Notes from Last Night – “You, The Future and What To Do About It”

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This guest post was written by Lara Hayward (@auspiciouspixie on Twitter, her blog here) and Adele Barlow (@adelebarlow on Twitter).

Mark Stevenson is the author of the critically acclaimed An Optimist’s Tour of the Future and (amongst many other things – see more about Mark below) the founder of The League of Pragmatic Optimists

We gathered at the Escape School last night to hear from Mark Stevenson, who brilliantly led us through a broader historical exploration of the idea that “the future is coming faster than we all think and it always will be.” Mark discussed the three stages of tech – the pre-Internet phase, and then the stage now where “tech seems pointless and makes you angry, like twitter and 3D – I have friends who are furious that Twitter exists!” The mobile phone processor is now more powerful than the Apollo space programme.

He mentioned that the cost of sequencing genome has gone down from 100mill to 1000 in a decade. What about living forever? “Would you marry anybody if they knew they were going to live for 150 years?” Essentially, he concluded that most companies say they want to innovate but they don’t know how. There is “innovation wash” – a lot of talking about innovation without doing a thing. He talked about Darwin’s idea that “those most responsive to change will survive.”

Escape the City, Mark said, is the first licensed organisation to officially embrace the 8 Principles of Optimism. He gave us 5 minutes to think about this question over the break: “How responsive are you to change?” How do you approach this future? He then linked this back to the 8 Principles of Optimism:

1. Have an unashamed optimism of ambition.

We should have an unashamed optimism of ambition about future (believing that we could be better – more humane, ethical, kinder, smarter, etc). Be unashamedly prepare to believe, as Eleanor Roosevelt, that ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’

2. Involve yourself in projects that are bigger than you.

What’s the definition of happiness? Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it. Mark said, “Who hates the question, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ Tell kids to answer, ‘I’m going to do a job that’s not been invented yet. Fuck off Granddad.’” Ask yourself:

  • What are your many passions?
  • What are you good at? What would your best friend say that you’re good at?
  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
  • Why is this important? Think about what’s on your dashboard. If don’t know what’s on your dashboard you’ll be driving by fear, comfort, fear and it will stop you escaping the city.
  • What are your big dreams? What are your Bigger than you projects? Put those things on your dashboard.

3.Engineer serendipity.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up. Ask someone you don’t know what you should try, what should you do next. Smash yourself into new ideas: one simple thing can change things overnight. Create a serendipity fund, put money in to do something random. Find time to do something different. Even if you hate it, the reasons you hate it will still be interesting to you.

4. You are what you do, not what you intend to do.

Write down something you’ve been meaning to do but haven’t.

5. Making mistakes is OK, but not trying is irresponsible.

The only way to do something brilliant is to make mistakes. Write down a mistake and what you’ve learnt from it. “Fear is hard but regret is a fucker,” as Mark says. Stop beating yourself from a mistake you’ve made and see it as a learning experience. Start rewarding yourself for learning.

6. Commit to evidence.

Also known as, ‘Think like an engineer, not like a politician.” Build bridges from an evidence-based perspective. If you find yourself adhering to ideology, even though evidence is saying the opposite, you’re in trouble.

7. You will lose a lot (in the beginning).

Also known as, “Play the long game.” Be prepared to lose a lot at the start of your ‘bigger than you’ project. 90% might say your idea is wrong.  One person might agree (it may be your drinking friend). That person might encourage you to rephrase it. Then the same thing might happen again. Most people give up at the start as people you respect tell you it won’t work. Successful entrepreneurs say, “Great, round 3… and 2 more rounds to go.” Reframe your perspective, as Mark offered: “70% people telling me to fuck off is a good result, when that’s down to 60% even better.” Ask yourself what round you’re on. How are you going to get to the next?

8. Police your own cynicism

We come out of a womb and say, “It’s shit out here.” The immediate reaction is to think about why something won’t work. Cynicism is a recipe for us to be lazy. “There’s a voice in my head saying, ‘Who do you think you are standing up in front of these people on their free time – its my dad’s voice.” Encourage my company that if the default answer to a colleague has to be yes, and if you want to say no you need two paragraphs explaining why. UCL schematic – on cynical thinking Read more about The 8 Principles of The League of Pragmatic Optimists here.


  • Sum up 8 principles into one idea – stop defining yourself by what you know, but by what you create. Your life is a work of art and you are an artist.
  • Future is just a mirror – when you look into it ask yourself what kind of world you want to see.
  • When the winds of change blow, some people will build walls others will build windmills. Surround yourself with people who build windmills.

Mark Stevenson is part of the faculty of the Escape School.

More about Mark:

Mark is the author of the critically acclaimed (and many times translated) An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.

His next book, We do things differently, arrives in bookstores sometime in 2015.

He is regularly asked to talk to both private and public audiences on matters of technology trends, future narratives, institutional innovation, complexity, belief systems and learning. Engagements include The Economist, The US National Space Symposium, IBM, and Oxford University.

He is co-founder of Flow Associates, a learning agency which develops optimum environments for creative innovation tied to critical thinking. The company has offices in London and Delhi and works with cultural institutions, government bodies, corporations and schools. Recent clients include The Smithsonian Institute (Washington D.C.), Audi HQ (Ingolstadt), and The British Library (London).

He is also futurologist-in-residence at investment analyst company Primary Energy Research and sits on the advisory boards of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, the crowd-investing company Trillion Fund and Pearson College.

He is the founder of The League of Pragmatic Optimists – an organisation that creates meeting places in cities and towns across the globe “where people who want to make the world better can meet, generate ideas and projects, get inspiration and a recharge, find collaborators and have their neurons tickled in the cause of improving the story of humanity.” The organisation currently has chapters in the UK, Spain and New Zealand.

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