What John Naisbitt Taught Me About Navigating Today’s Rapid Changes

Editor’s Note: Futurist John Naisbitt died earlier this year at the age of 91. His contribution to the field of future studies was enormous, and he had an early influence in my career. The article below is a reflection on the man and his message.

In 1982, futurist John Naisbitt wrote Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, which went on to sell an amazing 14 million copies. It ended up transforming my own life.

At the time, I was a freelance writer living in Sherman Oaks, California. Using journalism to gain access, I caught up with Naisbitt on the lecture trail (demand was so high that he would sometimes do two and three talks a day at $40,000 a pop) to interview him, and yes, to receive his pearls of wisdom first-hand that they might benefit me personally.

What Naisbitt 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, where to invest, what career path to pursue.

I was hooked on his simple but practical method.

Ten years later, I had become a published author and a public speaker in my own right, helping my clients to not just spot the trends, but translate them into opportunity. I am a living breathing vessel of the belief that if you work hard, apply yourself, and align with the driving forces of change, there is no limit to what you can achieve. But it starts with understanding the trends. Because, as John liked to say: “Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.”

Naisbitt utilized a unique system of tracking the trends called content analysis. The methodology was developed during World War 2, when 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 try and discern the enemy’s possible next moves.

Naisbitt’s Trendspotting Method: Content Analysis

Naisbitt and his research team would do content analysis on small town newspapers from across America, seeking signals of change. His method wouldn’t work as well today because of the trend toward small town newspapers disappearing outright, or becoming shelves of their former selves, themselves victims of the internet and digital disruption and a failure to adapt. But content analysis is only one of the tools in the futurist’s toolkit, and there are numerous ways to observe the patterns in change.

Naisbitt believed that certain states like California, Connecticut and Colorado were what he called “bellwether states,” and tended to originate trends. The term comes from sheep herding. The lead sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck, is called the bellwether and helps herdsmen keep tabs on their flock, should they wander.

I remembered John’s bellwether concept while on a speaking engagement last week in Colorado. Since I hadn’t been out there lecturing for 18 months, I was encouraged to do some trend-tracking with my audience of transit professionals. In addition to interacting with as many people as I could, I assigned myself the dual task of discovering insights into how people are feeling right now, what’s keeping them up nights either personally or professionally, and by inference, what is their prevailing mindset.

After a 30-minute luncheon session, my client had asked me to do a 90 minute session on using innovative thinking, to, in effect, solve our biggest problems and adapt to the forces of change.

An anonymous survey I conducted with participants produced all sorts of rich insights. I had participants write down, without signing their names, their biggest personal challenge, and their biggest professional challenge. They passed these up to me 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 surprised no one: staffing shortages brought on by the Covid Pandemic. Yet it was their responses when I asked about personal challenges that were even more insight producing in terms of forward thinking. “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 in this largely Millennial group. 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.

John Naisbitt died earlier this year at the age of 91, having never surpassed the breathtaking success of Megatrends. Truth to tell, more than a few of his ten megatrends, such as his prediction that we were moving “from short term (thinking) to long term,” never panned out.

But John’s optimism and excitement about the future, especially coming during the deep recession of 1982 when his book was first released, have energized me over the years. In a time of rolling pandemics, climate crisis, misinformation, and political polarization, it is easy to see that those who are resilient and able to engender collaboration among diverse interests and work well with others, and who take a longer-term view of the future will be in high demand.