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posted: 5/25/2014 6:30 AM

Career Coach: Paying enough attention to the future

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Time is your most precious currency, and investing it wisely is critical to shaping your future. This notion is often neglected, because the present typically takes precedence.

Think of the activities that you perform on a regular basis. Reflect on your daily routine from the moment that you wake up to the moment that you go to bed at night. Envision three buckets placed before you. One represents the past, one the present and one the future. How much of what you do throughout your day belongs in the bucket representing the past? Fixing problems, for example, is all about the past, something that happened yesterday. How much of what you did can be placed in the bucket representing the present? Managing crises would go here. Finally, how much of what you did today could be placed in the third bucket?

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Regrettably, we spend our days filling up the "past" and "present" buckets. We take time away from the future to deal with the present. By perpetuating the present condition, we ensure that things will never change.

It sounds paradoxical, but a "good" present begins in the future. It begins in the present with our statement of desire, the articulation of our vision. Think about it: If we do not like where we are now at this moment, it's because at some point in the past we neglected the future. We did not do anything to prepare for a better future and thus have arrived at a point where we do not want to be.

The opposite is also true: A good future begins in the present because it is in the present that we can take action. Futurist Joel Barker reminds us that "if we neglect the future, we will never have a good present. But if we neglect the present, we will quickly run out of our future." We cannot shape the future in the future. We must take action today, but we must know what kind of action to take.

It is a common error to tweak the present, to make marginal improvements and think the job is done. It is not only safe, it is easy. But it is also unproductive. We stagnate, even decline. We lose our edge since all we are doing is pushing our present condition out in time. Successful leaders appreciate the fundamental distinction between pushing the present out in time our pulling the desired future into the present. Pulling the future into the present require us to reflect, to imagine, as we scout the environment in search of new connections, new ideas, new possibilities.

It is in contemplation of the future where we find inspiration, hope, ideas and opportunities to help us create a new present.

Pulling the future into the present calls for some degree of boldness, for embracing discomfort, attending events that are outside of our usual experiences, for example, or studying material outside of our field. In so doing, we are preparing ourselves in the present to become comfortable what is new and unfamiliar, and are less apt to let uncertainty undermine our determination.

We must make time for contemplation and reflection and ask ourselves the kind of questions that conceptually place us in future time: "Wouldn't it be nice if ...?" What if I tried ...?" "What is keeping me from doing ...?" How would my future look like if I had no excuses? Seeking the answers will serve as a catalyst for creating your future.

To lead is to go first, to be out front, to have the advantage. The primary job of a leader is to shape the future, not merely to fix the past nor to manage the present. The future will never be urgent, but it will always remain important. Take care of it, before it is too late.

• Suarez is an executive coach and professor in Systems Thinking and Design at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. His forthcoming book is "Leader of One: Shaping Your Future Through Imagination and Design."

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