With all of the changes brought about by Covid-19 and the unpredictable nature of 2020, many are feeling uncertain about the future. Today we talked with futurist Elatia Abate to get an idea of how she understands the future and how people can use the strategies that come from that understanding to improve their lives. Elatia was inspired to turn her focus toward the future when she realized the enormity of the impact of technology on the jobs we hold, what work is, how it is done, and what it means. Now she endeavors to help others empower themselves and their organizations to meet the future head on to create the lives they want to live and the impact they want to have. Listen as Elatia discusses the nature of change and how her brand of optimistic futurism can help people better their lives.
Elatia Abate: [00:00:01] Shortly after that is when sort of the lightning bolt of the future came and disrupted my own entrepreneurial journey and had me shift gears and into answering the question fundamentally: how might we empower success in the face of massive disruption…
Sam: Here’s a prediction: in the future more people will be staying at home. We’ll curl up with loved ones and technologies in our bunkers, watching the world through windows and screens. It feels like someone could be describing this very moment. But this prediction was made in 1987, about 1990. Over three decades ago by one of the earliest futurists, Faith Popcorn. Since the 1970s, Faith and her peers have worked with all kinds of companies to help them plan for the unknown. And an entire industry has grown up around predicting future trends using different approaches. And Faith was an earlier guest on ideamix radio and is a friend and we love her. But earlier this year, Forbes named today’s guest, Elatia Abate, one of the 50 leading female futurists. Recent events make it hard to imagine spending your life attempting to predict and shape the future of work. But that’s exactly what Elatia does. She’s an entrepreneur, future forward strategist and the creator of The Future of Now. She partners with organizations that range in size from Fortune 500 companies to early-stage startups to help leaders make sense of the ever growing disruption in our world and to channel that disruption into tangible business results. Her client and partner roster include, on the one hand, the likes of Price Waterhouse Coopers, Uni Group and Verizon and on the other, the University of Arizona and the University of Cincinnati. Elatia, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us today. Welcome to the show.
Elatia Abate: [00:02:23] Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here and very excited for our conversation.
Sam: [00:02:30] So Elatia, you spent the first part of your career working at large companies in a very sort of big corporate atmosphere. What was the motivation that started you down your entrepreneurial path?
Elatia Abate: [00:02:44] Yeah. So I had spent, before I left the corporate world, now six and a half, almost seven years ago, most of my career, in some way, shape or form, recruiting, scouting, hiring, finding talent all over the world. I ran global recruiting for Anheuser-Busch InBev and then for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. And one of the things that I saw after, you can imagine, thousands of interviews all over the world is I got tired of bumping up against this challenge where you meet people who are wonderful and interesting and fabulous and creative, but not particularly engaged in the work that they were doing. And I started to dig into the numbers behind that. And it turns out that most of the world is pretty unhappy at work, you know, disengaged or highly disengaged, which I read as bored to miserable or worse. And on the money side, this costs companies billions or trillions of dollars a year in lost productivity. But for me, it was always, well, what happens to the humans? How can- if we could turn the gas on, if we could turn the light back on in people’s eyes, how amazing could this world be? Happier, more balanced, more fulfilled. If we would do that. And that was really the impetus for me to leave the corporate world.
Sam: [00:03:56] So as you observed this unhappiness amongst all the various people you worked with in these different organizations, did it make you, I mean, clearly it made you evaluate where you were and what you wanted to do. Did it sort of make you feel fortunate with where you were and the work that you were doing? Or did it make you feel that the only way you could impact this was by leaving and crafting this entrepreneurial path for yourself?
Elatia Abate: [00:04:24] Yeah, for me, it felt like it was the only way that I could do it by leaving. And here’s what I mean by that. So when I left the corporate world, I actually created a whole framework, methodology, strategy to help people create fulfillment inside of their work. And that’s divided up into three main sections with the first section is ‘commit to actually creating a change for yourself’. And that commitment can either come, you know when the big cosmic 2×4 of the universe comes and says you’re fired or laid off or whatever, or can come from that little voice that whispers in your ear, that says something like, “is this all there is? Could there be something more?” And that voice was whispering in my ear, and so I listened and I decided to leave.
Sam: [00:05:11] Always good to listen to those voices. So an incident in 1982, which I want to take you back to for a second, illustrated corporate culture’s complicated relationship with futurism. Megatrends, John Nesbitt’s book had predicted the disappearance of hierarchies in the workplace and a widespread decentralization in America and the importance of the combination of high tech and high touch or the embedding of humanizing flourishes into new technologies. Companies incorporated many of these ideas by making their office spaces more open, creating ATMs that asked how are you, as a bank teller might. Do you think that Nesbitt predicted this outcome or caused it in a sense? Is it hard to tell? Looking back, I’d love you to share your thoughts.
Elatia Abate: [00:06:08] Yeah, I think it’s hard to tell. You know, I’m a big believer in the power of the language that we use. The language creates a reality. So in some ways, you know, our future, the future that we will live into is being created and every moment, step, action, decision, speech, conversation that we’re having right now, something will unfold because of this. And so on the one hand… So at the risk of giving you a non-answer answer, it’s a little bit of both. And on the one hand, it’s predictive based on the things that we can see and understand now, rooted in a series of assumptions. But on the other hand, if we were to say that all of these things weren’t going to happen and then if we’re going to go another way, perhaps that future would unfold differently. So I do think it’s a bit of a balance between the two.
Sam: [00:06:58] I mean, in a sense, it’s like a study in human optimism, right? And then sort of, you know, almost recreating the imagination of Hollywood. I mean, so many times, you know, I watch old films and think, gosh, you know, this movie was ahead of its time and this exactly came to transpire several years later.
Elatia Abate: [00:07:16] Yeah and that’s one of the exciting…I think that’s the magic of being in the space of a future and what future is and my work now is all about The Future of Now. So what is the future that we build out of this moment that we’re in and that we have the choice to either create it to be dystopian and spooky and, you know, Black Mirror on Netflix or something that’s even better, even more inclusive, even more overarchingly valuable and fulfilling for everybody.
Sam: [00:07:53] Well said. Elatia you mentioned a concept: letting go of certainty. Tell us how you’re seeing that manifest right now.
Elatia Abate: [00:08:04] Yeah, so I love Joseph Campbell’s work. He is for those who may not be familiar with him one of the world’s, was, he is no longer alive, world’s foremost mythologists. And he was the one who mapped the hero’s journey – You know beginning, middle, end, how we have to leave the thing that we’re familiar with and he says “we must be willing to get rid of the life that we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us”. And so much of the disruption that we’re seeing now. And that will be coming down the pike, because from the things that I see in the spaces that I play in, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of big change and disruption that’s on the horizon. Those folks who will and who have the capacity to let go of the way things were in order to step into and see the possibility of what’s here and what’s coming will suffer a lot less. Those who are needing to hold on to that and we’re seeing this in our political system as we’re seeing this in a lot of the divisiveness across the society. That’s where we’re going to see the big rifts and disruptions. And so one of the, you know, speaking of the work that I do. One of the things that I enjoy doing the most or the puzzles that I find most interesting to solve is how can we help people see change, see all of the changes here coming as rather than as a threat or uncertainty or invalidation as opportunity and possibility and optimism.
Sam: [00:09:41] I mean, is that just about human nature Elatia? Because you’re right, we’re so divided. You know, not just in this country, but across the world. And I agree that much of it is, you know, one constituency’s ability to embrace change while the other doesn’t have that ability. And in it, we’ve sort of lost the ability for discourse somewhere along the way. How do you sort of change people’s fundamental outlook on change? You know, and get them to adapt?
Elatia Abate: [00:10:20] Yeah, I do think there’s a lot of power in story in that sense, and there’s there’s a great book, I don’t know if you’ve read it yet, but it’s called 21 Questions for the 21st– 21 Questions or is it 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. And essentially it’s by the historian Harari. And essentially, he says that part of the reason why we are having so much disruption in society right now is that the narrative – there is no more global narrative. There’s no more societal narrative. It’s harder for people to see themselves inside of a future that is A.I. and robots and technological, you know, when it was every man’s world and the assembly line. And, you know, middle class opportunities, people could see themselves inside of that narrative. And so there’s sort of this overarching context that, and I think this is up to us to begin to create, helping people see themselves as impactful, as meaningful, as present as being inside of this new world that’s here and coming, I think is a big part of it. But I think it’s also and this, again, speaks to a lot of the work that I do. It’s helping build the bridge from where we are, from where each of us is individually to where we’re all going. Yeah, it’s sort of like, you know, like the pioneers who, you know, the first people on the moon. Right. That’s one kind of pioneership. Once you’ve done it once, then, you know, those who come behind, it’s still new and adventurous and amazing…But it’s not quite the same thing. Right. Like, they can translate or share what their experiences were. And so I think that there’s some of that to be done. Okay, great I’ve been out here on the frontier of the future of work and society. This is what it could look like. And this is how we can get there from where we are today.
Sam: [00:12:12] Yeah. I also loved that book. 21 Lessons, really thought provoking. So the change that’s going to be wrought by the pandemic and the after-effects economically is probably the biggest change, certainly of our generation you know, some could say in the last hundred years. Has your perspective on what you do changed as a result of this? How are people, individuals and how are companies thinking of anticipating the future? Just very fundamentally differently from the past, sort of given this kind of black swan event?
Elatia Abate: [00:12:56] Yeah, my sense with my clients and also just what I’m seeing generally, there is there’s an urgency now to understanding this, like all of a sudden something that felt like, whether it was or wasn’t is a whole other topic up for debate, but something that felt like it was five years out or even two years out, that we can worry about that later. All of a sudden, it’s become very present and very real. And, you know, as I look at what’s happened with the pandemic, there was an acute moment of virus impact and the pandemic itself, so a health shock. Then almost immediately the economic shock that came along with that. But what we’re going to experience now in terms of sort of the cascading effect or the aftershocks of what’s happened right now, it is going to continue to accelerate or they are going to continue to accelerate all of these future trends that were out there. And so the need for companies to be able to see what’s happening and then translate that into so what does this mean for right now? And how can I perhaps anticipate how this larger market is going to shift so that I can position myself inside of it? And those are the companies that I think are going to win big as we move forward in time here.
Sam: [00:14:16] Does it cause, Elatia, do you think you know, for years we’ve talked about how companies have increasingly become quite short-termist and how they think about their business. And, you know, even though there’s a lot of discussion and conversation about sustainability, you know, much of the corporate world is not being run with a view to sustainability in a long term sense. Do you think this causes a change in that view and a much more fundamental way?
Elatia Abate: [00:14:48] Yeah, so I call that the push me pull you problem. So I don’t know if you remember the movie or the book, Dr. Doolittle, but there is a two headed llama that they called the Pushme-Pullyou. So that’s the dynamic of the market today. You know, on the one hand, we see these future things happening out here, but we have results for Wall Street. This quarter, this week, today. And though I think one of the big paradigm shifts that we’re seeing is moving away from a world of “or”, where the environment is separate from our business, where corporate is separate from entrepreneurial or technological separate from industrial. And we move into this world of “and” where those boundaries dissolve and organizations can be as much entrepreneurial as they can be corporate. And the value of taking care of the whole will be much greater than working or gaining at the expense of the whole. And that’s one of those things that’s also true around the future of work. And when we start to lay off people en-mass, but we don’t have a safety net- and, well, also societal safety net – but safety net in the sense of new jobs to transition to, all of a sudden the larger economic and political risk that that begins to create is greater. And therefore, we start to think more humanly about who we let go, why we let go. Could we actually retrain people so that the hit to society isn’t as great? So I’m very optimistic that we are shifting and that we have the power to be able to shift into a world that is more sustainable, that is more inclusive.
Sam: [00:16:34] It’s so interesting, it’s so long overdue. You know, unfortunately, I hate to say this about my alma mater, but I think one of the singularly most destructive things that emerged was this sort of idea of shareholder capitalism where all you needed to care about were the shareholders and shareholder returns. And that became the sort of prevailing wisdom in the corporate world. And it has ignored all of these other stakeholders and constituencies to the detriment of our society, our community, the individual and their sense of self-worth. And it’s really time to get away as far away as we can from that. While building a more inclusive system.
Elatia Abate: Yes. Yes. And that’s and that’s another one of the great shifts available to us. We move away from a world of scarcity and into a world of abundance. You know, scarcity when we would negotiate and our economic models were based on zero sum game or fixed pie economics. If I’m winning, you’re losing or vice versa. So it creates this competition. This hoarding. This protection of resources. And we shift over into this world of abundance where we see that by the value that I add to myself, just using education as an example, if I learn something new and then I contribute to the whole and make that whole greater, then everybody wins and we shift away into a space if everybody wins. And it’s especially based on the models that we learn before, it takes more time to make sure that everybody wins. There’s a lot more things to consider. Yes. And though, once again, the value for the whole is so much greater. So that we can make sure that we still have a planet here to be doing this on.
Sam: [00:18:33] Absolutely, absolutely. So I want to shift gears a little bit Elatia, even though I could spend the next half an hour talking to you about all of these future trends. So you start down an entrepreneurial path. How did you think about finding your first customers as you got started?
Elatia Abate: [00:18:56] Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, when I first left the corporate world, I was actually not solving for challenges related to the future of work. I was initially solving for those challenges around fulfillment. So my entrepreneurial journey has been very– it’s evolved a lot over time. And though, you know, my first big idea when I left the corporate world was, okay, I’m going to create this curriculum. And I had done recruiting at all the top schools thanks to the roles that I was in before all the MBAs and undergraduates. And I thought, okay, this is how we’re going to solve the problem of people being unhappy at work. We’re going to sell the curriculum into career services that can accompany whatever the students are doing in school so that when they graduate they not only get jobs, but they’ll be happy in those jobs and happier over the longer term and all of us to be great. And I started making my calls and I have never heard no so many times in my lifetime because what I failed to perceive is that the measure that schools were caring about is straight up employment. So that’s what matters in the rankings. That’s what matters in terms of their external and internal metrics. And so I wasn’t hitting on a need. And so I had to pivot. And that pivot went into, okay well, if the big schools are going to take me that, I’m going to start teaching this content in places like General Assembly or Tech Talent South or. And so through that way, I actually ended up coming in the back door and giving this kind of content in the classroom at universities.
Sam: [00:20:32] How interesting. And how did you think about the scale and growing your business sort of over those initial years as you were getting underway?
Elatia Abate: [00:20:47] Yeah. As I was getting under – well when I first left the corporate world, you know, I wanted to test the concept. And, of course, I think like many entrepreneurs, I was sure that this would be the thing that everybody would want and it would work perfectly right out of the gate. And when it didn’t and I had to start getting creative about where I was going to sell this content and how could I get in there? It was just initially it was a matter of getting the thing done. And then I started to see that I was actually leaving a whole lot of opportunity on the table by not addressing the company side of that challenge. So part of it is how do people empower themselves to be happier at work? And there’s the product that I created there. But then there’s the how do companies create spaces where people actually want to be? And so I began to morph over into that kind of work. And shortly after that is when sort of the lightning bolt of the future came and disrupted my own entrepreneurial journey and had me shift gears and into answering the question fundamentally, how might we empower success in the face of massive disruption?
Sam: [00:22:00] I love that. So organic. As you look back what were – you just named one I think – but were there other assumptions that you made when you started that you subsequently revised or moved, you know, far away from?
Elatia Abate: [00:22:20] Yeah, initially, of course, everybody is going to love the product. That was the first thing. And then secondly, it was hard for me to understand why…so people would come, they take the class that I had…some would just go out and on their way. But why weren’t more people creating better lives for themselves? Right. And so the fundamental assumption there was, of course, if people could see something bigger and shinier and better, that they would go for it. And this is where I really started to get into the role of assumptions that we have about what is or isn’t possible for our lives. And even beyond assumptions, the need people have to hold onto the past, which is why I am so fascinated about this mechanism. As we look toward creating a different futures, how might we unhook people from that past focused thinking from the thing that we always know and light them up into seeing what’s possible?
Sam: [00:23:22] That’s so interesting. What did you find? So you teach this course people would go away feeling totally inspired about taking a different approach to their lives and work. And then what would happen? It’s that more time would pass and that what would really become their impediment?
Elatia Abate: [00:23:43] Sure. So there’s a whole series of assumptions. Right. So let’s imagine you and I, we sit down and I say, OK, let’s design out your most amazing life. And by the way, the same strategy works for company strategy, for individual strategy. But let’s design your most amazing life. So we’re going to talk about the money that you’re earning and the company that you’re running and how your family is and your travel and all the great things. Right. And then let’s say, okay, let’s design out your default future. So you change zero things about your life. Some future is going to unfold. And the difference between those two in terms of if we were to look at a graph of happiness over time. Time goes on in general, the data tell us that people, human beings are happier. But that difference is exponential. So why don’t people go for the thing that’s so much better? Clearly. And the reason why is all the assumptions we have about what is possible. “I’m too young. I’m too old. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know the right people. I don’t have access to capital.” And on and on and on and on. And what I’ve discovered about those assumptions is that most of them aren’t true. They’re just simply false. When you begin to pull them apart to to, their basic fundamentals, or they’re simply parameters that you have to use to create a next step for yourself. And the big one that I hear a lot from people is money. Oh, I could never leave this job because I have the mortgage and my kids’ school tuition and, you know, all of the things. And it’s like, okay, is the one job you have the only job on the entire planet in which you can make that much money or more. Of course the answer no. But we get our thinking so frozen into that assumption that we end up sticking with or sitting with something that’s less than optimal for us.
Sam: [00:25:33] So well explained. Thank you for that. So do you have competition, who do you view as your competition? How do you think about differentiation?
Elatia Abate: [00:25:45] Certainly. So that’s one of the other paradigm shifts, right? As we move out of this past where fixed, we’re looking at fixed pie economics. We’re moving away from a world of straight up competition and into a world of collaboration where instead of I’m going to get my enemy or, you know, kill my enemy, it’s mutually assured, thriving. And that’s also a different take on what’s happening in the marketplace. But certainly, you know, there are other futurists out there doing consulting in the world. There are other people who are up to the future work, the large consulting firms. They’ve got teams of people collecting data. The difference for me in particular and how I differentiate myself. Well, first, there’s the balance of understanding how a corporate world works. So I’ve lived the corporate world. I’ve lived a very operationally focused, KPI focused corporate environment, balanced with being out here in the entrepreneurial world and seeing what’s coming. So I have an advantage of translating that into corporate speak. And then secondly, I’m very much a doer. So, you know, my TED Talk is entitled Pioneering of the Future of Work. I didn’t just go to a library and sit down and start reading. I decided to push my own life to an absolute extreme of uncertain, to travel around the world with a carry-on suitcase and discover answers to how might we empower success through my own experience as well as study.
Sam: [00:27:20] You’ve lived what you teach and you’ve lived your experience.
Elatia Abate: [00:27:23] Exactly.
Sam: [00:27:25] Amazing. Last question, Elatia, what’s the lesson or what are a few lessons that you’ve learned that you’d love to share with other entrepreneurs?
Elatia Abate: [00:27:36] Oh, the lesson, oh the lesson. If everything that I taught in the classroom didn’t come out of my own personal experience in learning. That’s probably the first thing, you know, I like to use distinctions a lot because it’s easy to feel the contrast. And one of the distinctions that if I wish I could have known earlier on, which is the distinction between being a sniper, with your ideas, with your product, with how you think things are going to work in the world versus being a scientist. Now as a sniper, it’s like, okay, I got one bullet, one gun, one target. And if I miss everything’s a disaster. Whereas if you’re a scientist, you’ve got a plan, you’ve got resources, you have some ideas about how you’re going to collect data. You might even have some hypotheses about what you’re going to discover. But once stuff is out in the world, you’re simply collecting data. So it doesn’t mean you don’t deliver with excellence. But if your objective is collecting information and tinkering as opposed to getting it right, the one way, the first time, otherwise we’re toast. It can remove or alleviate some of the pressure that so many of us entrepreneurs feel in getting it right. (Whatever that means). So that’s that’s probably the first thing. The second thing is really bringing this sense of adventure to what’s possible and creating, you know, as I see it, all of the structures, rules, assumptions about how the world works have been – are being shaken – totally to their core. And while on the one hand that can feel scary, on the other hand, what it can mean is we don’t have to be bound by what was there before. So bringing that sense of wonder into work, whatever you’re creating, I think can be a way to, if you don’t accelerate your process to success, then at least the journey will be a lot more enjoyable.
Sam: [00:29:39] I love that, actually. You know, and maybe this comes with age. But I think that when you’re at the early stages of your life, you think so many more decisions and so many more instances in your life are sniper events. And the reality is, you know, very few are.
Elatia Abate: [00:30:03] Yeah.
Sam: [00:30:04] I guess that’s why there’re relatively few Navy SEALs in the world. And, you know, most other things are a process of trial and error. And there are sort of multiple bites at the apple and you get better with every successive bite. And it’s this sort of weird undue pressure. And, you know, I’ve thought a lot about as I started ideamix, what were the reasons for having that view that many more things were sort of sniper events than that actually were? And I think it’s some – In my case at least – it was an odd combination of, you know, certainly my own culture and and family. But equally, the educational institutions I went through, the places I worked at. And I think, you know, when I contrasted the large companies I worked at to the small companies I worked at, the culture of large organizations is risk aversion and that you can’t get something wrong. And fundamentally, the culture of small organizations is if you don’t try, you’re never going to know. And yes, you’re going to make lots of mistakes, but they kind of don’t matter. So it’s such a contrast.
Elatia Abate: [00:31:18] So interesting.
Sam: [00:31:20] Wonderful. Well, here’s something else you should know. 68 percent of working adults in the US are disengaged or highly disengaged at work. And this fact was actually the thing that I think sent you, Elatia, down your futurist path. Watching just how many people were unhappy. Right.
Elatia Abate: [00:31:42] Exactly. That was…I mean, it’s shocking. If you think that more than half of us spend more than half of our waking hours at something that is misery-making. But it seems that the whole proposition seems absurd to me.
Sam: [00:31:59] I absolutely agree. I absolutely agree. Well, thank you to Forbes and The Washington Post for the data cited in today’s episode. Elatia, such a wonderful conversation. And thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Elatia Abate: [00:32:14] Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
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