Asking the 500 Year Question
An all too often question asked in job interviews, in goal worksheets, and even over pints is: “What is your five year or ten year plan?" I’ve never been able to respond with much more than vague notions of grandeur that make me sound far more ambitious than I intend. What keeps digging into my daily wanderings is Mako Fujimura’s “Five Hundred Year Questions” and wondering what choices am I making with a 500 year perspective?
What ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years?
Fujimura juxtaposes the 500-year question with Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes” perspective on humanity. "What is the five hundred year question? Well, it’s a historical look at the reality of our cultures, and asking what ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years", writes Fujimura. A poignant distinction since Warhol was speaking to the Boomer generation that grew into one of the more selfish and consumptive generations America has ever seen with very little thought to legacy. This is a people who took Warhol’s 15 minutes and created the television genre we now call “reality” television; a celebration of the mundane, depraved or the hyper-dramatic, and none of which is ultimately based in the Real. It has such a short life-span that by its nature no one will be talking about it next year, much less 500 years from now.
What if the question we are asking is: “What is your 500-year plan?” What are you doing so that it might be felt 500 years from now? How are you living so a generation half a millennium away will benefit? What would a company look like that takes this approach, especially when it comes to the hiring process? How would friends interact differently? How would communities create space, use resources, educate and listen if they had a 500-year horizon? As Fujimura says, "We stagger because we have lost even our ability to ask that question",
Will I take what I can get or create what I can give?
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the face I see each morning through the half raised eyes, and sleep encrusted waking reflected back in the mirror. How am I going to live today with a bigger perspective, a longer view? Will I take what I can get or create what I can give? Will I love more deeply and hold more loosely, thus, seeding grace in my relationships and creating less space for bitterness and resentment to grow?
Five hundred years is a long span, especially when, if I am not taken out by some freak accident or cancer, I may only live eighty of those five hundred. But instead of just carpe-ing my diem, maybe that kind of distance can shape a more generous diem. I don’t have to figure it all out, get as much as possible, achieve it all before the sun falls. And so, I open the landscape for things that might have longevity in my being present to them now.
What do 500 years look like for you? How would you create differently if you approached your work in these terms? How would the culture around you bob and weave differently with that longer-view?