I was intrigued. I mean it’s not often that one gets an opportunity to interview a futurist. And peering into the future was just one part of his repertoire. John Sanei, said the email a PR person sent me, is also among other things, a bestselling author, motivational speaker, business innovation strategist and trend specialist.
I was burning to ask him a few questions including, and most importantly, whether as a futurist he had foreseen a pandemic of this magnitude. (Apparently he had, but was “off by a few years”. More about that later.)
First, a little about the man. John is Africa’s first faculty member at San Francisco’s Singularity University, an international learning and innovation community that uses cutting-edge technologies to tackle major global challenges and build a better future. Founded by futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, who also set up the X-Prize Foundation, the university sits on the same campus as Nasa and between Google and Facebook headquarters.
When not touring the globe advising corporations, John also lectures at Duke Corporate Education in Johannesburg and is partner at the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies in Denmark where he is known as an ‘information mercenary’.
On the writing front, the 44-year-old has three bestsellers to his credit – What’s Your Moonshot?, Magnetiize and FOREsight. His most recent book Future How discusses how we can stay positive even when in a stressful situation – perfect for the present times.
Not all highs
But John’s life has not been one of all highs. Growing up in Swaziland in a single-parent family that included his brother, he recalls how his mother, a secretary, used to struggle to raise her boys with her single income. “She’d be in tears almost every night trying to calculate how to make ends meet while I’d watch her stressed and anxious because we didn’t have enough,” says John, in an exclusive Zoom interview from eSwatini (earlier known as Swaziland). (Although based in a luxurious extended-stay Blueground property in Dubai Marina, he was on a visit to his hometown when the pandemic erupted leading to suspension of flights and forcing him to stay put there.)
John’s early life was a struggle – at 13 he was earning around 50 fils an hour packing bags in a grocery store. But keen to turn around his life, he “floored the accelerator” and by the time he was 17, had opened his first business; at 25 was owning restaurants and stores and before he turned 30 had become a self-made millionaire.
Then, a couple of years later, he lost it all and declared bankruptcy.
“I stretched myself too thin… I didn’t read all the contracts I was signing…,” he explains.
If that was a turning point of sorts, over the years, John bounced back to make a fortune once again, becoming one of the most sought-after motivational speakers and trend analysts advising top-notch corporates including several in the UAE.
“There are two ways of going about making money,” says John. “A quote can better explain the principle of making money: ‘Are you running away from darkness or are you running towards the light?’’’
“Are you making money because you are poor are you making money because you want to be rich?”
Most people, he says, don’t want to be poor. One section is motivated by anxiety, the other by excitement. If you are running away from something, you are always anxious; you think the dragon is going to eat you and your only purpose is to escape its jaws.
“[The other set of people] is running towards something, like maybe a mountain where they can be safe and where no dragon can reach them. They are the ones full of excitement.”
He admits that his relationship with money was not very good. “The reason I went bankrupt was because I never wanted to be rich; instead, I only never wanted to be poor. So I had to unlearn and relearn a lot of things about my relationship with money,” he says. That, incidentally, is the first step to building a fortune.
Pursuit of wealth
But in making the pursuit of wealth our life goal are we forgetting to smell the flowers? I ask him.
The idea that making money is the most important thing in life is our biggest mistake, he agrees, adding that the present pandemic has given us an opportunity stop and assess what we have been doing and whether it has been right or wrong. “The biggest problem is the way people spell wealth,” he says. “It should be spelt WELLTH.”
Having the wrong perspective has ruined the world, he believes. “See, the simplest virus will never kill its host because it wants to keep feeding off its host. But we humans are killing our host, earth, for profits and luxury products. At this rate, we won’t even have a host in the next 40 or 50 years.”
He believes now is the time to pause and ascertain whether the stories we have been telling ourselves are the correct ones. “Stories are a big part of the success of our species. They move wisdom from generation to generation. But a story can become very dangerous when we say ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’.”
The motivational speaker offers examples to elucidate: “Until 150 years ago, slavery was a story until it became ‘that’s how it always is’. It became the norm; slaves thought it was the norm. People accepted it.”
John mentions how until a 100 years ago, women were not allowed to vote because “that’s how it always was”; child labour camps were “normal until it had to be legislated out”.
He comes back to the present.
“Today’s stories are that we are all robots. We must only work to make money. But [that has left] the world in debt. The whole economic system had to collapse because it was broken. We have idolised and created through marketing and stories that money and luxury goods are everything, and that those are the only things we must strive for.” He believes the present pandemic is actually a gift – the virus is rebalancing the system.
Keen to peek into the future, I ask him what a futurist does?
Every futurist looks at the future differently, he says. “I categorise and contextualise the future in a way that gives courage and clarity to decision-makers to try new businesses for the future.”
Most companies look to cutting losses because they are focused on efficiency, not robustness. “But relying on robustness can change the way a business is built – you will have low costs because technology can give you that opportunity. In the new world you have to be decentralised. If not, you will suffer,” he warns.
How to be prepared
Did he see this pandemic coming?
“Not really, because my job is not about looking at health issues; my job is to look at consumer trends, business strategies... [But] in some of my books I did mention about several of the things happening now. I expected them to happen in 2030. It arrived 10 years too early. I got the timing wrong.”
So, what strategies should a company employ to ride over these trying times? What skills must people learn or hone to prepare for a job in the new, emerging post-Covid-19 world?
IQ and EQ are good, but not enough. The new term we are looking at is Adaptability Quotient (AQ), he says. “Linear thinking is logical and AQ requires us not to be linear. Adaptability is about being curious.”
He, however, insists we should not let go totally of logic but “become more heart-and-brain coherent. We must feel and then think, not think and then feel because when the latter happens you manipulate your emotions.” He gives an example: “If you really hate your job, you’d say ‘shut up, you got to earn money, so go to work’. But if you a really love something and you need to fix it to make money out of it, that is easier [and you begin to find ways to enjoy it].”
A lot of people hate their jobs but do it because logically they have to earn a living. They may be intelligent but they aren’t adaptable. “So AQ is now replacing IQ. In this century, curiosity, uniqueness and adaptability will be your superpowers. It is no longer survival of the fittest. It is survival of the quickest.
“AQ requires us to be flexible and optimistic, and to be optimistic you need to heal your past, because patterns from your past create your future.” A lover of examples to illustrate his thoughts and views, he points out that if someone believes money is scarce because that is the story he was brought up on as a child, he will struggle to be adaptive. He will think there is no money in the world because that is the story he was brought up on. “That’s the past casting its shadow on your present.”
The importance of curiosity
The future, he says, is about relying on your curiosity. “When you are curious about something, you make time disappear; you can do something you love for four hours and it will seem like ten minutes.
“You become adaptive when you heal your past and use your curiosity to make decisions about the future.”
How do you heal your past? “Learn to let go of it. You need to stop being a prisoner of your past successes.”
John points out that when it comes to adaptability, businesses, too, need to do the same – let go off the past and start with a clean slate. “Businesses that have been successful in the past are often reluctant to change too much. They just want to keep doing what they’ve been doing, maybe just a bit better. [But in a crisis] they are the ones to fall the heaviest.” He mentions how Blockbuster, the US video rental chain, laughed at Netflix’s offer. (In 2000, Blockbuster could have purchased Netflix for $50 million. A decade later, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. In 2019, Netflix had a reported revenue of $20 billion). How Yahoo refused to buy Google… “Do you even see Yahoo now?” he asks.
I point out to John that until recently, at most corporate arenas and entrepreneurship seminars, 80 per cent of his speech would revolve about the future while 20 per cent would be on psychology. Today though it is 90 per cent psychology and 10 per cent on the future. What led to this shift?
John adjusts his elegant glasses and leans forward earnestly. “After categorising and conceptualising the future, I’d visit organisations and speak with business leaders about the future. They’d get excited – robots going to do this, drones going to do that, block chain... I’d return a year later and, guess what, nothing would have changed. The business would be doing exactly what it had been doing a year ago.” It was like warning people about a severe storm and returning later to find that they had not taken any steps to build a storm shelter, he says.
John realised he needed to change tack – stop talking about the future and start talking about changing people’s mindsets about the future.
“Being excited about the future doesn’t mean you are prepared for it. Understanding the dynamics of the psychology gets you to prepare for the future. I realised I needed to teach them how to build a shelter first so they would not have to worry when the storm arrived.”
Kids and social media
Does he think that the present generation is spending way too much time on social media and on devices?
Not really, he says, adding few people know the power of social media. “So, instead of judging children, make them understand social media better.”
He sums up his view with yet another example – of a friend who was worried because his two kids aged 11 and 8 were spending “too much time” on Instagram. “I suggested that instead of trying to get them off Insta, help them start a business on that platform.” Depriving children of exploiting the media to their benefit just because you do not understand it is not just wrong, it could be dangerous, he says. “Try to help them be better on social media rather than telling them to get off it completely.”
He compares parents to how some people are when driving on a highway. “If you are doing 80km/h and someone doing 120 zips past you, you say he is crazy and likely to end up dead because he is going too fast. If you see a guy going slower than you, you point your finger at him and say he’s an idiot and will end up nowhere. The only speed that is right is yours! But who says your perspective is the right one?”
I made up my mind. To start with, I will not point fingers at anyone including those driving slower than I am on the highway. Ok, I will try.
John Sanei’s tips to be future ready
Unlearn: Today, how quickly you can learn, unlearn and relearn, and pre-empt what your customers want and make it available for them will help you stay ahead.
Junk the past: Are you living a life based on memories of the past or on a vision of the future?
Efficiency not enough: Efficiency alone does not help you stay ahead. Robustness and adaptability are what matter and these qualities should be adopted by individuals and businesses.
Adaptive not logical: You need to disengage from logical thinking because the future is not logical. It doesn’t make logical sense that, for instance, a robot can do so many jobs you cannot; or that information is free; or that you can make a phone/video call across the world for free.
Ultra adaptive: You have to be able to sell your skills on all platforms. Earlier, a baker only had to bake and sell his product in a bakery. Now the bakery must have a recipe book, an online store, a YouTube channel, an Insta page... The baker must teach people how to bake... So, be ultra adaptive.
Stop looking for certainty: There is no such thing. Nobody has an idea of what is coming. Be ready for anything.