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Big Ideas

Why Self-Observation Is the Skill of the Future

If there's one certainty about the future, it's that things are speeding up, not slowing down.

When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.


Michael Ventura, the founder of strategy and design firm Sub Rosa and author of Applied Empathy, is a leader at the intersection of empathy, creativity, and business. Michael will be speaking on the main stage at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, taking place May 8-10 in New York City. 

Q. What is a skill you believe to be futureproof?

A. Self-observation. I know that might sound a little New Agey, but it’s one of the most important skills to develop. It’s the ability to hit pause, take a moment to evaluate yourself, and take stock of where you’re at. Ask yourself,  “Am I breathing?” I mean really breathing, not just panting at your desk while you frantically write emails and hustle to meetings. It also extends to your emotional state. What’s the most common emotion you’re feeling lately? Are you in control of the emotion or is it controlling you? Is it triggered by someone or something? Are you able to manage it? Trust your intuition and check in with yourself frequently.

Q. Has there been a time in your career when you realized the power of self-observation?

A. In my mid-20s I was already on my second entrepreneurial venture. I had started the company that would grow into Sub Rosa today. In addition, I had just launched a magazine. I was burning the candle at both ends. And then the levee broke. I was changing the water cooler one day and herniated three discs in my back. The hospital told me spinal fusion surgery was my only path to recovery. Instead, I found Chinese medicine—acupuncture and tai chi—to be helpful practices. They re-trained me to cultivate a sense of self-awareness.

Since that time, self-observation and contemplation have become core principles of my leadership style. It’s not always easy, especially in the fast-paced world we live in, but ultimately it makes me a better listener, collaborator, and, frankly, human.

Q. Why will self-observation be so important in the future?

A. The future isn’t slowing down. Information is going to continue to bombard us from all angles. It’s only going to get more difficult to parse, digest, and respond to all of the newsfeeds, emails, pings, alerts, and push notifications. Self observation is an opportunity to stop the noise so you can gather yourself and act more productively, presently, and ultimately, be more in command.

Q. What’s the best way to get better at this?

A. It isn’t a switch you flip and immediately everything changes. It’s a dimmer that you slide until the ability eventually becomes second nature. Set a few times each day when you’re willing to stop whatever you’re doing, no matter how “critical” or “busy” you are, and take a moment to observe yourself. Ask yourself some of the questions I mentioned earlier. Think about what’s happening inside you and bring it into your awareness. Noticing is the first step in learning who you are and what you are going to do about it.


Hear from Michael Ventura and more creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.

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