Predicting the Future

I've been reading blogs from economists and finance people and policy people, and I've had a lot of time just to think about things. It turns out that when you have a lot of time to think, you notice how your own head works and think about that, and so it goes, in circles mostly.

I went to a figure drawing class tonight, and the mindset there is "Now." As in "Now, I'll draw this curve," or "Now, I am noticing how the shape of this body part works with the shape of that body part." Not too much anxiety about the future or the past. Well, aside from the "I'm doing it all wrong," frustration, but otherwise not really.

This post is about "Predicting the Future" because that's the mindset I've been in, and that's the mindset of these economist guys. And I've been convinced that the economy's going to be bad any minute now for the last two years, and so now I'm "right" and it's not much of a victory.

Before that, I was Managing a Software Team and thinking about what could go wrong and what was risky and what was easy and who was going on vacation and would things get done on time, and we need more resources over here because otherwise we can't do both of these things at once. It's a more definite form of Predicting the Future, because at least I'm an expert at making software, whereas with economics and finance I just repeat what I read other places, and I don't practically do anything about it, except not buy houses and sometimes buy equities.

But it's not like Making Stuff, which is kind of like Now, and kind of like Seeing the Future (as opposed to Worrying about it).

And the thing I've noticed is that Predicting the Future (aka Worrying About the Future) gets in the way of actually Making Stuff.

If you have a company and you have meetings mostly about what can't be done, or you feel like you're working around constraints, you're working at 20% of your real speed. It doesn't matter how awful your company is or how many constraints there are, but you could get 500% as much done if you'd just do it, instead of worrying about the future.

Note I didn't say never worry about the downside, I said don't worry about it at the beginning. A few months ago, I was talking to a good friend whose company wasn't doing so well. He said, well we have this process, and it seems very organized and it makes sense...but his company wasn't doing so well. I just asked, "What's the downside if you fail?" Not much. "What's the upside if you do something great?" A lot.

Some companies and people have a lot to protect. And if the goal is to Maintain the Status Quo (one might say that this is mostly Ben Bernanke's job), there are a lot of things to worry about and a lot of ways to worry.

But if you're a person for whom Seeing the Future and Making Stuff are more important than knowing all the things that can go wrong all the time, then you should take some time every so often to turn off the worrying part of your brain and do things that are creative and worry-free.

I've known some people who manage to dance on both ends of this see-saw effectively. Really smart lawyers, software security geniuses (clever & careful at the same time). But mostly people fall on one side or the other. I don't think the human brain can fully do both at once.

But I know I can't do it. I can't Predict the Future and do my best work all at the same time. When I'm Predicting the Future, I say, well, what if this doesn't work on all platforms? And I don't start, and I never reach Now.

I believe this is why a lot of successful startups often are run by a pair of founders, where someone can do the worrying and someone can do the non-worrying. But I probably need to kick myself back into the old non-worrying camp and see what happens for a while.

1 comment:

  1. You've posted similar thoughts before. On the subject of making stuff and seeing the future, if you haven't taken a look at it, check out Henry Petroski's "Evolution of Useful Things" which chronicles the often long and arduous evolution of various cultural artifacts (forks, paper clips, etc.) By comparison, software's incredibly young, and it's hard to imagine where it will go. Via Petroski, it's humbling to see just how long it took relatively simple useful things to develop and stabilize in form, but I believe there are recognizable patterns of technological evolution to be learned from the book, such the sorts of feature overkill that result from believing since four tines on a fork are good, five tines must be better. Etc.