Unblock enormous amounts of positive energy with a simple journey from past to future.
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.
An Excerpt From Longpath
I was in the kitchen making my world-famous dragon eggs dinner (eggs scrambled with cut-up hot dogs and cheese) when I felt a vibration in my pocket. It was an app notification from our local school. My 12-year-old daughter, Ruby, had missed turning in her Spanish assignment, which had been due exactly 12 seconds before. My instant reaction to that buzzing, though, was hundreds of thousands of years in the making.
All sorts of chemicals and neurotransmitters started firing in my brain. Anger that she missed the assignment, sure, but beneath that was shame (what kind of parent am I?), fear (if she keeps this up, she won’t get into her choice of college), and a deep-seated sense that by doing something wrong, I had upset members of the tribe and was going to find myself “pushed out” of the cave tonight, forced to fend for myself against large animals with very big teeth. With all this going through my mind and body, I had a choice to make: freak out, lose my shit, yell at Ruby, or pause ... and follow the principles of Longpath.
Longpath—a simple but profound mindset that shifts thinking from the short term to the long term—allowed me to take that half-second pause and recognize the swirl of chemicals and hormones rapidly welling up inside me. And in that pause are the hundreds of thousands of years that came before that moment, the hundreds of thousands of years that would come after, and the awareness that I was just a link in a greater chain of being.
I was, in my best impression of Carl Sagan, part of a pale blue dot in the ever-expanding universe of space and time. Half a second later, I realized that whether Ruby knew what biblioteca meant would not dictate her future or our collective humanity’s future. What was most important was not getting worked up over the missed assignment—that would get resolved later after we had dinner and I could talk to her about it. What mattered was maintaining the balance of mental and emotional states of mind as we were about to sit down as a family—a ritual where how I connected with my loved ones would have a much greater ramification on Ruby’s future than a single missed assignment. And then, even later, I’d do the most important thing: turn off those annoying phone notifications from her school.
From Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs. By Ari Wallach. Published by HarperOne.
How do we envision ourselves in the future in a way that actually sticks?
Hal Hershfield at UCLA is leading the charge on that. He does this amazing work where he puts people into an fMRI, a brain scan, and he’ll say, “Okay, I want you to think of yourself right now.” A certain part of the brain will light up. Then he’ll say, “Now I want you to think of Matt Damon,” and another part of their brain will light up, a very different part of their brain than gets activated when thinking about their current self.
Then he’ll say, “Now, I want you to think about yourself 10 years in the future.” And guess what happens? The same part of the brain that lit up for Matt Damon lights up. And this is true for everyone. We see our future self as someone else. We’re not connected to our future self.
But then Hershfield has people write letters to their future self or look at photos of themselves that have been aged. Then, when they go back into the fMRI, those groups tend to have much more overlap between their present self and future self. The future becomes more visceral as our current actions become part of it. So it’s unbelievably important that we find ways to connect with our future self if we want to start making better decisions for our own future as well as for future generations.
What do you do?
Whenever I’m making decisions, I run it through my Longpath filter. I actually say, “Well, in 10, 20, 30 years, what will I need? And how will this current decision best meet the needs of my future self and of future society? Sometimes the question involves some obvious physical infrastructure, like building a more senior-friendly ramp to my garage versus building stairs. But where I hope the book makes the most impact is on basic relational decisions: Should I call my friend who I just had an argument with? Should I put my phone down when my kid enters the room?
Even these seemingly small decisions are incredibly important in shaping the future in a way that centers on flourishing as opposed to just being in the moment acting on what feels good. I think about it like this: If I don’t want my grandkids to have a parent who doesn’t put the phone down, I need to put the phone down right now because I’m modeling that future behavior.
What can we do on a practical, day-to-day basis?
To start, you can go to longpath.org/futureme and write a letter to your future self, either a year or a few years or more out from now. You can follow the link to a website that lets you take a photo of yourself and age it. Someone wrote to me the other day to say that she had printed that aged photo and put it on the bathroom mirror. Every day at the end of the day, she asks, “Did I do right by future me?” That’s exactly what we want folks to do: to connect with their future self even in the smallest decisions. When folks start doing that, they start making more decisions not only on behalf of their future self, but also on behalf of future generations, which is what we all need to be doing.
It works the same way at the macro level—this is exactly what politicians and corporate leaders need to be doing, too, figuring out the larger story, asking where they want to head towards.
What’s interesting is that the book is being read by individuals asking, “How can I change my thinking about my life and my career and my family?” But I also know people in Washington, DC, who are reading the book and asking, “How do we think about a larger vision for our country or for our planet?” Both kinds of conversation have to happen at the same time.
What is the future for Longpath Labs, the organization you run?
Right before COVID we were in 30 different WeWork sites on the East Coast. Every week, facilitators that worked for Longpath were running free hour-long sessions where people would come in and engage in exercises, conversations, and journaling to their future self. I think of it as kind of a Longpath gym. Now our goal is to be in 40 or 50 cities within the next two to three years, either with volunteers or trained facilitators. We are also developing tool kits and conversation guides for Longpath gatherings that people are hosting in their homes and workplaces and through com-munity organizations. What we ultimately want is people thinking and acting as if they are great ancestors in the making, wherever they are.
Of course, there are a lot of ways of growing this work virtually, but these shifts are so much more powerful in a community setting, where we’re actually sharing resources and collaborating on something bigger than ourselves. We don’t want everyone looking at their phones and longpath-ing. I occasionally meet people who say, “This is so great. I’m doing all these things for my future self and the future world.” But when I ask about their community, they say they don’t have time to engage. That’s not how it works. Sure, we start with inner work by reconciling and reckoning with the past and visualizing the future, but the point is to be in the present. It is from right here—in our relationships—that we manifest the futures that we want to see.