Can You Predict the Future? (#836)

This past week, I read one of the most intriguing books on success I’ve come across in several years – Frans Johansson’s The Click Moment. In it, he makes a compelling case for the random factor and the role of unseen forces in almost every great human accomplishment.

Through a series of disparate examples from the worlds of business, politics, music and more, Johnansson demonstrates the futility of attempting to predict the future success of any endeavor based on strategy, marketing, or even a track record of past results.

His conclusion is not that we should therefore give up on attempting to achieve, but rather that we abandon excessive speculation about how likely something is to succeed as a decision making criteria and adapt our execution strategy to take our extremely limited ability to predict the future into account.

As I thought about Johansson’s thesis in my own career, it was easy to see how many projects I thought were destined for great success floundered and how a few of my “well, it’s not going to work but I really want to do it so what the heck” projects have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. Including these tips, which were initially sent out to 12 people back in 2001 and have spread entirely by word of mouth ever since that time.)

Yet what struck me most deeply in reflecting on these ideas was that our inability to accurately predict the future, coupled with our blind faith that we CAN accurately predict the future, holds us back not only in the pursuit of success and happiness but also in our ability to tap into the potential of the human mind.

Here are three kinds of predictions that most of us make on a regular basis, and a fourth kind that many of us are not even aware that we are making:

1. Predicting what will happen in the abstract

Imagine a fortune teller comes up to you and with a bit of theatrical posturing looks you in the eye and says:

“You seem to me like someone who has experienced a period of suffering in your life, but you have learned many important life lessons through that suffering and you are stronger now than you were before. And I can promise you – although there will be more suffering, you will also experience great good fortune!”

The reason you are likely to resonate with what they say is it is filled with universal truths, including the facts that everyone suffers at some point in their lives, people are resilient, and sometimes things work out better than we expect them to.

Here are some more universal truths we can use to accurately predict the future in the abstract:

  • Some things we attempt will work out and some won’t
  • People we love get ill and die. And at least one of those things will happen to us one day.
  • Some things will take longer than we expect them to and some will happen more quickly.
  • “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” (Wayne Gretsky)

2. Predicting what will happen in the specific

This is the realm that Frans Johansson speaks to in his book, and here are a few reasons why we can be seduced into thinking our predictions are more accurate than 50%:

  • We don’t take the self-fulfilling prophecy into account, so we don’t see how our expectations shape our actions and our actions (or lack thereof) influence our results
  • We don’t take into account the nature of selective attention – the fact that we tend to see what we’re looking for. If you’ve never done it, click on this 90 second video link and count the number of times the white team passes the basketball:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

3. Predicting our future experience

In Harvard professor Dan Gilbert’s entertaining book Stumbling on Happiness, he details numerous studies demonstrating how ineffective we are at predicting which life experiences will lead to happiness and which to misery.

When you take into account the inside-out nature of experience – that we directly experience what’s happening inside our heads (thought) regardless of what may be happening outside them – it becomes easy to see why this is so.

Since we are designed to experience our thinking, that experience will inevitably change as our thoughts change. And our thoughts can change in any moment.

Which points us to a fourth, and slightly more insidious type of prediction that we make…

4. Predicting our future thinking

What will you be thinking when you get to the end of this tip?

We tend to believe that what we think now will be what we think tomorrow and even for the rest of our lives. So in the moment that you are mad at your partner or colleague about something that they’ve done, you assume that you will still be mad about it in the same way the next time you see them. If you are open to it changing at all, you probably think it will change for the worse. After all, if it’s this bad now, how bad will it be in six months, let alone in six years?

But have you ever noticed that there are some people you just can’t stay mad at?

This is because when we allow our thinking to flow naturally, we will think ill of them in one moment and well of them in the next. And in our clarity, we know that this flow is part of the nature of thought and consequently don’t get too caught up in believing that either of those thoughts is inherently “true”.

The truth is, the nature of thought is to change. Whatever the world looks like to you now does not tell you anything about what the world will look like to you tomorrow. And since higher order thinking is always available, there is every chance that today’s crisis will be tomorrow’s amusing or empowering anecdote.

Have fun, learn heaps, and may all your success be fun!

With all my love,
Michael

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