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We made 2020. How do we make the future from here?

Advice for the young at heart
Soon we will be older
When we gonna make it work?

We are

  • in the fourteenth week of a quarantine or some kind of COVID-time physical and social limitation,
  • into three months of energy supply and demand shocks, mass layoffs and continued unemployment in many sectors,
  • almost a month into global protests against police violence and daily discussions on race, diversity and equity in science and the workplace,
  • officially in an economic recession while strapped tight into the reopening-reclosing-reopening-reclosing roller coaster,
  • in the fraught lead-up to another US presidential election while still dealing with the now that is the result of the previous one,
  • exhausted and uncertain,
  • working through exhaustion and trying to handle uncertainty,
  • at a crossroads.

Please let’s not cancel 2020, but instead hold and look at it. It is the inevitable outcome of the decisions we made as a modern people, country and world, and the point at which we admit we cannot go on like this and then make important choices for tomorrow. Through all of my conversations and observations of the last few months, one truth crystallizes: Not only is it impossible to return to the past, I inherently distrust people who venerate history, especially a static, symbolic and romanticized history, at the expense of the future. So, how do we make that future and starting right now?

Looking longingly over our shoulders at glowing versions of an increasingly blurry yesterday – the one in which a few were comfortable and try to convince the rest of us that we were, too, and wouldn’t it be nice if the children and second-class citizens simply understood that and re-assumed their places in the antiquated but safe power structure – will not get us there. In fact, that’s what got us to the 2020 we’re currently scratching our heads over. Nor will half-baked and ill-advised attempts help in any way. We want to digitally transform, but not too much because it’s not in our budget. We aspire to go carbon-negative, but wave away the full-cycle costs and the labor of transition. We want to appear diverse and inclusive, but hey people of color, you do the work and we may or may not listen. We like to use words like resilience, but tremble, cower and fall apart at mere ideas that challenge our long-held world views.

Yes, I have absolutely conjoined technological, industrial, social, economic and political issues here because

  1. Science, engineering, technology, infrastructure, policy, politics and society (the people who do this work and the people who are impacted by it) are so tightly intertwined that you cannot effectively work with one without actively engaging and impacting the others, and
  2. The future requires viewing the whole earth and all of its systems as one large interdependent system. If you can understand multi-physics processes, you can understand this.

It is in our power to shape far-reaching change. And this is where I draw a line in the sand: You’re either committed to the future, or against it. You’re a giver, or a taker. You’re uncomfortable and using that as a signal to change yourself, or going down with the deck chair on that water-logged ship. And I am done aligning myself with those who don’t want to do the heavy lifting to realize this. Conversely, I stand with, learn from and give to those who want to do the work – “from a place of trying to do the right thing more than trying to do what is best to maximize [their] personal possibilities” * – to make a world of huge capacity for future generations.

Last week, I gave a talk to a group of young and/or out-of-work geoscientists and petroleum engineers in a career strategies seminar as a part of the Society of Petroleum Engineers Gulf Coast webinar series for their members in transition. The title of my talk is Strategies for Career Future-Proofing. Yes, come for the fluffy corporate-speak title, stay for the real talk, which is available for your listening pleasure HERE (fast forward to 1:46:00 for mine, but I encourage you to check out the two speakers who went before me).

At the very beginning of the talk, I stress the following: Strategies – not tactics. Career – my words are deliberately crafted for those intending to build a career as an extension of self, not folks seeking jobs. Future proofing – not Now proofing. Thinking strategically about building a career and a future to go with it requires the deep consideration of People – who you are and your community, your Practice – how to get where you want to go, and your personal Philosophy why do any of this? With my own personal educational and career journey, the talk goes into further detail on each of these with examples and tasks, with these takeaways:

1) People: As earth problems grow, cross-trained earth practitioners will only increase in value. To be the best possible earth scientist/engineer, your only driver ought to be doing what needs to be done and learning what needs to be learned to better understand and serve the earth as an integrated system,

2) Practice: If you are in or thinking of going back to school, anyone can get a degree or acquire a skill. Instead, take the opportunity to learn how to learn and (re)build your foundation. For their own future relevance, universities can stand to fundamentally revamp curricula to foster thinkers and creators, and not commodify education to stamp out STEM workers. To quote Scott Newstok, “The value of an education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks,” and

3) Philosophy: Whatever you choose to do, plan it with vision and commitment to yourself and the world, while nurturing a strong personal philosophy of thoughtfulness, curiosity and being intentional.

People, practice and philosophy take an immense amount of trust (in yourself and others), training (do the work) and time (so, start now).

Along with the tasks, I also assigned reading:

  • The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility
  • Timefulness: How Thinking Like A Geoscientist Can Help Save The World
  • The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead In A Reckless Age
  • How To Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From A Renaissance Education

How can I make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How can I learn and let in more and more that will help me see the earth and infrastructure, our whole being on this planet, as a system? How do I deepen and broaden my own understanding of the human experience to better design for that system? Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but I’d rather dream about the future.

Come with us who will build new energies, curricula and communities that the future’s children will then take down and build anew. Else, goodbye.

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