How to reverse engineer your dream life (using backcasting)

Photo by Daniel Barnes on Unsplash

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It’s pretty common to be asked that by interviewers and friends alike. Yet despite the importance of the question to our present and future, we often arrive at an answer through blind guesswork and optimism or worse; pessimism.

But there are two ways we can systematically predict, or even forge our ideal futures.

Forecasting vs backcasting

The first is through forecasting which involves extrapolating your current trajectory into the future. This assumes your progress is and will continue to be linear, incremental and based on the present.

Unfortunately, the phrase ‘dream life’ suggests that it’s a world away from your present situation and you likely won’t get there with your current rate of progress.

Rather, your dream life is built on discrete, often random jumps in progress (known as inflection points). These are major breakthroughs that fundamentally change the nature of progression. While linear progression is like training horses to be faster in the 18th century, a discrete, inflection point is more akin to the invention of the car.

The possibility of these inflection points makes forecasting rather inaccurate and unhelpful in predicting anything except the near future. After all, many 20th-century sci-fi films predicted we would have flying cars and be a space-faring civilization in the early 21st-century and as of 2021, our cars are still on the ground and we haven’t sent a meaningful manned space mission in decades.

Blade Runner’s (1982) depiction of 2019 Los Angeles

So rather than forecasting what your future could look like, which is likely to be inaccurate and probably not as grand as you’d like it to be, try backcasting.

Backcasting involves starting from your dream future and then going backwards to figure out the steps and conditions that could possibly get you there from your present situation. It’s the opposite of forecasting.

While forecasting uses step 1 to figure out what steps 2-100 will look like, backcasting uses steps 100-2 to figure out what step 1 should look like. It gives you much more agency and control over your future while forecasting tells you to stick to your current path and hope it goes well.

There are three main steps if you want to reverse-engineer your dream life through backcasting:

1. Visit your dream future

What does your dream life look like?

This is a challenging question to answer because your standards and expectations of yourself will be low to protect yourself from the possibility of failure. Knowing that, try to respect your dreams as much as possible. Think big and be as unrealistic and even naiive as your child self would be.

Split up your dream life into three categories:

  • What do you want to have? e.g. have $100m
  • Who do you want to be? e.g. be friends with Elon Musk
  • What do you want to do? e.g. go to space

Note that all of these are extremely ambitious yet entirely possible – there is no unbreakable constraint that says you can’t have $100 million dollars or be friends with Elon Musk or go to space. The obstacles in this case are not natural, they’re all man-made.

On the other hand, if you wanted to be friends with Julius Caesar or go back in time, that’s orders of magnitudes more difficult than the former examples. You’d have to break all current assumptions of the laws of physics (which isn’t necessarily impossible – just in a different league of difficult/unrealistic).

2. Work backwards to find inflection points

The previous step required ambition and visionary thinking. However, this step requires creativity and imagination. After visiting your ideal future, you now need to work backwards and determine the steps and inflection points required to return to the present.

To orient your mind to this task, understand that the future doesn’t happen to us; it happens because of us.

Mike Maples Jr., cofounding partner at Floodgate Capital, said it best:

The future is not like the weather. It doesn’t just happen. People make the future. It’s not a destiny or hope; it’s a decision. Steve Jobs didn’t “discover” a market need for smartphones or tablets: He designed the category and taught us how to think about it.

The future is uncharted territory, so you need to forge paths back to the present that you’ve never tread on before and create your own opportunities. Instead of thinking of what could go wrong here, think of what could go right. If you’re right, eureka; you’ve engineered the future. If you’re wrong, no big deal; it’s back to the status quo (i.e. linear progression).

Using one of our previous ‘dream life’ examples, if you wanted to be friends with Elon Musk, working backwards, one possible route is:

  • Getting drinks with Elon Musk, which follows:
  • Getting to a senior role at Tesla/SpaceX where you talk to Elon Musk regularly, which follows:
  • Having experience in the automotive/aerospace engineering industry or having contacts/great recommendations, which follows:
  • Getting an engineering degree from a good university, which follows:
  • Getting good grades at school (or having the right connections again)

And there you have your step one; which is probably studying for your exams so you get great marks. But note that this is just one possible route; you can forge your ideal future in any number of creative ways. For instance, you could probably be friends with Elon Musk by starting a rocket company or getting verified on Twitter and DMing Elon directly.

Also note that if you were currently studying for your exams already, you probably wouldn’t have forecasted being friends with Elon Musk in future. In this way, backcasting allowed you to engineer your dream situation.

3. In the present, sprint and rest

Triggering each of these inflection points requires working in a different way than you’re likely used to. As is the case with the forecasting paradigm, our default work mode tends to be linear and incremental in nature. But since our dream lives are paradigms away from our present one, this won’t work.

In trying to grab drinks with Elon Musk, there are no amount of steps that incrementally get you to 100% success. The only thing you can do is increase the probability of success without actually moving closer to achieving your goal.

You’ll have to ask Elon, likely over and over again, and then maybe one day if he’s in a good mood and has free time, he’ll say yes (especially if you’re a senior employee at Tesla/SpaceX and not a stranger). You failed, failed, failed and then one day suddenly succeeded. You went from 0 → 100% suddenly rather than from 0 → 20% → 40% → 60% → 80% → 100%.

In contrast, run-of-the-mill tasks like mowing the lawn, eating a pie or completing a work project require a linear approach where you reach the finish line incrementally.

Ambitious goals require discrete jumps in progress so applying your efforts continuously and seeing no results for ages is a disillusioned approach. Rather, you should sprint towards that inflection point and then rest once you reach it, only to sprint again towards the next one.

By sprinting and resting, you can apply your max effort and focus to increase the odds of success and then rest and reassess once you succeed,
knowing your paradigm and situation is fundamentally different compared to where you were before. For instance, having a job after being unemployed is fundamentally different, not just an incremental update.

In summary, to reverse-engineer your dream life, you should:

  1. Determine your dream life first
  2. Work backwards to determine the inflection points required to get there
  3. Sprint to get to the inflection points and rest (and repeat)

Hopefully reading this convinced you that your dream life is within reach. All it takes is some vision and creativity to get there.