Certainty is an illusion
Something we humans find difficult to understand is uncertainty. We live in the illusion that our world is certain and that we can predict the future. We believe this so badly that we even created whole industries around predicting the future, stock market trading for instance.
But like I said, this is an illusion, we cannot predict the future because the world is too complex and events with big impact can happen unexpectedly. Only a few months ago, who would have thought that Trump would actually become president? Who saw the comeback of Apple happening? Or who predicted the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the following of the first world war?
Uncertainty according to others
That we cannot predict the future is supported by a great deal of evidence. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes extensively about this in his book ‘The Black Swan’. He shows that we constantly face events, that change the way we live and think, but that nobody saw coming. These are the so called ‘unknown unknowns’, an expression made famous by US secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Another author claiming this is Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow’. He explains that we have de tendency to make claims about what will happen with topics we know a lot about, for instance political commentary’s predicting what will happen in the relation between the EU and Russia. And with a lot of evidence in hand, he also explains that this is a big illusion, because we are almost always wrong, even the experts.
Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths make a similar claim in their publication ‘Algorithms to live by’. They prove that it is better to not spend too much energy on planning everything in detail, because we do not know what will happen. And if we would, all that time and energy would be wasted.
It is not the case that we cannot predict anything, because sometimes we can. When a process is simple, we know the context, and we have a lot of evidence of how something happened in the past, we can make a claim with reasonable certainty about what will happen. For instance, when you drop a coin to the ground you can be fairly certain that it will fall at a specific speed. But still, this is never 100% certain, because an unexpected event can happen, and results from the past are no guarantee for the future.
And now what?
So what should we do? Give up on planning and predicting altogether? No, because sometimes it is useful to make predictions. For instance, when the process is really simple and predictable, or when you want to get a broad feeling of where things might be going, or when you want to inspire people about a possible future. Just always remember, most predictions are as reliable as a good story written by your favorite fiction writer.
And planning? It is good to plan, like the US president Dwight Eisenhower said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Planning makes you think about what you are going to do and what you want to achieve, but make sure you don’t plan too far ahead and in too much detail, so you can still adapt to change. And maybe have a plan for when nothing goes according to plan.