When the Future Determines the Present: How to See What Others Cannot See

May 14, 2013

By: Robert E. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

We tend to accept that our current circumstances are heavily influenced by our genetics, culture, and past decisions. So here is a challenging question, “When does the future determine the present?”

The normal belief that the past determines the present. But a recent workshop led me to question this assumption.

A Workshop

Our topic was vision. I met with a group of leaders and gave them a worksheet with these questions: What is a vision?  When have you been directly exposed to someone with a vision? What was unusual about the person? When in your life have you committed to bring about a vision? What happened? When a person has a vision, how does it change the daily life experience?  What vision do you have right now?

The Future Already Exists

After the participants filled out the worksheet, I asked those questions aloud and listened to the answers. The early discussion focused on the notion that a vision is a perceived end; it is something you see in the future.

Then two more insightful points were made. One man seemed to speak from experience. He thoughtfully and confidently said that a vision is a future state that already exists.

This sentence caught our attention, it seemed contradictory. How can the future already exist?  According to my left-brain logic, the present and future are two different categories. The future cannot already exist.

As I pondered his strange claim, my mind flashed to similar claims made by others. Michelangelo, for example, stated:

I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.

An Illustration

In my interviews with highly effective teachers, a fourth-grade teacher made a claim much like Michelangelo’s. On first day of school, she announced that it was time to begin math. Suddenly, one of her students burst into tears. She took the girl to the hall for a brief and private conversation. “I can’t do math,” the girl said. “Numbers don’t make sense to me. I hate math.”

The teacher made a promise. “You know what? You don’t know me very well, and I don’t know you very well yet, but I’m going to trust that you are a mathematician. You just haven’t figured it out yet, and I need you to trust that I can get you to see that.”

As the year unfolded, the teacher connected with the girl. “I worked with her to go back and build some foundations, hence confidence that she could kind of start moving on.”

By the end of the year, the student announced that math was her favorite subject and that she “loved the challenge of trying to figure it out.” She scored well on the state math assessment and wrote the teacher a letter thanking her for turning her into a mathematician.

Surprisingly the teacher had a different interpretation. She told us that she did not turn the girl into a mathematician. She said that the student “always was [a mathematician].” What kept the girl from knowing that she was a mathematician was her lack of confidence. Once she had confidence and acted upon it, what was already in her simply came out.

Under normal assumptions we believe it is the teacher’s job to be an expert, to instruct or inform, to put information into students.  Educe is a root of the word education.  Educe means to draw or extract, to bring the out the greatness that is already in them.  Many of the highly effective teachers shared this unusual orientation.


In our training session, I was caught up in pondering the paradoxical notion that a vision is a future state that already exists when another man spoke up. I had worked with him before. I knew that when he took over his organization, he spent an extended period trying to find a vision for it. Eventually he claimed that he actually had one.

As he spoke up, he confirmed what the earlier man stated, that a vision is a future state that already exists. Then he added: “Once you see it, you become passionate about it, you cannot stop working on it. You become totally committed.”

As I pondered this strange claim, my mind flashed to similar claims made by Robert Frost and Abraham Maslow.

In his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost says his objective is to unite his avocation and his vocation.  “Only where love and need are one and the work is play for mortal stakes/is the deed ever really done for Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Maslow studied self-actualizing people.  He said they had “a rare capacity to resolve value dichotomies.”  Then he wrote, “Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure nor work with play when duty is pleasure.”

Here again I experience a challenge to my left-brained logic. Duty is one thing and pleasure is another.  Yet there is another perspective.

When we do what we are supposed to do because it is our duty, we are normal. When we do our duty because we love to do it, we become extraordinary. We find ourselves embedded in an emergent, synergistic web. We not only work on the task, the task works on us. The process ignites virtues, enriches relationships, and makes the outcomes generative. All these dynamics loop back on us and we flourish in an upward cycle of self-actualization.

An Illustration

I recalled my own experiences working with the man who made the second statement. He so believed in the vision that he pursued it constantly. I watched him lead his organization with passion and noted that he had extraordinary influence. When he spoke, people listened and willingly devoted themselves to the pursuit of the vision. He did not force them. He declared the vision with such confidence that for him the future already seemed to exist. It was an authentic message about an authentic vision.

I remembered how he was always extending himself, moving forward by trial and error. He was open to taking risks and learning. It did not embarrass him to learn from failure. He always shared his vulnerability, and he constantly talked about the vision.

Others tended to trust him. They slowly embraced the vision and then began to pursue it with the same passion he displayed. They often came to him with willing contributions of their own, contributions he did not know to ask for. The future was being co-created in the present by people unified in a system of collective intelligence.

His experience, and the results he achieved, violate many normal assumptions. Trust replaces fear. The future becomes more attractive than the past.  Passion replaces complacency.  Individuals of self-interest become a collective in pursuit of the common good. The mind of the authority figure is replaced by collective intelligence. Hierarchical control gives way to spontaneous contribution. The differentiation between present and future dissolves as the future is co-created and emerges in the present moment.