COVID-19 derailed everyone's plans. Here's how to make new ones

Stephen Johnson tried to weigh out whether he should move to California and in the process discovered a whole world of long-term planning tools. At a time when planning for the future feels impossible, Johnson talks about how to thoughtfully make big plans.

How to make long-term plans when the future feels impossible to forecast

Steven Johnson is the author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. He says intuition can really lead you astray when you’re faced with the biggest choices life brings you. (Submitted by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson was struck by an urge when he was turning 40  — he wanted to move to California. 

He'd lived most of his life in New York City, attending school and finding employment there.  When he reflected on where he actually wanted to live, something in his body screamed "California."

But how could he be sure he was making the right choice? And he knew that he wasn't the only one who needed to think this was a good idea. His wife and kids would also have to agree. 

This process of making the case for a move to California inspired Johnson to write the book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most. 

He realized that he'd never thought about what it means to make a hard decision, when the future consequences were so unclear.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, long term decision making has only become more complicated. 

Johnson joined Tapestry host Mary Hynes to talk about how he made the decision to move, and why stories are an important way to think about the future.

The important thing about the pros and cons list in its limitation is that not all values are the same.- Steven Johnson


There is a technique you like on the personal decision making front. If something is really stumping me in my own life, you like something called "mapping." What's involved with that?

One of the things that inspired this book personally for me is that my wife and I, after a long period of deliberation and to some extent, some argument, decided to move from New York to California. While I was having basically my midlife crisis — which we don't need to get into — but I needed to live in California for some stretch of my life.

 And if you think about a move like that, you know, there's so many variables right there. It's like, what are you, a city person? Are you a suburban person? Are you a country person? Where are your kids going to go to school? What's the real estate situation? Are you going to rent? How much do you want to have nature in your life? How much do you want to have the business and diversity of a big city know? 

Those are political questions. Those are emotional questions. They all impact the choice. People describe this as a value model. On the surface, it sounds a little bit like a pros and cons list. But the important thing about the pros and cons list in its limitation is that not all values are the same.

What people sometimes do, and you can [too] if you want to nerd out on this — you can do this in a spreadsheet.

You write a list of all those factors and then you give them different weights in a sense that you say, 'Okay, look, nature is important to me and I will get more nature in the countryside, but it's not that important to me. Whereas making sure that the kids are in the best school, that's really important. Or that we have a backyard is nice, but I don't need it.' 

So basically try to model how important all those different things are.

For a lot of people I know the central decision of a lifetime is whether or not to have kids. And I think for a lot of people, one of the stumbling blocks is there's no way of knowing what your life will bring. And I'm wondering, how can you apply a rational set of thinking tools to such an intimate decision? 

I think that it's a great point and it's one of those rare moments where you realise that this choice is going to change everything. And I think that one way to think about it is narrative. Novels are a wonderful way of training yourself for making decisions when you read it. 

I have a whole riff about Middlemarch, which is my favourite novel of all time. So many points in that book where [author] George Eliot takes you into the internal life of someone making a complicated life decision. And you walk through their consciousness as they're trying to make a complicated choice.

That's kind of practice when you read, you get to occupy somebody else's head while they're making choices.

And that helps us be smarter about decisions in our own life. And that's the way I would think about something like having kids. We run through these scenarios in our head and say, "Okay, this is how I could imagine life with kids." There's an exercise called a pre-mortem. 

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most (Penguin Random House)

In a post-mortem, someone has died. You have to figure out what killed them. In a pre-mortem, the idea is that you're facing an important decision. You're going to have kids, or you're not going to have kids. 

The idea of the pre-mortem is to say, let's imagine this has happened. We've taken this step. We've made this decision that we're currently planning to make. And in five years, it turns out to be a terrible disaster. Tell the story of why it became a disaster. In building that kind of scenario in your head, it forces you to kind of imagine what could go wrong. 

It turns out when people have analyzed this pre-mortem technique, the people are much more creative at coming up with and anticipating potential problems that might come up. 

I think that's that kind of storytelling that you might do with your partner as you're weighing the decision of having kids like, "So let's say we don't have kids, like what would be? What would be the real, what would be the disastrous scenario? What would be the scenario that we'd feel really disappointed?"

And just the more of those kinds of stories you tell, [you're] training your gut, training your instincts. You're exposing your instinctual brain to more possibilities and more ways of thinking about the future.

My problem is that I can't stop deliberating. Where do I cut it off? At what point do you know?- Steven Johnson

A scary thing about making this big momentous decisions is that there's no alternate universe you can peek into to see the path not taken. And I'm curious what you think, Steven, about is it ever possible to know that you've made the best possible choice?

How do you arrive at a place where you're at peace with whatever decision you've made when you can't really know what the path not taken would have brought?

You know, it's a great question.

And it's one of the things that actually didn't fully occur to me until after I finished writing Far-Sighted and started talking to people about it.

To take the time to build those maps, build those, you know, premortem, tell those stories, use the default network to imagine future scenarios. So it's trying to get people, in a sense, to slow down and … really have a process for the decision you're making. But a certain subset of people, when they would hear this would say, "Yeah, that's my problem is not slowing down. My problem is that I can't stop deliberating."

"You know, like, where do I cut it off? At what point do you know? My problem is I just get stuck in analysis paralysis or whatever you want to call it. "

The answer I ultimately came up with, in thinking about this, was that when you have a process and when you have kind of stages, like in Far-Sighted, I talk about a mapping stage, a predicting stage and a deciding stage, right?

By creating stages like that, for the folks who tend to overanalyze, there's also a kind of clarity to that, right? It's like, "OK, I'm going to spend a week on the mapping and spend a week on predicting. I would spend a week on deciding. And then I will have done this. And I can feel good about the decision I made because I went through these exercises." 

And that gives you a kind of timeline that you can know, you can stop the process and not just churn forever.

And I think that that then leaves you with this feeling. Yes, it is in the nature of the human condition that we'll never really know. You can't run a parallel simulation and see how life would have turned out if you hadn't moved to California or if you hadn't had the kids.

But at least you know that for that really important turning point in your life, that you did the maths right, that you spent the time walking through those scenarios. And I think that is some comfort in accepting the decision that you've made, because that is the next thing that you have to do once you've made the choice. 

Steven Johnson is the author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most. His previous books include the best-seller Where Good Ideas Come From. Steven Johnson is also the host and co-creator of the Emmy-award-winning series How We Got to Now on the BBC and PBS.

This article has been edited for clarity. Written by Arman Aghbali, produced by Arman Aghbali and Rosie Fernandez.


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