(By Jeffrey Gedmin)
“In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds.“
A publishing company has discovered that one of its well-known authors has plagiarized. The publisher has pulled the title. But does the publisher’s responsibility end there? Does one disclose the transgression to the public? Or to the author’s university employer? Or insist that the author do so him/herself?
Dilemmas are situations that require us to make a choice between equally unfavorable options.
I recall an instance as President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) when I was informed by my security chief — he and I both held top secret security clearances — that one of our journalists had once worked undercover for a hostile intelligence service. Mind you, while the discovery was recent, this transgression had occurred years ago. The intelligence service (and regime) had since ceased to exist. In the meantime, the journalist in question had become a respected colleague. What to do with the fellow? Dismiss him? On what grounds? And to what effect inside the company?
Confronting ambiguity is one of the issues that came up time and again in a symposium I once had the pleasure of convening with the Harvard Business Review and the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study at the University of Southern California. The day-long symposium, called “The Next Big Thing: a Historical Approach to Thinking about the Future,” included a small, formidable mix of business leaders, technologists, historians, economists, defense experts, pollsters, and philosophers.
We all think about the future, but my first conclusion from this London gathering was that some people are better equipped than others to see it. Reflecting on the discussion, my own conclusion is that, if you want to become more prescient, you should do four things:
1. Enhance Your Power of Observation. For starters, be empirical and always be sure you’re working with the fullest data set possible when making judgments and discerning trends. Careful listening, a lost art in today’s culture of certitude and compulsive pontificating, can help us distinguish the signal from the noise.
In fact, read Nate Silver’s 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise : Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t. Also see psychologist Maria Konnikova’s 2013 Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Drawing on recent research from psychology and neuroscience, Konnikova presents ways to sharpen one’s methods of observation and deductive reasoning. I also recommend the essay “The Power of Patience” in the current issue of Harvard Magazine. Art historian Jennifer L. Roberts has her students spend what appears at first to be an excruciatingly long period — three hours! — with a painting in a gallery. “It is commonly assumed,” observes Roberts, “that vision is immediate. … But what students learn in a visceral way in this assignment is that in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive.” Ditto in any shifting business environment.
2. Appreciate the Value of Being (a Little) Asocial. I had a colleague once, a distinguished China scholar, who eschewed conferences and professional gatherings. His logic was simple. He was convinced that this otherwise entirely pleasant socializing and socialization led invariably to a kind of groupthink among the community of experts. “Thinking outside the box,” is one of the most well-worn clichés in any business or creative endeavor. We all prize it. Yet how do you actually do it, when life and livelihood generally depend on operating inside a box?
I’m convinced that a company culture that encourages curiosity is vitally important. Read the essay by Rutgers historian James Delbourgo in The Chronicle of Higher Education on “Triumph of the Strange” and Brian Dillon’s volume of essays titled Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.Curiosity keeps us learning and helps us, like the virtue of patience, to see the hidden, or understand the unexplained.
3. Study History. Do this not because history repeats itself, but because history often rhymes, as Mark Twain put it. The rhymes may be about social patterns, the impact of technology, or how nations tend to adapt. Charles Emmerson of Chatham House was a member of our roundtable. He’s the author of 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, a recent book that depicts a civilization a century ago that was interconnected and fragmented, cosmopolitan and chauvinistic, prosperous, decadent, and in danger of decline. It sounds similar to the situation of the West today.
I think you study history to study human nature, the human condition, and human behavior. This is the realm of patterns, but also — frustratingly and fascinatingly — of infinite complexity and unpredictability. Apart from the intrinsic beauty, power, and simple enjoyment, it’s why reading great fiction is to be commended. HBR writers have more than once made the business case for reading literature. Training in emotional intelligence is life-long work, and most of us need as many tutors as possible.
4. Learn to Deal with Ambiguity. A banker in our group emphasized the importance of this. Whether it’s nature or nurture, most of us seem hard-wired to sort the world into simple binary choices. Alas, there’s often lots of grey out there. I’m not sure what the publisher ended up doing in the case I cited at the outset. Nor am I at liberty to reveal my own decision regarding that former intelligence officer. But those are matters of the past anyway. Thinking about the future, here’s a final reading tip. It’s the 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. I’m fond of this passage:
In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds.
Consciously attempt to act on these four pieces of advice and I think you can only get better at anticipating the big things (and small things) that will come next.
Of course, the wisest among us will always hedge our forecasts with qualifiers such as “will likely” or “is apt to.” Life is seldom linear and best estimates frequently become undermined by those eternal “unknown unknowns.” But don’t let them stop you from preparing for an uncertain future by learning more from the past and present. Think long, think deep, think laterally — and brace yourself. 2015 is nearly upon us.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”