Friday, February 19, 2010

Knowing the Future

We spend a lot of time trying to predict the future, and most of the time we are wrong.

I find myself viewing things like revenue planning, annual budgets and the like as folly. Don't get me wrong--we have to plan. We have to hit our numbers. Corporations have shareholders who expect a certain return. They do not buy your stock because the want results to be random and erratic. Quite the opposite.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb argues that we cannot predict the unpredictable, even though we are convinced that we can. The is an obvious point, but one we ignore most of the time.

Most of the events that shape our lives are events that look obvious in retrospect, but that one one saw coming. The internet. 9/11. Katrina. The credit crisis. These events shape and reshape our lives. Yet we continue to think that the future is going to be just like today, only a little bit better (if you are an optimist) or a little bit worse (if you are a pessimist).

Our minds are constantly creating stories about what will happen in the future, and explaining what happened in the past. Why? Because we crave certainty. Because we want to understand. Because we want to believe that we are safe. Because we want to know that the bad thing that happened to someone else is not going to happen to us.

But we can't know any of those things. When we think we can, when we get attached to what is "supposed" to happen, we lose the ability to see new possibilities. At some point, we have to see that the map we made doesn't reflect the terrain anymore.

Can we? Are we willing to accept that we do not know anything? That something wonderful or catastrophic could happen in the next moment that we never saw coming?

We need goals. We need to plan. But we also need flexibility. Can we be open to seeing new futures? Are we willing to rewrite our stories?


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