Exploring The Future

Backlighting Your Future in a Nutshell

(Julian Gresser & Dr. Elspeth McAdam)

Dreaming Your Future

  • Make a list of what you believe are your most important skills, talents, life experience, contacts and other resources.
  • Now find a comfortable quiet and safe place where you allow yourself the time to dream or day dream tell your story; a sacred space for you, a protected place of peace and ease.
  • Now allow yourself to dream what life you are living in 10 -15 years from now, do not problem solve, just dream. Dream a life where— your full creative potential, your creative work, based on your skills, talents, experience, etc. is now flourishing in full bloom in the world—where you have realized A More Abundant Life, as you define it. Just live in this dream for a while as if it is now 15 or so years hence, for example, 2030. Talk as if it were the present.
  • In this exercise drop all assumptions fed to you by the Voice of Judgment. Allow yourself this freedom, if only for a little while. If you hear a voice saying, “Yeah, that sounds nice, BUT….” gently glide past the BUT….here it is not your ally.
  • As you finish this dream, feel how it fits for you. If any part does not fit or feels uncomfortable – just drop it, discard it and dream again. Dreams are transitory, are metaphors and can be picked up and dropped again. Have at least 6 dreams allowing some to fade and others take prominence at different times.
  • Once you have several created several dream stories, and they shimmer with clarity and color in your mind’s eye, you can begin the process of Backlighting.


  • This is a method of tracing the steps backward from your Dream Futures to the Present. Doing it this way you are always successful.
  • Explore how you actually were able to accomplish the extraordinary dreams you have just realized in the precise sequence that has enabled these miraculous events to come about, but in reverse order. For example, ask your self, relying on Brush (Interrogatory) Questions, such as: How was I able to accomplish this? What did I do a year ago to enable this to happen? then, right before that? Next, What was the sequence of preceding events? Who helped me most? Who did I talk to? What did they do? What was the secret to my success? Who were my allies on the way? What were the most helpful things they did? What resources and talents have proved most valuable on my journey? In What specific ways? How did this all come about? As you get close to the real present, ask more detailed questions. When you had this dream 15 years ago, who was the first person who helped you? What did they do? Who or what did they introduce you to? Who else got involved?  And so forth.
  • Pay attention to your inner voice. Be kind and gentle when you speak with yourself. You are simply curious. You are an explorer. The voice belongs to a deep part of you. The art of questioning is a technique called “appreciative inquiry.”
  • It is often valuable to join with a friend and explore each other’s dreams, inquiring appreciatively into the details of the dreams and back lighting..


  • Once you have your story or stories composed it is useful to write them down. You may want to identify key ideas, metaphors, images, phrases, or themes that keep occurring in your narrative. If you wish, you can send them in to www.explorersworld.com, and the Explorer’s World Smart Engine will then provide supportive feedback for your journey.
  • At times magical signs and signals will come to you, unannounced. A dream, a communication from an old friend, a chance discovery, a new opportunity. This is part of the fun of it. Have fun tracing this feedback with Your Personal Gyroscope.
  • Dr. Elspeth McAdam, M.D. is an English psychiatrist who was raised in Uganda where her father also a physician for a period served as Idi Amin’s personal doctor. Trained at Cambridge University in England, Dr. McAdam gave up her medical career to initiate a consulting practice. She spends her time assisting companies, organizations, and especially impoverished communities in poor countries to articulate and realize their highest dreams. Dr. McAdam is a pioneer of the Backlighting methodology.
  • Excerpt from © Julian Gresser, Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind Bridge 21 Press (2013), March 2013, All rights reserved.

Scenario Planning, Day-Dreaming, Appreciative Inquiry and Backlighting the Future

In scenario planning a group of analysts develops game-like simulations of possible futures based on various indicators. The method combines many factors in complex, non-linear ways often to produce surprising results. Scenario planners search for novel insights about the future, deep shifts in value, and disruptive inventions, and then by deploying systems-thinking they produce plausible story lines. Scenario planning is currently used in a wide variety of military and corporate settings.

A more imaginative, although far less well documented, strategy is the methodology developed by my friend, Dr. Elspeth McAdam. Dr. McAdam is a professionally trained psychiatrist with a medical degree from Cambridge University who grew up in Africa. She spends her time in retirement working with street children, who are often using drugs, and people living with HIV in East and Southern Africa, as well as other communities around the world.

Her technique involves exploring the Future by day-dreaming it and then by “backlighting” (dreaming from a desired future backwards, through a process similar to “appreciative inquiry”). Appreciative inquiry (AI) was pioneered by D.L. Cooperrider and S. Shravista in the 1990s. AI looks for the very best of what is and explores what makes this possible, and also seeks to identify the skills and abilities people have that have not been named or recognized before. Elspeth asks her clients to write them all down as she believes this is how identity gets created and expanded.

The American educational philosopher, John Dewey, suggested that identity is actually created through the identifying of abilities, skills and resources. Elspeth encourages her clients to dream future scenarios in which their capabilities are now fully and successfully embodied. “We are not interested in being realistic,” she observes, “but rather in tuning into the creative grammars that dreaming conversations will bring forth….. We find that the dreaming conversation itself creates the means whereby we become the things that we dream.” Once inside, Dr. McAdam’s dreaming process is very close, if not identical to, creative reverie, as described in the section on discovery engineering, enhanced by AI which itself closely resembles the Art of the Question. Dr.McAdam’s work with communities grows directly out of her family therapy work with sexually abused children for which she has become prominent. Based on a large data base on therapeutic cases spanning over thirty years, she has extrapolated her findings to applying creative dreaming, AI, and enhanced performance to communities around the world. She has lectured widely on this subject both in Europe and the U.S. She has also applied her methods to the design of new educational learning models working with schools in Denmark and Sweden.

Her language switches to a future/present, and the details in painting the dream are the secret: How are you able to do this? With which colleagues are you collaborating? What gave you the idea to do it this way? How are you feeling about this situation? The story line, its metaphors and grammar are all important. “There is an ocean of meaning in a drop of grammar.” She quotes Wittgenstein. The mood, context, and emotions all color the portrait.

After these embodied futures are vividly displayed, Dr. McAdam guides her clients back in reverse order to the Present. It is very helpful to do this with a partner. The backlighting sequence is also managed in a dream-like state. She works with her subjects to trace back, step-by-step, right up to the Present, the specific and critical milestones that enabled them to realize their emerging Future. At each stage they are re-living in the future/present in the precise details of what is happening: “What is the closest point before you arrived at success?” What happened before that?” “What challenges are you overcoming?” How are you doing that? Who, where, when, what, why, how,..?

The details limn the picture, the road map, indelibly in the brain. Many of the young people she works with in the shantis of South Africa went on to realize their dreams, especially the King of Thieves, as he was proud to call himself along with his merry band.

The King of Thieves, with Dr. McAdam’s assistance, developed not simply a vision, but also a living plan–we might conjecture a neuro-pathway, fueled by creative emotions and energy, which altered the probabilities of the venture. And that, based on our earlier summary of neuro-plasticity, is perhaps the secret to Dr. McAdam’s success.The Future, like the Past, becomes part of the practice of the Present, not in some vague ethereal way, but right at hand, inside our living brains. By focusing and emphasizing what is good and working well in her collaborators, and encouraging them to dream more fulfilled and happier lives, Dr. McAdam effectively sidesteps the ethical concerns that some will have with cold techniques associated with manipulating or engineering the future. The Explorer’s Mind is ultimately about living fully in this precious present moment which can encompass all that we dream or imagine, and even worlds more wonderful and strange than any of us today can suppose.

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