What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way: Spotting Tomorrow’s Trends – The Conclusion to the 100-Book Experiment

  • December 01, 2017
  • Jonathan Cullen, CIC.C

What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way: Spotting Tomorrow’s Trends – The Conclusion to the 100-Book Experiment

Over the course of 2017, I’ve shared with you my learnings from my attempt to read 100 books last year. for this, my last of four pieces on the subject, I commend to you but one work to reflect on: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

You may wonder what 2000-year-old wisdom can add to our quest to gauge the future for our clients. In my view, any attempt to look to the future requires reflection, and the abilities to observe truth in the world and turn obstacles into advantages. Meditations offers pathways to all of these.

Marcus Aurelius ruled as Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, a philosophy of personal ethics rooted in logic that espouses accepting this moment as it presents itself,
using our minds to understand the world around us, and treating others fairly and justly. Meditations is a series of notes by Aurelius on this philosophy for his own guidance and self-improvement. (That practice alone deserves examination!) It is one of the most significant works of thought ever produced. More  importantly, it is unusually accessible and readable.

Here are five of Aurelius’ thoughts that should guide us in our roles of spotting tomorrow’s risk and opportunities.

  1.  “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.”

    You’re not going to spot anything if you don’t set aside time to think. I would suggest that the greatest challenge facing today’s in-house counsel is the failure to set aside space and time to quiet the mind and reflect deeply. Aurelius teaches us that “it is in your power to retire into yourself, whenever you choose.” We do not do this enough.

    Practical application: Emulate Rome’s greatest thinker and write down your observations and thoughts. Take a few notes at the end of the day, empty your working memory and go home to enjoy your personal time. Look at your notes when you come into the office the next day and you’ll start to see that the overnight marination of ideas in the brine of life will elevate and connect your insights.
  1. “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

    You don’t need a bean bag chair or an office slide to ponder the future. We are already equipped with the “weapons of reason” we have honed over years of logical training. Now the challenge is to break down mental constructs and build afresh in our minds what could be.

    Practical application: Strive to take solutions to today’s problems and use them as a seed for future innovation. In solving an immediate crisis, you should simultaneously track learnings that could shape future advice or strategy. Use post-mortems, pre-mortems or parking lots. Those who master on-the-fly reflection rule the future.
  1. “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”

    When pondering future states, don’t become too attached to any one concept. The future is highly likely to be nothing like what we think. “Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.”

    Practical application: Given the level of uncertainty that the future brings, you must spend a disproportionate amount of time observing and trying to understand the present. Ask provocative child-like (not childish) questions. Listen. You have two ears and one mouth; use them accordingly.
  1. “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”

    In-house counsel are often stewards of institutional memory with enterprise-wide vantage points. The business will value this powerful perspective if you bring it to the table, but do so in a constructive way.

    Practical application: Saying “we tried that years ago and it didn’t work, so forget it” is different than “we tried that years ago but in a different environment, so maybe it would work today.” Trends are not onetime events. They start somewhere. Raise the game on document management by looking at past legal advice or strategy to get a sense of where tomorrow may land.
  1. Finally, Marcus Aurelius’ greatest insight: “Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

    This, in my opinion, represents a profound potential evolution in our way of thinking. Don’t seek to avoid obstacles; instead, seek them out. Rotate them in your mind and turn them to your advantage.

    In-house counsel are bombarded with the organization’s problems. It would be easy to simply fight fires from a distance all day. Instead, be bold: run into that burning house. Use your weapons of reason and reflect on how these problems, if solved, could transform into a competitive advantage. Rather than hacking at the leaves of problems, dig, discover its root and attack.

    Practical application: If you struggle with this concept, find a leader in your organization who is an exemplary strategic thinker and ask for guidance. Find someone who asks questions that reframe discussions, widens rather than narrows options, connects seemingly unrelated topics and elevates solutions to address broader systemic issues. Mentorship and feedback in this type of relationship can revolutionize your career.

In closing, I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about my year-long reading bibliophilic odyssey. I’m hopeful that the intimidating pile of books on your nightstand that stands in the way becomes the way.

Jonathan Cullen, CIC.C, is Vice President, Legal Affairs & General Counsel at Pfizer Canada Inc., and is
sometimes caught hacking at the leaves. Follow him on LinkedIn.