An Interview with Jamais Cascio

Haegwan Kim

Do you think that all human beings can be successful?

Jamais Cascio

I suppose it depends on how you define success. But in my thinking yes, I think it is possible for all human beings to be successful. because success is an individuated process. So what is success for me, may not be considered success for someone else and vice versa. So asking can all human beings be successful? Well I think yes, as long as they have a model of success in their own heads that they can live up to.

HK

Okay. I talked about this issue with many, many people. And I recently realised that there are two types of success. As you said, there is individual success and on the other hand there is social success. Unfortunately if we are just focusing on individual success, there should be conflicts between individuals but we cannot just focus on society as success ultimately attributes to individual. There is a strong dilemma between the individual success and the social success. Do you have any solution for this?

JC

First, when you say social success I presume you mean success for society in general?

HK

Yes.

JC

Okay. Well the reason that there can be a conflict between social success – as you describe it – and individual success, is because individual success is so deeply rooted in subjective perspective. That is each individual has their own view of what success means and doesn’t mean. And because your view may not match my view there is going to be inevitably some frictions if what is successful for me actually reduces your potential for success.

I don’t know if there is a way to avoid that, in fact I suspect that’s ultimately kind of probably healthy, in that the competition between various models of success helps to assertively assure that people continue to strive for success. Success is a process not a destination so to speak. And I think I may be successful at the moment, but that’s no guarantee that I’m going to be successful a year from now, or a lack of success. I feel like I’m not there yet, doesn’t mean that I will always be perpetually on the edge.

You describe it as a dilemma but it’s a system. Because it’s something where you’re striving for success can help or hinder mine. I cannot charter trajectory, I can’t imagine what the path to success will look like to me without taking into consideration what other people want. I think that’s true. You can take that same dynamic and use that same dynamic and that same system to describe a lot of social processes. That’s really the nature of what it means to be a social species. We have to take the needs of other people into account in order to ultimately have social success.

It’s really important for failure to be part of success. Society is more likely in the long run to have successes that are lasting if you’ve gone through a series of failures before, because you learn more from failure than from success. You learn what works, what doesn’t work. You learn why your desires conflict with others, how your desires conflict with others. You learn how the universe works, and ultimately I think that a model of success that assumes that failure is intrinsically bad is not going to be very lasting. Success has to embrace failure as well.

HK

That’s a really interesting point. No interviewee has mentioned that. I have a question about the difference of our vales. As we can see easily there are huge differences between individuals and it triggers the social conflicts. Can we integrate our value in the 21st century which is far different from the 20th century based on industrial capitalism?

JC

One of the characteristics is a recognition of the multiplicity of forms of value. So focusing exclusively on monetary success seems to pretty inevitably lead to failures in other arenas. The more you focus on one, the more that you’re likely to discard the others. And ultimately being successful, having a successful society requires us to look across the spectrum and not just look at one part of it.

So you’re absolutely right in saying that in our current 20th century capitalist culture, we’re still living in that 20th century model. We do focus overly much on that one financial aspect. I think that we’re learning a very harsh lesson these days about the dangers associated with focusing so much on just one characteristic of success. You can take the example of what’s happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico with the deep water horizon oil rig that exploded and now is spewing oil throughout the ocean. There’s pretty strong evidence that the reason that the oil rig failed is that the people who were running it were focused on trying to cut costs in every possible way. The reason they didn’t do the testing was because the testing would take too much time and cost too much. They just wanted to cut their budget. I think that’s an excellent illustration from right now of how focusing too much on one narrow perspective blinds you and can damage the variety of other kinds of value.

HK

Many people, especially those who are living with Internet, told me that it is now easier to achieve success as the development of technology. They even say that it’s easier not only in the field of technology but anywhere in the world. Do you agree or disagree with this assumption?

JC

Actually I disagree. I don’t think it is easier to be successful now than it was thirty years ago, or fifty years ago. But our definition of what success means and how you become successful definitely has changed. So the example, the person you were talking to about it’s not too hard to earn some money on the internet. Well that’s one definition for that person of success. But if you look back thirty or forty years before there was much of an internet at all, people would talk about success in terms of having a house and raising a family. That hasn’t been made easier by the rise of the internet. So what we’re seeing when we talk about technological development, when we talk about globalisation is an on-going evolution of the concept of success. It’s not static, it’s not something where you define success and that’s what it remains, that’s how that definition stands for decades.

At least when you’re talking, especially when you’re talking about that moment by moment am I successful right now? You I think you can make an argument that when you take success as a perspective of how will I be successful? What will I have to do to make sure that when my life is over, I can look back and I can say that I was a success? There was a research scientist whose name is Jonas Salk. He helped to develop the polio vaccine last century. He is also known as being a kind of philosopher. One thing he said that is quite relevant to your project here, he said, “The most important question we can ask of ourselves is are we being good ancestors?” So what he is saying is are we building a world that our descendants years or centuries from now can look back on us and say these ancestors, these people who preceded us, did some good things.

So in essence what he is arguing is that the most important determinant of success isn’t how you think about yourself but how your descendants will think about you. I can’t define success. I can’t say whether or not I’m successful. It’s only the people who follow me who can look back on my life and say, “Yes, he was a success.” Or, “Oh no, he was a failure.”

HK

Then for example, our grandchildren say George W Bush made the war and killed so many people. Then he is not successful?

JC

Exactly. There’ll be lots of debates in the present about am I doing the right thing, am I doing the wrong thing? Ultimately the people who follow us will have much more of a say over whether we had been successful or not. But here’s the thing. That evolves over time as well. So as we gain more perspective, time advances and we gain more perspective on what the lives of the people in the past were like, our view of who’s a success and who is not may change as well.

HK

Talking about our future, simply we cannot predict the future right?

JC

No, you can’t.

HK

But I think making optimistic view on our future is meaningful. Although there are many disagreements against this, I personally presume having sanguine view is helping us to have a hope.

JC

It is actually. And here’s why. When you ask can we predict the future, I think as in saying, “This is what will happen.” But saying these are the kinds of things that will happen, here are the implications of the choices that we’re making today. People usually talk about these as forecasts. I think that you’re right in asking whether having forecasts and predictions of positive futures can change present day behaviour. That’s because one of the values of futures thinking, of being a futurist and thinking in terms of foresight and forecasts. One of the key values is the ability to describe potential outcomes that the audience may not have been thinking of.

To imagine future possibilities, the reason I do is because people tend to be trapped in a fairly narrow range of imagining what the future could hold. What I’ve discovered is that people tend to bias towards negative outcomes. It’s easier for people to imagine disaster than to imagine success. Especially people who are doing a lot of environmental work, social work or things that are for the public good, trying to build a better world. They are often better able to describe what happens if they fail than they are in describing what happens if they succeed.

So part of the service that I am providing is helping people see the potential of what happens if they do succeed. If we can imagine the parameters of a better world then we are far better able to take the steps today to move in that direction than we would be if we simply couldn’t even imagine what a better world would look like. And so the value of positive futures is precisely in its ability to bring awareness of the possibility of success. The role of forecasting, the role of futurism, is to serve as a catalyst. I’m not here to give you the answer; I’m here to help you see answers that you wouldn’t have seen before. And part of how I do that is in doing things that I know are going to be in the short term, in the narrow perspective wrong. Because what they do is they serve as catalysts for coming up with something useful.

HK

Let’s talk about your personal life. Can I ask how did you promote your works?

JC

I don’t do a very good job of it. I tend to rely on people finding me as opposed to going out and telling people about myself. I suppose one way of thinking about that, that ties into the larger question for you, is that I’m not shy. I’m willing to do things like this conversation, to write articles because I recognise that visibility, being out there to be seen is the most important way of promoting myself. I’m not putting up signs saying, “Hire me.” I’m simply doing what I do reasonably well. And expecting and relying upon people finding that and following through on that. To be honest I could do it better. I am not doing it as well as I could and I wish I knew how to do it in a more effective way.

HK

Then would you say then that the most important thing to promote successfully is don’t be shy?

JC

Yeah probably. And be willing to try things. I think one of the reasons I am as successful as you say people say I am, and it’s weird for me to think of it in those terms. I think one of the reasons why is that I’ve been willing to give things a shot knowing that there’s a good chance it won’t work. As an example, back about 13 or 14 years ago, so back in the late 90s, I was working for a company called Global Business Network, which was a scenario planning futures. I was focused on technology stuff and over the course of the work I ended up having some time to talk with a television producer who was doing a science fiction TV show. After about a year of back and forth and talking about some of the ideas that he had for the show, he asked if I’d like to come to Hollywood and be the technology and science advisor for his TV show, and he’d give me the opportunity to write some scripts for the show, to see whether I wanted to do that.

Now I’ve never wanted to be a Hollywood guy, but it was something that was interesting and different and I thought I would go ahead and give it a chance. Now I learned from that a couple of things. One: Hollywood is really weird. Two: I’m good at some things but I’m not good at writing scripts. That was three years of my life being down in Los Angeles. I wasn’t terribly successful in terms of making a lot of money but I met a lot of interesting people. I did things that I still find useful today, in terms of getting a different perspective on the world, in terms of understanding how this very different kind of business world works. It’s very different from how the tech industry or the political world, how that works. For me, I look back at that time as being useful, a useful failure. I wasn’t a success but it was part of why I am doing as well as I’m doing now.

HK

It’s interesting to hear that many movements of your career. For example when I was young and I liked to play basketball, I wanted to be Michael Jordan. Then when I was 16 I realised that my ability is not enough to be Michael Jordan and my definition of success changed. Can we say what we want to do is same as personal success?

JC

I suppose that a lot of people will think of that as how they would imagine being successful. That process that you described just now. That as a young person your dream was something utterly unrealistic. There’s so few out of the six and a half billion people on the planet, there are so few people who have that kind of ability to play basketball that Michael Jordan had. So your initial dream was just utterly unrealistic. Basically as you get older, as you get more life experience and more awareness about how the world works, your definition of success will become more realistic. At least for most people. So it’s not just that how you define success is changing, it’s that your recognition of what would be possible to succeed at is changing. So you’re developing a better understanding of what kind of success is available to you.

Let’s try to think of something here. I would love at some point to be an advisor to the President about different kinds of possibilities. I think it’s actually pretty unlikely that this will happen for a variety of reasons. Most because my networks are not the political world. I don’t hide things about my past, and so I have all sorts of skeletons in the closet that would get me kicked off any kind of political panel. But I don’t define that as the only way I can be successful is if I am in the White House working for a President. Would that be something that I would like? Sure. Is it something that if I don’t make that then I consider myself a failure? No. The flip side of that is that you may have images of yourself as what would define success down the road, that actually do happen but happen in ways you would never have imagined.

So one of my graduate degrees is in political science. I did international politics at UC Berkley in graduate school, and I had this vision of myself. This was 20 years ago. I had imagined myself that I would know that I was doing a good job in that field, I was successful in that field, if I showed up in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine, because that was and is a pretty respected journal of international politics. If I made it there then actually I am probably doing a pretty good job in that field. But I haven’t done that field; I haven’t talked about politics from an academic perspective for a very long time. I didn’t go into teaching that, I didn’t become a political scientist. But I did end up in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine because the other things that I was working on drew the attention of the editors there and they gave me an opportunity to have a platform.

So from the perspective of my 20 year old self, that was a success, but it had nothing to do with the path that I had imagined at the time. I said a moment ago that success is contingent. What that really means is that how we visualise success in the moment will always be that kind of useful failure. I have this vision of what success would mean, but I also have to recognise that that’s merely a guiding principle, that’s merely a way of framing and understanding the world and it’s not going to be a prediction. What success means is actually in the larger world of going in that direction, of following that path.

As the final question, can I ask your advice to be successful in general?

JC

Be willing to fail. As I said at the very beginning success requires a willingness to try, and to fail and to learn from that failure always make new mistakes is one way of thinking about it. If success is something you see as being elusive and important, that means it’s going to be hard to achieve and if something is hard to achieve, you may have to try for it over and over again from different pathways. So not letting yourself be discouraged, not letting yourself say okay I tried it, it didn’t work so I’m done. I think that is a critical component of success.

Jamais Cascio is a Writer and Futurist.

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