What You Ought to Know about the Default Future You’re Heading for

by Jeff Hittner

Nando Parrado has perhaps the most amazing story of survival ever known.

In 1972, at age 21, Nando and his Uruguayan rugby team, along with his mother and sister, took off on a flight to play the Chilean national team. Over the Andes mountains, something went terribly wrong. Their plane crashed at the top of the largest mountain range in the world, leaving 26 survivors in summer clothes at over 12,000 feet. For 72 days they struggled through extreme temperatures, starvation, death, even an avalanche. His mother and sister perished. All gave up hope. The story was made famous in the movie Alive. In the end, Nando walked for 11 days across mountain tops as high as 18,000 feet before finding help and saving his remaining friends.

This was Nando’s inflection point. After this experience, he went on to race Formula 1 cars in Europe, found multiple businesses back home, and marry a beautiful woman with whom he has had two children and grandchildren.

Don’t wait for your inflection point

Far too many of us are waiting for an inflection point like Nando’s (hopefully one that is far less dramatic, but life-changing nonetheless). 

An inflection point is that moment, that experience that forces you to reevaluate all your priorities and the direction your life has taken.

If you are unhappy in your job but can’t bring yourself to make a change, one common inflection point is… losing your job. This is what happened to Yulia, a corporate brand manager who was deeply unhappy about what she did on a daily basis but felt chained to her path with a cushy salary and a mountain of debt. Then one day, she got called into her HR manager’s office and received the all too common “we’re restructuring” corporate speak. With a severance package and sudden free time on her hands, Yulia traveled around the world for six months, living in places she always wanted to see and taking the time to imagine what comes next. She decided to pursue the dream she always nurtured, but never took action on. If it was not for the loss of her job, Yulia would have never taken this dramatic step on her own.

This is the challenge too many of us run into: we wait for the inflection point to take us out of our rut.

You are not the slave to your default future

Your default future is what is likely to happen if nothing unexpected comes along. It lives at the level of your intuition, rather than at that place where you daydream about what’s to come, so it is rarely discussed or analyzed. 

The default future is one you have already written, without even realizing it. It’s the track you’re on, the automated treadmill that continues unless something drastically changes. The concept was first introduced by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan in their book “The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future in Your Life,” where they argued that default future applies not only to individuals but also to businesses and organizations who fail to imagine a different vision of the future for themselves.

To get a taste of your default future, ask yourself, “If I do nothing different to change the direction or trajectory of my life, where will I end up five or even ten years from now?” 

Spend a few moments and write this reflection down and keep in mind the following:

  • In the default future, you are not going to deviate from your current path
  • Your default future assumes that there is no job change and no surprise role that involves using a completely different set of skills
  • There is no behavior or routine change in this scenario; you are simply taking your current life situation and projecting it out into the future
  • This future should contain the “good, bad and ugly.” It’s not one-dimensional.

Here is an example from a corporate lawyer I know:

5 years from now, I am still writing and editing contracts, working with important clients at my law firm. I own several client relationships, but I’m also doing the same work. I’m continuing to help the same types of companies in the same industries. I’m working ridiculous hours, at the client’s beck and call. My relationships haven’t flourished because I’m always super busy. I may have a bigger house, but I’m never there to enjoy it. I eat most of my lunches and dinners in the office.

Is this the future you are excited to imagine? Let’s hope not, but that is my friend’s default future.

You can change the course of your life with invented future

As author Mark Batterson says, “You are always one decision away from a completely different life.” It is possible to replace your default future with your invented future: the vision of how you want to live regardless of what life throws at you.

What is the story you really want to write for yourself? 

Is it even in the same organization? 

Is it in the same industry? 

How are you going to act to ensure your default future doesn’t come true?

Related: How to Change Careers When You Are Stuck

Approach changing your current situation from a number of perspectives:

  1. What you do: Thinking about your current job, what if you ask to work part-time? Insist on changing departments? Ask for a different role?
  2. Where you do it: Are you happy in the place you currently live in? Does this city/town/community excite you? Are there opportunities there that allow you to see a version of reality that’s different from your default future? What if you move somewhere else?
  3. Who you do it with: Do the people who surround you believe in your invented future? Do they support you and help you nurture your new vision? If not, what if you find a new community where you are able to soar?

Start rewriting your future

Rewriting your future consists of 1) being aware of the default you are headed towards and 2) using language as the powerful first step to inventing your new reality. We are what we believe about ourselves. And what we believe about ourselves is impacted by our words, thoughts, and feelings. Spend a few minutes in a quiet place without distractions on these prompts above and start imagining a new future for yourself that you will have invented with your own actions.  

“Language is the building block of our non-physical reality. The first atom of reality starts because you say so.”  — Al Bhatt

Take the minimal viable step

Really look at your default future again. Then ask yourself:
“What is the smallest step I can take today — or this week — that begins to shift me away from my default future?”

Ideally, you want to include someone else in your step for accountability and to encourage a change of environment. For example, for our lawyer’s default future above, her minimal viable step could merely be having her friend arrive at the office every day this week for lunch, forcing her to go outside, break the routine, take a breath and socialize during the day – even brainstorm what her larger invented future could be.

Now is the time — what default future are you heading towards? How will you reinvent it?

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