Ari Wallach is a futurist. He helps corporations, foundations, and government agencies give more thought to shaping the future, but his passion is helping individuals recognize how our smallest actions reverberate for hundreds of years or more. His new book, Longpath, is a toolkit for becoming proud of our futures and happier in the present.
In your book Longpath you write about looking back in time before looking toward the future. Your dad was a Holocaust survivor and saw the worst that human beings do to each other. Somehow, you have devoted yourself to imagining the best. Let’s start with your story.
I grew up in the shadow of a Holocaust survivor, but also a Holocaust hero. My dad lost his family early on, but he also killed Nazis. For me, being born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of the Holocaust stories were about people getting on trains and being sent to the camps: stories about what happened to us as opposed to what we did back. My dad told stories about blowing up bridges and fighting the Nazis. And he was still the life of the party. When he wasn’t sad about losing his family, he was very gregarious. He was a happy person because he was still able to experience awe at the most simple and basic things.
Growing up in that shadow—where really bad things did happen, where the doors of our synagogue in Guadalajara were shot up with machine guns—I initially thought the way to deal with it was to find ways of fighting back. It wasn’t until my father passed away—when I was a freshman in college—that I realized that if you’re at the point of military action, you’re already too late. I realized that I had an amazing opportunity to do something different, to find a way to tap into what is best in humanity and amplify that as opposed to taking up arms against the worst of it.
You went to UC Berkeley and wrote a thesis called “Ithaca Lost.”
My field was Peace and Conflict studies. Specifically, I was looking at the Middle East conflict, centering around Israel. I had access to senior leaders—politicians on all sides of the conflict—and the one thing I kept noticing during my very off-the-record conversations is that when I asked, “Well, what do you actually want?” what I found, more often than not, was they actually couldn’t give me a fully articulated vision of what success looked like. What future were they actually heading towards? What did the land of milk and honey look like for all the sides? They couldn’t describe it.
During my senior year at Berkeley, I worked at the United States Institute of Peace, a federal think tank, and again, I couldn’t find a strongly articulated vision in any of the conflict zones they worked in—an Ithaca like the kind Odysseus strived to reach, his destination after his long journey. In Judaism, there’s the messianic moment. In Christianity there’s the Second Coming. But at a kind of larger societal level, I saw that a vision of our Ithaca was missing. I couldn’t find it anywhere.
That Ithaca question nagged at me for 20 years as a professional futurist, working mostly with corporations, foundations, and governmental agencies. Finally, the Longpath process came together when I integrated what I had learned in high school sports. As an athlete, you know that if you close your eyes and visualize success, your hippocampus can’t actually tell the difference between a past memory and a future event. That’s why great athletes spend so much time on visualization. Without that positive vision of sinking the putt, hitting the basket, doing a perfect relay race baton pass, you’re not going to get there.
There’s a Greek word telos, which means your ultimate goal or vision. And I realized that telos is like visualization in sports. If you can’t see peace in the Middle East, you’re not going to get there. You need that telos because it acts like a kedge anchor, something that you throw out there in front of you and use to pull yourself forward. That thinking started at Berkeley, but culminated 20 years later in this book.
You also point out that such thinking is counterintuitive.
Yes. We naturally tend to zoom in on the horrible things that are going on rather than seeing what’s good. So, I think the first step is to acknowledge that we humans have what’s called a negativity bias. We are hardwired to see and pay attention to the worst things because the worst things are the things that could harm us. And so we focus on avoiding the worst as opposed to seeking the great things that might allow us to flourish. A negativity bias makes sense from a genetic fitness point of view, but it’s not so great in terms of how you want to structure your best life or run a modern society. The good news is that once you realize that you have this negativity bias, it’s easier to see beyond it.
You also write about lifespan bias.
When we consider the good life and how we are to live, whether from the perspective of ancient philosophers or modern self-help books, there tends to be a strong lifespan bias, meaning we stay focused on the zone between Ari’s birth and death or Stephen’s birth and death. On one level that totally makes sense. But that kind of focus cuts us off from a larger chain of being, one that we used to have better access to in our wisdom traditions.
When it comes to thinking about the future, either on an individual or a societal level, our big block is our own death. Death anxiety is the main choke point in terms of how we think and act on behalf of future generations. But it’s also a major blockage in how we live our lives today in that it prevents us from being fully present as well as connected to the needs of future generations. Ruled by the combo of a negativity bias and a lifespan bias, we don’t make basic decisions as well as we could. We don’t live as well as we could.
How do we overcome death anxiety?
You can’t go at it head-on because immediately people will be like, wait, hold on, I don’t even want to have this conversation because I’m going to get anxious. And you can’t just start talking about visions for future generations because you’re going to run up against this wall of death anxiety.
To overcome this, the exercises in Longpath are built around what I call transgenerational empathy. Once you start to go back and thank your ancestors for the gifts that they gave you, and also acknowledge the things that they passed on to you that you don’t want, you start to break down that very solid line between you and who came before you. What that does is create an opening for more compassion for yourself, and that in turn begins to lessen your anxiety about the future and your own death. As you shift from what we call death anxious to death aware, you start to have more positive emotions, in part because you’re able to feel more connected to future generations.
I write a lot about the power of positive emotions because emotions help shape our thoughts into actions. We often think of emotions as something in the past that we have to deal with, but most neuroscientists today will say, no, emotions are meant to guide future behavior. So as we attach positive emotions to positive visions of the future, we empower ourselves to get where we want to go.
The legacy of the actions that Stephen takes today will reverberate positively or negatively—hopefully positively—far into the future. And as you realize that, you move from death anxious to death aware—and there’s a lot a solid research showing that’s a more productive, happier place to be.