Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#7) — On foresight and king Príamos’ daughter
“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)
On foresight and king Príamos’ daughter
According to Greek mythology, Apollo granted Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, the power of foreseeing the future. Yet after his failed attempt to seduce her, he placed a curse on her so that her prophecies would never be believed. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy, the death of her father, the hour of her own death, and the name of her murderer. To helplessly watch the approach of future horrors became a source of endless pain, suffering, and regret of her terrible solitary knowledge.
Of course, foresight isn’t the same as prophecy. Yet, most ‘visionaries’ await a similar fate as Cassandra. And although their stories aren’t sung by modern-day Homers, the consequences can be just as epic as the destruction of Troy.
In my career, I have felt like ‘Cassandra’ many times over, while most people within the companies and organisations I have worked for rather saw me as a Trojan horse. In their eyes, or should I say ears, foresight and ‘doom’ were interchangeable. Their view of the future simply was a linear continuation of ‘today.’ What I had to say came nowhere near that straight line pointing towards the heavens. My message was an unwelcome forebode of impending griefs.
In an earlier issue of my Working Notes, On return on investment (yours and mine), I mentioned a former colleague who endorsed my work on LinkedIn. “Working with Mark was a pleasure,” he wrote, “since he is capable to think differently and also to come up with unique solutions. Solutions which are sometimes not yet ready for an organization, but definitely useful in future.” And herein — “but definitely useful in future” — lies part of the problem.
In his latest book, Foresight and Extreme Creativity, Langdon Morris quotes W. Edwards Deming, Jørgen Randers and Yogi Berra. “Each, in his own way, is a visionary, and the unique quality of a visionary’s gift is an uncommon by prescient grasp of the future,” he writes. Usually, this ‘grasp of the future’ arrives in a unique or unconventional point of view, which is only validated or verified through realization, that is, when and if the forecast comes true. “Since that often lies far in the future,” he argues, “during the long interval between the forecast and its realization visionaries often live with rejection, frustration, sadness, and even despair.” I have often heard myself screaming, “why can’t people see what I see, even if I put the patterns right under their noses?” And when they finally do understand, it’s often ‘too little, too late,’ like for the company that deemed my solutions “not yet ready.”
“What visionaries confront in those moments of frustration are frequently the built-in biases and habits of thinking that are common throughout every society and in every age,” Morris writes, “for the notion that there are norms to which we should adhere, rules that should not be broken, and facts that transcend experimentation, these are deeply-held human responses to the world. But the facts that the visionaries discover, and the way they interpret those facts, often conflicts with accepted views, with accepted social norms.” Alas, life isn’t so easy when you see things differently.
Yet, despite the “rejection, frustration, sadness, and even despair,” I never look back in resentment. Like Richard Buckminster Fuller, I have learned to see these experiences as experiments. “Every time humanity makes a new experiment we always learn more. We cannot learn less,” ‘Bucky’ Fuller noted in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Published in 1969, it’s a brilliant synthesis of Buckminster Fuller’s visionary world view. In what is one of his most accessible books, he investigates the great challenges facing humanity. He questions the concept of specialisation, calls for a design revolution of innovation, and shares his insights in how to guide ‘spaceship earth’ toward a sustainable future. Fifty years on, these questions are no less urgent.
During my ‘wandering years’ at university, I had already trained myself in observing the world around me with ‘fresh eyes.’ Since then, my work has fostered my interest in how people think — in their beliefs, the underlying assumptions, their world views. Understanding how these can stand in the way of seeing things differently or accepting alternative futures, is crucially important for what I try to achieve with my clients.
“One of the key limitations arises due to our reliance on ideology, which is simply a set of beliefs that exist independent of the evidence, and which are applied independently of evidence,” Langdon Morris writes in Foresight and Extreme Creativity. What makes ideology so powerful is that it is generally impervious to facts. While at the same time, it is the basis through which the existence and meaning of facts is inferred and deduced.
In a congressional hearing on October 23, 2008, Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, testified that, “I found a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” It’s not that Greenspan hadn’t been warned. It shows that even the most intelligent people — no doubt, Alan Greenspan falls into this category — easily fall prey to a failure of imagination. It also exemplifies the difficulties we face trying to think clearly when our analytical process is inhabited by ideology, bias and incomplete information. Problems like these arise, Morris argues, “when people either refuse to study the evidence […] and therefore persist in ignorance [like the Trojans who refused to see the Greeks’ gift for what it really was, despite Cassandra’s warnings], or when they discount the evidence because it does not conform to their pre-existing beliefs (Greenspan).”
In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society and Editor in Chief of Skeptic, provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. He calls our brain a ‘belief engine.’ From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns. He calls this patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. Next, our brain infuses these patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. This is, what Shermer calls agenticity.
We can’t help believing. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.
Although our beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, they are, in fact, imperfect models that help us navigate a complex, multidimensional, unknowable reality. They help us to make sense of the world. Without these mental models life wouldn’t be possible. But their self-sealing logic prevents us from seeing the world — today’s and tomorrow’s — through different eyes.
Apart form our belief system that keeps us from seeing alternative futures, it turns out most people prefer not to glimpse the future at all. Despite the fact that much of philosophy and psychology has assigned categorically positive value to the power of knowing and predicting the future. In contrast, “not wanting to know appears counterintuitive and irrational,” Gerd Gigerenzer (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and Rocio Garcia-Retamero (Germany University of Granada) argue in a recent article in Psychological Review, Cassandra’s Regret: The Psychology of Not Wanting to Know. What they show is that deliberate ignorance exists, is related to risk aversion, and can be explained as avoiding anticipatory regret. By declining the powers that made Cassandra famous, one can forego the suffering that knowing the future may cause, avoid regret, and also maintain the enjoyment of suspense that pleasurable events provide. (See also: 4 Reasons Why People Choose to Remain Ignorant.)
Although the research was held under ordinary people in both Germany and Spain, one might wonder what the findings could mean for business leaders. It’s not unlikely that also they prefer to remain in the dark, especially when confronted with foreknowledge of negative events.
Self-sealing logic and deliberate ignorance, no wonder …
“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?” — Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind (1963)