Emerson and Foresight

Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance this week unexpectedly influenced my philosophy of strategic foresight. I was struck by much, including these snippets which add perspective to foresight

Consistency and Conformity:

On the topic of consistency, Emerson’s words balance the ego tied to accuracy of futures work with the professional maturity to revise and update. 

“The other terror that scares us from self trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict something you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day.”

I am reminded of the importance to measure the accuracy of our forecasts honestly before and after and to be held accountable for them. But that is forecasting.

In Foresight we research the recent past and the current era and we plot the normative future from there. This normative baseline future is what everyone knows to be THE future yet is one strand in the cone of plausibility. In the “thousand-eyed present” we see a multitude of possibilities alongside this baseline. Conformity to prior predictions may block our vision and our perspective. How can we see the big picture if our mental model is tied to one path?

Emerson’s insight adds gravitas to the importance of being willing to see new alternative futures and not focus solely on an expected accepted future. The value of strategic foresight is most evident in researching alternative futures.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

Foresight professionals use visioning heavily and strategic foresight lays a significant focus upon challenging assumptions. An extremely creative focus for a strategic discipline.

We do not rely upon past data alone to create futures. We do not ignore data either. We seek to not be limited by the push to maintain consistency over accuracy. Yes yesterday I forecast X but new information today reveals X+y to be more likely.

In foresight accuracy should be viewed separately from how visions of the future deviate from past trends. We do not let past visions dictate current futuring. There may be a public or organizational burden to stick with past forecasts over revising and updating futures. However, as with forecasting, the best futurists edit and revisit because futures work is most successful iteratively in a culture of foresight. 

Here Emerson adds support to what contemporary thinkers say makes a skilled forecaster, “Forecast, measure, revise. Repeat.” (Philip Tetlock in his book Superforecasting:The Art and Science of Prediction which I wrote about for the Houston Foresight program http://www.houstonforesight.org/?p=4537)

“These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from sufficient distance and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. Greatness appeals to the future.”

This passage may help understand that long range perspectives reveal the trend lines around which local deviations cycle. Keep focussed on a strategy despite the temporary deviations. To me it also illuminates the statistical measures that all plausible futures center upon. It also touches upon the role of mission in futuring. Visioning and futuring and finding preferred futures all inform mission but are also guided by it.

“If I can be firm enough to-day to do right, and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now.”

We can reach the future we want by designing our will by character now and back-casting our path to that future. Honor is resilient and timeless. Values are anti-fragile. Set vision with the character of our preferred future and add that momentum to this flywheel.

On Diversity of Perspectives:

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

When we design future visions on our own we craft futures that look like us and reflect our biases. Expanding our exposure helps us to see alternative futures. The optimum balance is to be grounded by strong values as we let in a multitude of visions.


The past and the patterns within it are a great guide not to be discarded. They also are not a law. Deviations, disruptions, and discontinuous change are strong forces connecting past to future. That is why foresight is a necessary companion to forecasting. 

These lessons from Emerson and more are helpful for me as I face the challenge of balancing data-based forecasts of my MBA world with the imaginative futuring of my Foresight studies. 

Again we owe thanks to Emerson.  “live ever in a new day”

 – Joe Murphy, a futurist with the perspective of a librarian.

%d bloggers like this: