Backcasting to the future

Story highlights

  • Backcasting is a method in which future desired conditions are envisioned and steps are identified to materialize that vision
  • Writing letters to yourself in the future may be a tool to keep you on track to accomplish backcasting goals

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.

(CNN)With all the attention on hoverboards and self-lacing Nikes as predicted (or not) in 1989 by the depiction of 2015 in "Back to the Future Part II," my thoughts went to the actual premise of the popular film franchise: Can we intentionally craft our long-term future for the better by making specific choices and actions now?

If you think the answer is obvious, keep in mind that we're terrible at predicting the desires of our future selves and spend very little effort actively guiding our lives in the direction we want for the long term.
But there is a newish idea in the field of urban planning called backcasting that attempts to do just that for cities. Unlike forecasting, which tries to predict where we are headed under current conditions, backcasting is a method in which future desired conditions are envisioned and steps are identified to materialize that vision.
    And it may be possible to apply this method of success to your own life. It requires some Delphic self-awareness and a strategy to stay on course year after year, but it's certainly more achievable than a flux capacitor and the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity needed to power it.

    How much control do we have over our future?

    There is a long-debated philosophical school of thought called determinism that argues against the notion that we can bend fate to our will. It argues we are merely billiard balls bouncing around the pool table of destiny, reacting and acting upon other balls with no more free will to change our course than an 8 ball rolling toward a corner pocket.
    But even if you haven't written a graduate paper on the topic, most people tend to reject this notion prima facie because, if nothing else, it's unsettling. And since we're not going to resolve this 2,000-year-old debate here, let's proceed as most believe: that we are in control of our own future.
    How much control? Also open to debate. There are many known, and even more invisible factors that determine huge swaths of our lives: who we're attracted to, our interests and desires, our fears, how much risk we take, how nice we are and other personality traits. Some of these areas are deeply influenced by our youth, imparted by our caregivers and mentors or the big unforeseen curveballs of life.
    We also don't have time-traveling DeLoreans to go back and easily alter our history in ways we know would have a huge impact.
    But consider the present as the past of your own future. And the future the past of a still-farther future. If that's confusing, just think back to the plot of "Back to the Future" -- which basically set the rules of most time-traveling films that followed -- that at any given time, our actions have a personal butterfly effect on what happens later. If your parents don't ever meet, you can't be born, for example. The more we ruminate on this seemingly obvious fact and then start to plan accordingly, the greater influence we will have on our future. As Albert Camus put it, "Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present."

    Backcasting 101

    The most accessible lesson in backcasting is retirement savings. The sooner, and more, we squirrel away, the greater the dividend will be at a time in our lives when most of us will be earning less and need the money more.
    That idea, of investing now for dividends later, applies to relationships and careers as well. If you want to have close relationships with your adult children, it begins with bonding when they are young. If you want your obituary to detail your humanitarian legacy, start the groundwork for your cause now.
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    One of my favorite historical examples of backcasting is enjoyed by millions of New Yorkers and tourists every year. When Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, part of the genius of his design was that no one alive and enjoying it when it opened, including Olmsted himself, would really experience the park as it was intended. That's because it was created in such a way that it needed to (literally) grow into the intended design over several decades. The Central Park of today, even without the grazing sheep and working dairy, is closer to Olmsted's planned vision than when it opened.
    Our lives are like designing Central Park. We can't totally predict what will sprout and how exactly it will look, but we are largely in charge of what we plant and how often we tend to those saplings.

    Letters to myself in the future

    Starting in 2000, I began to write letters to myself to be opened years in the future. I write and seal them for one year hence, five years hence, 10, 20, etc. Because they are staggered at various year intervals, I have a schedule to track the letters I write (for the future) and open (from the past), which I do every March.
    For the first dozen years of this project I wasn't even clear on the point of it. But I found it fun and interesting and hoped something more utilitarian would emerge. In the past few years, I realized the letters can be a tool for backcasting. (By the way, if you don't want to go the paper and envelope route, someone recently organized a way to do it via email, through a site called www.futureme.org, which assumes email will exist for decades to come).
    So I sat down with my father-in-law, over beers, and told him that when I think about the kind of life I want to have when I'm his age, it basically looks like his. He's happily married and has great relationships with his adult children. He's had an accomplished career (two in fact: State Department diplomat and public school teacher), is financially stable (the double career pensions help), physically fit for a man 20 years his junior, travels a lot, reads good books, has plenty of friends, is interested in new ideas and fondly looks back on a life well lived through a prism of earned wisdom.
    I asked him if he had planned out his life to bloom as it has.
    "No," he laughed. Though he did attribute some achievements to several personal values and commitments he made to himself early on, such as taking on challenges so that he would have an interesting career, and doing his best wherever he found himself.
    He thought backcasting had merit, though, and recalled a similar program at the State Department to predict and maintain long-range political and economic goals with other powerful countries. Whether that is working out is another area for debate.
    And just because he didn't plan out his life, that doesn't mean I can't increase my chances of a favorable outcome by planning mine. Last March, I wrote to my 2016 self about how I want my life to be in my 70s, then started filling in the milestones I want to hit at certain ages: books I want to write, topics I want to teach, places I want to live.
    The salient questions were how I want to live then and what will I have wanted by then and assigning a timetable to them.
    I will revisit these next March, add more milestones and reseal this document along with my new annual letter. I also wrote letters to myself three, five and 20 years in the future to check in on my progress and reiterate my current goals to the 2018, 2020 and 2035 versions of myself. I want to ensure all these Davids are literally on the same page.

    Forest and the trees

    Hitting those personal milestones is key to backcasting -- working toward the next goal within the context of the big picture. I'm also making sure to spend as many quality, mindful and fun hours with my daughters now to ensure they come and visit me and my wife in our retirement ski cabin or beach bungalow more often when we're old and missing them.
    Will my goals change over the coming decades? Maybe. But not radically, I'd guess. My values, politics and general intentions in life have not really changed in the last 20 years and I don't anticipate them changing over the next 30.
    Of course, we are bad at predicting. Life's curveballs mean that some years I open my letters-to-myself from the past and see which deaths, births, breakups and other events I hadn't anticipated. And sometimes I read about something I hoped would happen but didn't. Which is the point of starting to backcast, to improve your success rate at the personal game of life, no matter what plot twists the action takes.
    As for the added backcasting lesson of "Back to the Future Part II"? It's that cheating and shortcuts don't work. The results could be disastrous! Marty McFly's plan to make himself rich by betting on sports scores he knows from a 2015 almanac leads to the ruin of Hill Valley as his nemesis steals his idea to do the same for himself.
    Success, however you define it, is not about shortcuts. It comes from the slow, hard and hopefully interesting work of a lifetime. And backcasting may be the tool to make that success more likely.