Three Horizons: Planning The Unpredictable

by Nate

While planning our escape over the last 14 months, we’ve witnessed a level of unpredictability sweep across the world that would have been inconceivable at any prior time in my life. It’s made planning a paralyzing process of starts and stops in stumbling succession across the intervening months. Nothing makes sense for long and any plans that we’ve tried to cement with action have crumbled as the ground shifted out from under them.

Figuring out how to migrate ourselves to a different country under the volatile and evolving conditions of 2020 has been challenging, to say the least. For example, when we started planning our escape we had every intention of applying for permanent residency in Mexico right away. This isn’t even possible currently, as last I checked, Mexico still hadn’t resumed visa processing services after shutting them down in March of 2020.

The p*ndem*c has presented a number of challenges to moving between countries, plus redefined how travel is likely to work both now and in the future.

Land borders are closed to non-essential travel, so we’ll be moving by plane. New regulations require a negative C*V*D test within 72 hours of travel into the United States and Mexico has struggled to have sufficient testing available as it is (faster anti-gen tests may be the answer). Depending on your level of comfort, long-distance transportation in country can be costly -or it can just be uncomfortable.

And that’s just scratching the surface on the transportation issues, not to mention the host of other inconveniences -like figuring out how to renovate, cull and store our belongings, and sell our house under the threat of additional lockdowns and restrictions.

Unpredictable doesn’t even begin to describe the situation…so how does one coordinate so many moving pieces with so little stability in the world?

Thinking Across Three Horizons

There’s what you can see in front of you, what’s just over the horizon (out of sight, but imaginable), and what’s so far out you’re only dreaming of the possibilities of what lies ahead. This is the what Donald Rumsfield was talking about with his “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, and “unknown unknowns”.

The hive of capitalist greed and villainy that is McKinsey is an odd source of inspiration, I’d agree, but nevertheless there’s valuable tech to steal in their concept of the three horizons of product development.

In their model, the first few years of any new effort are spent building a core competency. The next few years, expanding into new territory; and finally, once you’re established enough, totally new avenues can be explored.

As a business philosophy it has its flaws, but applying a version of this “Three Horizons” logic to planning in volatile times has helped inoculate us against the paralyzing effects of uncertainty. We’ve applied this thinking in a variety of situations when we’ve become overwhelmed to get us un-stuck -and it’s worked every time.

A quick example: Landing in Mexico, we have so many options for where to live it’s almost daunting. And yet, the rentals in these places are mostly invisible to us online because big apartment listing sites haven’t really become popular in Mexico yet. The best place to find rental listings is Facebook Groups, believe it or not. This makes planning difficult because we can’t be sure exactly how much we’ll pay or exactly where we’ll be. Even visualizing ourselves living in Mexico for intention-setting reasons is a challenge.

This inability to see the future clearly was paralyzing at first but we eventually found a way to adapt Three Horizon thinking to make sense of our situation. When we first arrive in Mexico we’ll still be tourists, technically, and we’ll essentially be living out of a couple of suitcases. This means furnished rentals and traveling light; living life as nomads, renting an AirBnb or similar for a few days or weeks while we shop around for a longer lease. When visa processing resumes, we’ll apply for residency and then we’ll be in a position to think long-term.

Visualizing our experiences across these three horizons has made it much easier to dream together, to that point that we say to each other, “which horizon are you describing right now?“, when relating some idea about the future. It’s helped us map the many potential futures ahead into cohesion as a constellation of possibilities.

When a fog of uncertainty obscures our dreams, we dispel the shadows with the light of clear intention. There is nothing quite like the power of coherent thought -when we can visualize positive outcomes clearly, they are more likely to manifest. Taking a “Three Horizons” approach provides a non-emotional framework for dividing the knowns from the unknowns, the desires in play, and our unknown fates.

Migrating Across Three Horizons

Planning our move has been a process of identifying potential scenarios, assessing their likelihood, and preparing our contingencies. Some of those contingencies affect key areas of security and comfort -direct blows to our hearts and hearth– that will leave us lacking in a lot of ways during the transition.

It’s unfortunate, but also unavoidable. There are just too many factors beyond our control. What we can do, however, is plan for multiple scenarios.

We’re trying to remodel and sell our home right now. As I write this we are leaving the planning phase and about to move into construction. As we do, the first domino falls in a long chain of inevitable events, which lead us to being temporarily homeless while potentially still paying a mortgage.

The point of no return is quickly approaching where we’ll leap from the safety of the nest we’ve grown in for the last eleven years into a great unknown, in a historical time of crisis. Where will we live during construction? Where will we live while the house is on the market? When will we be able go to Mexico?

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t expect to accurately predict or plan more than a quarter ahead at a time in our new and fast-evolving world. So we broke our journey into three phases, expecting to have different wants and needs at different times, and planning accordingly.

Before we can take steps towards moving, we have to sell our house. To sell our house, we need to invest in its renovation -and GTFO of the way. This means purging like a panicked prom queen. It means going “Marie Kondo” like nothing brings us any joy. It means unburdening ourselves of years of history, good and bad, without reserve or mercy. This is emotionally challenging. It’s hard to let go…

Emptying one’s life of physical and emotional detritus triggers all kinds of clingy, hoarding behavior that logically makes no sense, yet seems unavoidable.

“I want freedom from things…except this thing, I mean we might need it one day.”

Freeing ourselves from the forced dualism of processing our belongings into only “keeping this” or “getting rid of this” piles, we evaluated all of our stuff on three successive horizons:

  1. Is this coming with us, initially, in a suitcase?
  2. Are we shipping this once we have a long-term lease?
  3. Are we shipping this freight when we’re done with the nomadic life?

If something fails all three tests, it isn’t coming with us (sorry air fryer). If it isn’t essential, it isn’t coming initially (we’ll especially miss our crystal collection); but as we settle over time, we’ll have a plan for reuniting ourselves with the personal treasures which did make the cut.

The Fast Approaching Horizon

Dawn over a new day is approaching, for us. We can feel the fate in the air, taste the anticipation palpable in the moment. The fast approaching horizon will overtake us soon and we’ll barely recognize our lives, and soon, ourselves.

We can anticipate change, but not specific changes, with any reliable accuracy. And we don’t want to stride against the headwinds of the time we’re living in; failing in exhaustion despite our efforts. We need the power of on-rushing tides of inevitability, carrying us over obstacles and clearing away debris. Storm metaphors seem fitting for these times…

Gazing out over the current horizon, one can round the bend, in a sense; imagining what possibilities lie just out of our line-of-sight. Navigating the choppy waters that define all our possible scenarios requires agility, foresight, and faith. Clear goals, clear dreams, and clear-eyed analysis are the tools of sense-making, available to us in unpredictable times.

Thinking and planning across three horizons offers the agile dreamer license for imperfection. Constantly evolving plans need wide spaces to find their expression in; both shaping and being shaped by their environment. As a horizon nears, we cross it while simultaneously forgetting it ever existed, casting our eyes towards the illusory shimmer of the unknowable horizons now ahead.

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