In 1982, social forecaster John Naisbitt wrote a book called Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. The book sold 14 million copies. It also ended up transforming my own life.

At the time, I was a freelance writer living in Sherman Oaks, California. I interviewed Naisbitt at a time when demand for his services was such that he was regularly doing two and three presentations a day at $40,000 a pop.

What John opened my eyes to was that by paying attention to the underlying trends, you could make better decisions about what to study, where to live and invest, what career path to pursue. I did exactly that.

Ten years later, I had transitioned from journalism to become a published author and public speaker in my own right. Proof positive that if you work hard and align with change, good things happen. As Naisbitt liked to say: “Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.”

Futurists Use Various Method’s to Suss Out Change

Naisbitt utilized a unique method of tracking the trends called content analysis. The methodology was developed during World War 2. Army intelligence officers would obtain newspapers from behind enemy lines. They’d carefully examine them for clues such as food shortages, troop movements, etc. to discern the enemy’s position.

Naisbitt and his research team would do content analysis on small town newspapers from across America. Of course, this method wouldn’t work as well today because of a trend. Dozens of small town and even bigger city newspapers have disappeared or become a shell of their former selves, victims of the internet, and changing reading patterns.

Naisbitt believed that certain states like California, Connecticut and Colorado were what he called “bellwether states.” They tended to originate trends. (The term bellwether comes from sheep herding. The leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck, is helps ranchers find their flock.)

I remembered Naisbitt’s contribution to my career while on a speaking engagement last week in the bellwether state of Colorado. In his honor, I decided to do some trend-analysis with this conference of 120 transit professionals gathered in Grand Junction from all over the state. As always, I interacted with as many attendees as I could and asked a ton of questions. I assigned myself the task of discovering how people are feeling right now, what’s keeping them up nights both personally or professionally, and by inference, what is their prevailing mindset.

After a luncheon session titled “Seeing What’s Next: Strategies for Shaping Your Post-Pandemic World,” my client had arranged for me to do a 90 minute breakout session on using innovative thinking, to, in effect, solve your biggest problem. An anonymous survey exercise conducted with session participants yielded all sorts of rich insights.

You can Do Content Analysis in Many Ways

The exercise went as follows: I had participants write down, without signing their names, their biggest personal challenge, and their biggest professional challenge. They passed these up to my assistant and we read each of these out loud – slowly – so we had a chance to absorb the data — looking for patterns, looking for trends, discovering the zeitgeist.

On the professional side, the overriding concern perhaps surprised no one: staffing shortages brought on by the Covid Pandemic were a recurring theme.

Yet it was their responses when asked about personal challenges that were even more instructive:

“Will I have enough money to retire well?” asked more than one participant. Simply “paying the bills” or “paying off student loans” or “finding permanent housing” were frequent responses. One that left us hanging was “protecting my son.”

I was taken by the number of respondents who mentioned things like “polarization” and “global conflict” and “political instability” as their highest concern just now. All to say that you can do content analysis in any number of ways to help you figure out the shape of things to come.

Naisbitt Dead at 91

John Naisbitt died earlier this year at the age of 91, having never surpassed the lofty success of Megatrends. More than a few of his ten trends were duds. Such as his prediction that we were moving “from short term to long term,” when in fact just the opposite occurred; we’ve gone from short-term to shorter term.

But it was John’s optimism and excitement about the future that resonates these 40 years later. Especially coming as it did in 1982 when his book was first released, during the depths of a deep recession.

In a time of rolling pandemics, rising authoritarianism, an “irreversible” climate crisis, misinformation, and political polarization, it is easy to see that those who track the trends and take a positive view of the future will be in high demand as we navigate the road ahead.