fact, last night I was having a, well because I thought it sounded stupid. I thought it sounded like I made up. Well, okay. But,. You know, I was in my thirties. You know, I, I didn't have the confidence and I , I don't have a normal life. I don't have a normal job, you know, I'm 45 now and I think I'm pretty successful and I have a totally different outlook on life. Yeah . But I think it's that, I think it's finding the confidence inside and being willing to not have to fit into somebody else's taxonomy.

Judy Oskam:

I think that, and you probably knew that when you were 10 years old. I bet you just didn't know. If you could talk to your 10 year old self.

Amy Webb:

Honestly, if I could talk to my 10 year old self, I would say you've got a very, very challenging road ahead and , you know , suck it up, keep your head down and work hard. Just like you did. Just like harder even. You know, I, and, and for some, like for me , uh, it took a while for me to accept having an unusual job. But I can't, again, I think whatever career path, you know, coming out of college you choose or whatever it is, if you , you know, the people who are the, I think the most successful are the ones who are the most authentic to themselves. If you can be the most authentic version of yourself and work as hard as you can, being that authentic version of yourself, you will succeed. You will succeed in a down economy. You will exceed in the midst of a global pandemic. You'll be okay. I think it's everybody else who really struggles. Yeah. Very long time to figure that out. But yeah,

Judy Oskam:

Yeah, sure, sure, sure, sure. Well, I'm a lot older than you and it took me a while to , but, well , I'll ask you, you know, speaking of your authentic self, I always ask, and I think, you know , listeners like to hear what, what's a little known fact about Amy that , that we don't know that you would mind sharing. We know you played the clarinet. We know that now. Yeah.

Amy Webb:

What's a little known fact? Well , I live in two cities. One of the cities that I live in has a nice, u m, a nice yard and I for years we, my family grows most of the food that we eat during the warmer months. U m, s o we have an enormous organic garden that I s pent a ton of time in.

Judy Oskam:

Oh, that's great. That's great. Yeah. And it's really important now when, when sometimes, you know, it's hard to get produce now, so sometimes, so ,

Amy Webb:

It is, and in fact, we usually grow so much that we turn our little garden into a CSA for the neighborhood. And usually in August, unless it's a rainy year, u m, we produce enough vegetables to distribute. We have a little distribution route and usually the month of August and into early September, depending on how the weather has been, none of our neighbors have to buy produce. And we just d on't, we, and we have a fairly s izable berry area too, so,

Judy Oskam:

Oh my gosh. So they go to Webb gardens and get their stuff, that's great. . Well, Amy, thanks for, thanks for talking with me today. I tell you, I really found the book fascinating. very educational. I can see why it was listed in the history area as well, but wow, what, what a great read, funny, informative, educational , uh, and timely, very timely right now.

Amy Webb:

Thanks. I really appreciate it .

Judy Oskam:

Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Amy. Thanks. Thanks for chatting with me. I appreciate it. Thank you for listening to Stories of Change and Creativity. Check out the show notes for more information about this episode. You can find this podcast on any of your favorite streaming platforms. Please subscribe, leave a review and share this podcast with a friend. If you have a story to tell or know someone who does, reach out to me at judyoskam.com Or [email protected] That's [email protected] Thanks for listening.

Career path - What is a futurist?
Scenario Modeling
Family Influence
Value different ways of thinking
The science behind uncertainty
Zoom Fatigue
Perception
Lean into uncertainty
What keeps you up at night?
China & the Pandemic
Fear
2 Strategies for the future