Let’s start with a question.
Have the last two to three years completely upended your life and forever transformed not just who you are but the way you see and relate to the very world around you?
I’m guessing that for at least a handful of people, the answer would be “yes.” But now let’s try rephrasing that question.
Have the last two to three years have, at the very least, jolted your sense of safety, stability, and normalcy and led you to rethink certain things that you may have once taken for granted?
Almost certainly, the answer would be “yes” for many if not most people. For those of you who fit this description, I submit that Imaginable is one of the most important books you could possibly read this year (or any year).
Imaginable is the third book written by futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose work I’ve covered before on this site and whom I make no secret of being a big fan of. Her first two books, Reality is Broken and SuperBettter, are also works that I feel are important and deserve a wide audience, but not everyone may be naturally drawn to the subject of games due to certain preconceptions or biases they may have about the topic. However, there is not a person alive for whom the future—the subject of Imaginable—is not an urgently relevant subject unless you are an immortal who exists outside of time.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to the questions that I opened this review with. I happen to be among the people who would answer “yes” to the first question—that is, the last three years have profoundly altered how I see myself, my worldview, my priorities, and the interests and pursuits that I now choose to focus on. I won’t go into details here as I don’t wish to use up space in this review with my own personal story, but suffice it to say that I have been completely transformed and know in my heart that I will never be able to go back to “normal” or “the way things used to be” (nor do I even want to).
As part of this transformation I have read obsessively, trying to reorient myself to this new person I’ve become and this new reality that I’m living in. Most of these books have been about various kinds of future risk factors (e.g., the climate crisis, the state of democracy, widening wealth inequality, hyperpolarization, civil unrest, societal collapse, the list goes on…), and they have been very helpful and educational. But in the process of this quest to understand, something happened. All this obsessive reading about future risks, combined with stressful and traumatic events occurring in my personal life, combined with watching unprecedented events unfold both in the U.S. and around the world was sending my autonomous nervous system into a state of overdrive where it felt like threats were around every corner both figuratively and literally (after all, I was physically harassed on a train during the height of the anti-Asian hysteria). I literally never leave home anymore without pepper spray.
Now, I do believe that it is important to be aware of, to educate oneself about, and to be prepared for a range of various possible future risks, especially the highly likely or inevitable ones such as increasingly severe climate chaos. This is unquestionably better than being unaware, unprepared, and falling victim to normalcy bias. Covid should have proven this for everyone, but the near inevitability of Europe’s latest wave reaching our shores, and practically zero public guidelines still being observed in the U.S., leads me to think otherwise. This stubborn persistence of our collective normalcy bias is precisely why Imaginable, in my opinion, should be required reading for everyone.
But maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re someone with the opposite problem. For you, these risks aren’t just abstract concepts but visceral threats that you can *feel* in your body on a day-to-day basis. This too is a compelling reason why you need to equip yourself with not just risk awareness but also the skills and strengths that can help you meet those risks and challenges in a way that’s beneficial to you, your loved ones, your communities, and ultimately your society. Imaginable is a book that can help you develop those skills and strengths.
Let’s be clear. This is not a book about predicting the future—or at least that’s not its primary purpose. There are plenty of other books like that out there so it would be easy to confuse this as being one of them. It’s not. McGonigal does ask us to imagine a wide range of future scenarios, but the point of this is not necessarily to predict the future, and certainly not to predict it accuracy (although that can definitely happen in the process, as it did with past simulations that Jane has run which predicted Covid and many of the other disruptions we’ve seen throughout 2020-2022). Certainly, many of the scenarios she discusses in this book are, in my belief, likely or highly likely to happen in some shape or form. But some of them may not. The point of imagining all of them—whether you think they are likely or unlikely, desirable or undesirable—is to cultivate mental flexibility and develop key skills that will leave you better off right now as well as in the future, whatever it is that may actually happen in the future. If it’s a threat, you’ll be better equipped to handle it. If it’s an opportunity, you’ll be better equipped to seize it. In fact, toward this end it’s even better to intentionally work with future scenarios that may strike you as borderline ridiculous simply as a way to stretch your brain’s plasticity. Ultimately, the goal of Imaginable isn’t just to leave you better equipped to react better to threats and opportunities. The ultimate goal is to position you to help create and influence the kinds of futures you actually want instead of passively waiting for them to arrive.
It’s conceivable that something that no one, not even the best predictive futurists out there, has imagined could occur. The only way that you can be prepared for such an unimagined future is to imagine as wide a variety of futures as you possibly can, thereby further pushing your brain’s ability to understand, react, and adapt to novel situations. The more you practice the exercises and skills in this book (a) the more unlikely it is that you’ll be surprised or caught off guard by any possible given future, and (b) even if that happens, the more resilient you’ll be, the faster you’ll be able to respond constructively, the more solutions you’ll be able to think of, and the more you’ll be able to thrive in that future (even if you have to redefine what it means to “thrive,” as I believe we all must if we wish to weather the existential threat of climate change).
Though it guides you in working with future scenarios, Imaginable is a book about right now: to feel more empowered right now, to develop skills that enrich your life and your communities right now, and to be more prepared right now whether the futures that arrive five, 10, or 20 years down the road are ones that you were able to imagine or not. But if you read this book, and practice the skills and exercises in it, then the range of futures that you were not able to imagine will shrink, and meanwhile your sense of agency and efficacy in the face of any future will expand and grow.
And, yes, in the process you just might accurately predict the future. 🙂