Book Review by Taylor Berrett
For a book featuring the subtitle “How to Navigate the Future,” Margaret Heffernan’s engaging and enjoyably rambling book, Uncharted, spends a great deal of time chronicling history’s failed attempts to predict and control that future. However, it should be noted that Heffernan’s book is about navigating the future, not predicting it. It’s a guide to thinking about the things we can’t predict more than it’s a book about predicting the things we can— though there’s a fair bit of that here, too.
Margaret Heffernan is known as a business and management guru who eschews high-minded philosophy for old-fashioned discipline, straightforwardness, and sense— without sacrificing her impressive storytelling abilities.
The result is a book that helps us navigate the strenuous work involved with looking into the future, putting aside fear and anxiety about what the days or years ahead have in store and instead helping to look with a clear gaze into what the past and present can tell us about what will happen next. She’s also very interested in the way that predicting the future affects how we confront it, and even affects the future itself.
“What matters most,” she says at one point in Uncharted, “isn’t the predictions themselves but how we respond to them, and whether we respond to them at all.”
Generating Helpful Predictions
One of the main theses that Heffernan puts forward in Uncharted is the idea that the forecasters of the future have a responsibility to predict productively. She argues that predictions which paralyze humankind with an inability to respond are unhelpful and can even be detrimental to us all. It’s the predictions that provide a fresh perspective— and a promising path forward— that are most helpful and useful.
Throughout the book, Heffernan walks a careful line between optimism and hopelessness. Things can go wrong or go right without us ever fully understanding exactly why, she argues. But this doesn’t mean that we should all throw up our hands and stop trying to engage with the future. On the contrary, Heffernan argues that it’s this unpredictableness that gives us the clarity to plan for anything. Her advice is to plan to be surprised, and the guidance she gives for doing exactly that is surprisingly compelling.
Telling the Story of the Future
One of the most compelling aspects of Heffernan’s writing is her use of unexpected sources to illustrate her points. Readers who are tired of hearing about the same old success stories and parables of failure from the business world will be inspired by the refreshing sources from which she draws inspiration— mobsters, priests, and physicists all make appearances.
In the end, it’s Heffernan’s ability to tell a great story that leaves the most significant impact on readers. Like all great teachers, she knows how to capture and hold her students’ attention and deliver meaningful lessons while the class is so engaged they hardly realize they’re learning.
While the concepts in the book can be a bit dense at times, Uncharted is a book worth adding to your arsenal of tools for confronting the unknown future.