On Forward-Thinking: Seeing With Eyes Unclouded by Fear

(DeLorean time machine from the film Back to the Future | Oto Godfrey and Justin Morton)

(DeLorean time machine from the film Back to the Future | Oto Godfrey and Justin Morton)

“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Imagine it's October 1, 1908, and you are a blacksmith. That is not your only trade, like other people of the time, you have many skill sets. You're a farrier (someone who specializes in horseshoes), you also build and repair bicycles, and most of all you are a tinkerer (someone who's curious about mechanics, self-learning through trial and error). You pick up a newspaper and read that the Ford Motor Company has unveiled the Model T. Will you realize that life as you know it will change? Not only for yourself but for every generation after you? Before you say yes — if something similar was happening now, would you recognize it?

Hindsight Is 20/20

Things that are obvious now are not obvious from the outset — to most people. Being able to look back in history, we have the luxury of knowing what happens after 1908: cars, freeways, and giant cities. What could give you an unfair advantage for situations like these? Ideas can be abstract and hard to juggle in our minds, what we may prefer to do is base it off of people. Consider politics, sometimes we may not vote based on the issues since the issues are complicated. We may then decide to vote based on the halo effect of who we like. We can dismiss another person's idea because we don't like them, an ad hominem. That's where we'll focus a lot of our attention because that's easy, but that doesn't help us with the coming of the Model T. There are limitless ways to think about things so it can be confusing. I base my thinking on decisions, not assumptions about people. Are the actions I take (or don't take) forward-thinking or myopic? I find this to be the most useful.

The Spirit of the Times

Depending on who you ask, Horace Greeley or John Babsone Lane Soule said:

Go West, young man.

A popular phrase connected to Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continent was inevitable. That's how the idiom was initially used, but now it's an encouragement for progress and risk-taking. Once a thought gets in your head, you can't stop it and you can't pretend to forget it.

Many people try to patent ideas at the same time. With or without Henry Ford, the automobile would have been introduced to the world. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone moments before Elisha Gray. Thomas Edison is credited with the light bulb, but other tinkerers (Humphrey Davy, Joseph Swan) were a part of that discovery. Christopher Columbus didn't figure out the world was round, that was the belief of nearly every explorer at the time. We can stop people, but we can't stop ideas.

(Left to right, inventors and magnates Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, President of the United States Warren G. Harding, and businessman Harvey S. Firestone, 1921 | The New York Times)

(Left to right, inventors and magnates Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, President of the United States Warren G. Harding, and businessman Harvey S. Firestone, 1921 | The New York Times)

It's a Zeitgeist

Originally a German word, "zeitgeist" is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel, but other philosophers such as Herder, Spencer, and Voltaire are also associated with this idea. Zeitgeist is the defining spirit of a particular period of history. Historians believe since the dominant attitude of the time was that people shouldn't own other people, that slavery would have ended with or without Abraham Lincoln. (Think for a second how frightening that would be, if the only way we could have freed the American slaves were if that one person existed. Or inversely, that one person has the power to create slavery.) Often the "great" people of history were just the conduits. When a leader denies the voice of the people and decides what they should believe, is when a leader becomes a dictator. Even without a singular voice, a movement will happen. The Occupy movement, the relief workers for Haiti, and the medical volunteers fighting Ebola in Africa, to name a few. With social media, the collective is creating its own voice.

Is your spirit in sync with the spirit of the times? Many during the automobile era didn't recognize the changes. This doesn't just happen on the ground floor, this also happens to people at the top. If you have a 50,000-foot view, you may be unaware of what's going on back on earth. Maybe a president takes us into a war nobody wants. A company comes out with a product only they find useful. A studio produces a film only they like. Insulated and out of touch. Their spirit no longer matching the times. Their tastes no longer aligned with the rest of society.

No One Thinks They Are Out of Touch

That's the tricky part with new things you don't believe in, are the creators misaligned or is it you? If you understand you're a part of a niche, you can capitalize on it. If you think your small esoteric bubble represents the rest of the world (i.e., you dictate what others think), objective reality will come crashing down on you. There is room for perspectives. You don't have to adopt the views of others or even agree with them, you just need to be aware that your view may not be the only view. Or even the popular one.

When you're in the business of knowing mainstream tastes, it makes sense why it gives you such discomfort when mainstream views disagree with yours. And why you would want to avoid thinking about it. You don't want to know you were uninformed because that embarrasses you. Rather than informing yourself, you stubbornly deny the information before you. This offers you no protection. Do you want your bias confirmed or do you want your business to be successful? Businesses fail and CEOs change when their vision is no longer aligned with the consumer.

Whenever I’ve had success, I never learn from it. Success usually breeds a degree of hubris. When you fail, that’s when you learn.
— Moby

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where you believe the little you know is all there is to know. People with the least expertise often overestimate their knowledge (e.g., I know how to change a tire, that must be all there is to know about a car). Inversely, people with the most expertise get to a point where they understand how little they really know in the grand scheme of things (e.g., I know how to fix an engine, the other parts must be just as complex). If you're always living in temperature control, you may not realize how many people are suffering because of the heat. This buffering from the big picture is a nice shield for your ego. After all, the larger the picture, the smaller you look. But it takes someone with high intelligence to see the grand scheme. Intelligence requires humility and grit. Hubris and arrogance are good indicators of stupidity.

The Walled City (Gated Community)

This type of insulated thinking goes back centuries to the bourgeoisie (as early as 476 BCE). Now it's used to mean a person from a wealthy class that is materialistic. The Old French root word is "burgeis," meaning "walled city." Bourgeoisie would then be a citizen of the walled city. They wanted to remain separate and out of touch with the mainstream body, they only cared about what they cared about. Everyone else was insignificant, like segregationist beliefs in the US. After countless wars, revolutions, protests, and reforms, some things have changed, but much of the behavior remains. ("Wall Street" literally used to have a wall. We must unconsciously be aware of this because "Wall Street" is now the common expression for the impenetrable space for the one percent. The same could be said for gated communities.)

"Bourgeoisie" is an antiquated expression, replaced with terms like elite and privileged. Being "elite" is this notion that you are better than the public, which can be incongruous with the welfare of the public. Put into historical context, it is an age-old sentiment of the citizens of the walled city.

Everyone Likes Being the "Cool" Kid

No one likes admitting they live in a bubble because it makes them feel like a "square." Why is a square even an insult? It was originally meant for someone unsophisticated, from the country. A bubble is the new "country." Even in the context of an economic bubble, when the rest of the market doesn't agree with the views of the bubble, the bubble pops.

Sophisticated investors would often call people who aren't looking far into the future: rubes. A "rube" is someone who is dull, rigidly conventional, and out of touch with current trends. Not looking beyond their nose. "Coolness" has always been about having your finger on the pulse of change. Sometimes adopting something before anyone else is even aware of it. From the first kid to get a Nintendo to the first kid to kiss someone — on the mouth — all "cool" things. Then what's cooler than forward-thinking? It's an extension of what we've always found valuable: progress.

The opposite of this sentiment is the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out). You don't know what's cool or what current trends are, so you try everything — out of fear of missing the next big thing. This is the strategy of many venture capitalists. Try everything, diversify risk. That's the benefit of wealth, you can keep going back up to bat. Because, when one of these dark horses win, they win big (think Apple and Google). However, it can be an unsettling way to live. And without wealth to diversify, it can cause its own financial problems.

The World Will Change With or Without You

The writing was on the wall, things were changing, it was inevitable. The automobile had arrived and like any change, there were three types of reactions:

  • Those who denied it as a passing fad.
  • Those who were fearful for their livelihood.
  • Those who embraced the change.

My motto is to chase the change: always staying close to innovations. If you were to reduce Buddhism to one single thought, it would be: all things change. Change is ubiquitous, yet there will always be those unaware. If there is one absolute, it is that nothing can remain the same. You can try to remain static, that is your choice, but that will not affect the actions of the rest of the world.

People said the internet was a fad. That digital would never replace film, that travel agents would be the only way to buy airline tickets, streaming TV would never compete with regular TV, and that people would never choose to read things on the internet — only sticking to newspapers, magazines, and books. People like you who are reading this now, people denied you would ever exist.

(The original cool girls. Prior to freezers and refrigerators, this is how we got ice.)

(The original cool girls. Prior to freezers and refrigerators, this is how we got ice.)

Even into early 2000, people said electric cars could never compete with fossil fueled cars. That driverless cars will never replace real cars. What is a car? A carriage without a horse. What is a driverless car? A carriage without a horse and driver. What is an automobile? An automatic vehicle. It's a natural progression and not so radical if you look at it in this light. Radicalism itself is merely the status quo of the future.

In reality, the term "car" predates the automobile. In Sanskrit, it's "char," which means "to go." The Latin root is "curro," which means "to travel, to hasten, to speed." The etymology has nothing to do with the specifics, just the best method of getting from point A to point B. The term "car" will be around, what that looks like will continuously evolve. We're the ones who get fixated on the specifics, not the context. The origin is important because it links us to the root — the want to travel conveniently and quickly. Our root desire is not based on the desire to drive ourselves or ride animals; in the grand scheme of things those wants are fleeting. The iterations change quickly, the root want is much longer lasting.

It's Overnight if You're Not Paying Attention

It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.
— Eddie Cantor

You may think the only way they will get the steering wheel from you is to pry it from your cold dead hands. You're right. That's what people said about the reins of a horse. And that's how it happened; when they died, a car replaced them. Do you want to be like a horse? If so, without utility, hopefully, you will find someone who wants to keep you around as a pet. Because that's what happens to animals that no longer serve a need, they become pets. The pet of the state or pets of rich parents, if you're lucky. If not, on the street, and I'll let you use your imagination to figure out what happens after that.

Sometimes, we only see the tip of the iceberg, and we don't realize how much time or resource has already been spent. For those who didn't see it coming, it seems overnight. Psychological reactance is when we believe our choices have become limited or threatened, so we defiantly lash out. Sometimes against our best interest. We will be hard to reason with, biased, and lacking in clear-mindedness. But there will be no one to lash out against, it's the times we are fighting.

Luddites to Cyborgs

Luddites of the 1800s lashed out against textile manufacturers and machines, when their real problem was in the hearts and minds of everyone they knew. Cars and textile machines are just symbolic, the real change was happening in the minds of the people. It's like seeing a movie as a child, then moving to a country with no television or movie theaters. You know what the possibilities are now. Smashing all the machines or refusing to drive a car won't matter.

When there is a bad guy, you have some sense of control, a focal point you can at least fight/ hate. How do you fight an idea? It's this lack of control and no one to hate that scares people, especially as we get older. Fear needs a face and a name. A conspiracy is less frightening than randomness or a general sentiment (or an out of control world). A machine, that's not scary, you can destroy that. A general sentiment, a random act you have no control over, that's scary. Maybe underneath it all is the fear that life is slipping away and you can't control it. If life is finite, isn't it better to keep moving forward and live life to its capacity, rather than dying slowly?

Not to spoil James Cameron's Terminator II (for those who haven't seen it), but the whole mess started when scientists found the severed hand of the Terminator. No matter how they tried to change the past, it kept leading to the same conclusion. You can destroy the hand, but you can't make people forget. How do you get people to "unknow" what they know? And how do you stop it from spreading when ideas are contagious? The futility of it all is what made it horrifying. In this instance, curiosity killed the cat. But how do you make a cat not curious?

Canals, Steamboats, and Railroads

("Steamboat Willie," 1928. The first appearance of Mickey Mouse | Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks)

("Steamboat Willie," 1928. The first appearance of Mickey Mouse | Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks)

Let's go back even further, before the car there was the railroad. This changed everything and propelled the world a giant leap forward. Before the railroads, people took something called a steamboat. We used it to cross great distances, and we didn't just use rivers, we built canals.

Canals were costly and dangerous. You're building a river from scratch — with none of today's modern equipment. Where you could go was limited, and most of the time you needed another form of transportation to get you to your final destination. The other form of travel across the country was by wagon or stagecoach — which was just as treacherous as building a canal. People wanted to go West and travel needed an upgrade. That's opportunity.

When trains came along, the initial barrier was the lack of railroads. So we built them — all across the country. It took a lot of time, it was expensive, and there was a high human cost associated with them. Not everyone saw the vision, but for the ones that did, the vision was crystal clear. Trains broke down, it needed constant maintenance, but that didn't matter, it was happening. You can stick your head in the sand or you can witness history. Why did trains take off? Because it was better than what we had.

Transitioning to Cars Easier Than Transitioning to Railroads

Cars had a lot of obstacles, like a lack of roads. Cars were expensive, unreliable, they got stuck in the mud, were easy to steal, there was a lack of gas stations, no mechanics, and people were poor at operating them (just as many of us are now with computers). There were plenty of reasons for people to think this wasn't going to take off, but could we stop the automobile? Was it not better than horses that constantly needed feeding? That polluted the air and streets with their urine and feces? That were left dead by the sides of the road? Living things need medical care, sleep, and had a limited capacity to do things. (That includes human employees.) Even still, cars were more efficient and offered more freedom than the railroads.

Whatever obstacles people think are too large to surmount need only look at history. It's easy in comparison to things we've done in the past. Each new innovation faces fewer challenges than the previous, the foundation has already been laid by the predecessor.

Horse enthusiasts were right, horses didn't disappear. Cars got cheaper, horses became more expensive. It switched and cars became the new standard. Horses no longer served a practical need, it became a luxury. The conversion didn't happen overnight, it was a generational change. This is true of many industries, as their clientele age out, so will their business.

Things will get even more difficult before the end. Horse owners found it harder and harder to live with cars. It was impractical. Just as manual laborers are having a harder and harder time adjusting to a world of machines. There's always struggle, pain, and suffering from progress. This isn't to say all progress is good or just, it is just — unavoidable. We must prepare for it, we must curate a mindset that can anticipate the coming changes. They never appear out of nowhere; like a virus, it brews under the surface for a long time — when the right moment arrives, it spreads.

Adopting the Right Mindset

There are options for the curious and open-minded. The first car mechanics came from the bicycle business. The Wright Brothers, two bicycle makers, created and flew the first airplane. Your days as a farrier may be coming to an end, but your days as a mechanic is right around the corner — if you allow it. During the previous transition from canals to railroads, the first conductors were steamboat captains. Engineers for steamboats were the first engineers for steam locomotives.

During the introductory periods of innovation, there are no experts. Skills must be transferred from other industries. Either you stay useful, or you don't. Useful people, just like useful things, don't get abandoned.

Unless you continually work, evolve, and innovate, you’ll learn a quick and painful lesson from someone who has.
— Cael Sanderson

We had horses and canals and they were already proven to work. That's obvious. A part of being a forward-thinker is seeing the not-so-obvious. Knowing the obvious isn't helpful, it's mandatory. In fact, stating the obvious is by definition trite and banal. Seeing the not-so-obvious is what gives you an advantage. You need foresight and imagination to see the skill transfer from blacksmith to bicycle-maker to the automobile mechanic. A forward-thinker sees the big picture, the shape of the coming landscape. It may be obvious now, but the initial need for a mechanic for an unstable machine was not so obvious.

Forward-thinking is thinking far ahead. To see a need, to see opportunities when old industries end. Innovation gets inexpensive, allowing more people access, and they will have questions. A perfect position for people with answers. Staying in your old position while your market keeps shrinking and costs keep rising is not a strategy.

History Is an Important Tool for Forward-Thinkers

A forward-thinker favors innovation and plans for the future rather than the present. They know when certain innovations are too early — we aren't there yet — but they will prepare for the undeniable time when we are. Forward leaps (railroads, cars, internet) are painful because we are often unprepared and there will be those slow to adapt. Forward-thinking is thinking ahead for these leaps.

Unlike the past, where access to information was slow and hard to come by (newspapers, letters, books, or word of mouth), today we have information at our fingertips. But it's a double-edged sword, it can also make us lazy and convenient with our thinking. We get comfortable with current innovations, this always happens, and history keeps repeating itself.

The obvious is simple: look at this thing, so what? Forward-thinking brings clarity: look at this idea, so many possibilities. Resources aren't our only advantages, better thinking is also an advantage. History is a recording of all the times someone said, so what, and they were wrong.

I Was Blind but Now I See

The term "myopia" was originally a Greek word — it means to purposely see like a mole. "Purposely" is important, it means you chose to. The clinical definition relates to actual nearsightedness, but the colloquial use is often meant to mean obtuseness or slow to understand. An analyst can be hyperfocused, but a CEO cannot. A CEO must be able to see further than the immediate, or risk dooming the company.

Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975. Rather than marketing it, they held back because they were afraid it would hurt their film business. When digital was getting wide acceptance, they said it would never overtake film (ideas are beyond people and even billion-dollar companies). Kodak's motion-picture film sales plummeted 96% between 2006 and 2014. They laid-off over 24,000 employees and are in a dash to shift to digital.

Plenty of folks in recent times have lost what was once considered stable jobs. They worked for magazines, newspapers, mail delivery, film, music, and advertising. Many companies claimed they were safe, right up until they filed for bankruptcy. In a changing industry, many will deny the level of influence new technologies will have. It's scary. It's scary to think you have to start over. It's scary to think you have to transfer your skills to something new — but it can be exciting as well.

Ignorance wasn't always the issue, many had heard the same things the rest of us heard, that digital was taking over, that automation was taking over. Rather than taking this new information and seeing if they needed to change, there will always be that group who will keep doing more of the same. When given information, some will willfully close their minds to it. If you asked a room full of people, who wants change? The room will unite in agreement. If you ask this same room, who wants to change? The room will be split.

Taxi medallions (licenses) were considered one of the safest and most dependable investments. Then services like Uber and Lyft allowed nearly anyone with a car to become a driver. Many scoffed at the idea that this could compete with taxis and kept investing. The smug "you kids don't know anything" attitude. Then the taxi medallion market collapsed. This same group decades prior knew something the previous generation who scoffed at taxi medallions didn't know. Suckers, they thought; a fool and his money are soon parted. Never expecting that one day the roles would be reversed, and they were the new easy marks. There's always a fresh new batch of old-thinkers somewhere. (Will service-car drivers be caught off guard when driverless cars arrive?)

Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt writes:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Engineering is one of the highest paid and safest career paths, but it's not only because of their skill set, it is also because engineers have a willingness to switch companies and switch industries.

You will in fact get hit. And then most important, when you get hit, most fighters, they get excited. Boom! You drop your hands. When you get hit, that’s when you gotta be calm. That’s when you have to be calm. When you get hit.
— Cus D'amato

Some people close their eyes when things are risky, but that is when your eyes should be wide open.

The Slow and Tragic Death of the Old Ways

(Cassia-tree moon | Tsukioka Yoshitoshi)

(Cassia-tree moon | Tsukioka Yoshitoshi)

Words are not truth. Truth is like the moon, and words are like my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon.
— Hui-Neng

Myopia sees with eyes clouded by fear and doubt. Forward-thinking is seeing with eyes unclouded. Better thinking requires practice. If you stop thinking, you can't see the trees for the forest. You only see the finger, not the finger pointing to the writing on the wall. Cars are getting more digital. Maybe it won't be Uber, but the way we take taxis will change. Maybe it won't be Tesla or the Google self-driving car (the new horseless carriage), but cars will change because it hasn't had a seismic shift in the last 100 years. Things will change because they always do and each transition will be easier than the previous. Those who can't see the past or future cannot see the present. The barrier for the next big forward leap is less than you think. Nobel Prize-winning physicist and father of quantum theory, Max Planck once said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

The old way doesn't just disappear just like species don't vanish overnight. It dies off incrementally when there are more deaths than births. Don't fear sudden change, it'll be slow and tragic. Because most people won't notice, until it's too late. History repeatedly reminds us of the need for forward-thinking and the dangers of myopia. Think of forward-thinking as a telescope: history is the eyepiece, the present is the body, and the future is the self-adjusting lens that keeps the unfolding landscape in focus. If a "rube" only sees as far as their nose, then even what's right in front of their nose can go unseen.

I am reminded of a scene from Back to the Future:

Hey, Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88.
— Marty McFly
Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
— Dr. Emmett Brown

See beyond, think beyond. Beyond the immediate and into the unknown, into the unwritten.

The truth is, every day is October 1, 1908, and something new has rolled out. Will you take my advice and cultivate forward-thinking? Or will you be myopic and focus on the obvious? Challenge yourself and above all else, challenge your own point of view. Only then will you become a better thinker.

Summary

Better thinking is not about simplicity but clarity. Preaching the obvious is akin to preaching to an echo: are you telling me or are you telling yourself? Forward-thinking sees the subtle things brewing under the surface, the not-so-obvious. That takes knowledge and common sense, but it also takes curiosity and imagination. Subtle things are subtle until they are obvious to everyone. During that transition, empires will fall and new ones will rise. Steamboats to railroads, horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. It's not as simple as being right or wrong, sometimes it's about being the least wrong.

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