Making Predictions

One of the best parables in “Zen Shorts” is this one:

A long time ago there was a farmer living in China. One day his horse ran away and all the villagers said, “What bad luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the horse came back with two wild horses and all the villagers said, “What good luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the farmer’s son was riding one of the wild horses. He was thrown and broke his arm. All the villagers said, “What bad luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the army passed through town recruiting young men for a distant war. The son was passed over because of his broken arm. All the villagers said, “What good luck!”

The farmer said, “Maybe.”

I bring up this story because of the rigid technocratic view that has recently taken over the world. In this view, popularized in Silicon Valley and emulated by everyone, all events can be predicted, anticipated, and manufactured with extensive data analysis. Collect the data, analyze it, and come up with sweeping conclusions.

Unfortunately, like all things, over time this dependence went from giving one a competitive edge to becoming a limiting crutch—creating enormous blind spots to things that should have been obvious.

This election was a powerful reminder that although the tools we use are new, the forces we are dealing with are both very big and very old. Our naive belief that we could control and anticipate them now in this brave new world were abruptly snapped back to reality with tremendous force.

One lesson learned is never doubt that people make predictions based on their own personal self-interest. It’s a strong cognitive bias – people have a tendency to search for facts that confirm what they want to be true and discard those that don’t match. Sometimes predictions based on this data is accurate and other times it misses, but no one, not even pollster Nate Silver, knows with certainty what happens next.

So, here’s a relevant historical example to help you deal. After Federalism and Alexander Hamilton fell from grace, Thomas Jefferson and the states’ rights movement took power. As President, Jefferson preached life, liberty, and small government principles. He then presided over the single greatest expansion of the federal government in history.

The man was called the American Sphinx for a reason – he was filled with so many contradictions that you never knew what he was going to do. Sound like anyone you know?

In the meantime, calm down and stop trying to figure out the future, either in anticipation or dread. The only surety of doing that is to suffer crippling anxiety and to be unable to cope in the present.

As the Buddhists counseled, instead of being preoccupied with the future, live in the now. What is happening now? Is there something you can do about it? If yes, do something. If not, accept it. Because no one knows what happens next and anyone who pretends they do is a charlatan. Let go of what you want to happen and be the farmer who says, “Maybe.”