Monday, March 17, 2008

Why is life full of surprises?

In conversations with friends over the past months, we've all shaken heads about how life's road has twisted over the past five years. "Who'd have thought we'd all be here today..." we begin, and talk about how things turned out so unexpectedly with kids, with jobs, with dreams.

It makes me wonder, indeed, how it happened.

Psychologists tell us that human minds are pattern-matching wonders, best at extrapolating from experience in the face of incomplete information. So why don't we do better at predicting and influencing the course of events? The breakdown has to be somewhere along the boundary where our minds intersect with the real world.

Logically, I suppose events in the objective world could unfold in any of three ways. The may be driven by individual free will, allowing solipsistic control over our own destiny. Alternatively, events may be driven by others more powerful or willful than ourselves (this variation includes the will of a deity, or of the men in black helicopters). Finally. the scientists could be right: the world just evolves in it's own mindless, random way.

And how could I predict or influence the world? Again, there are three possibilities. Ideally, I am fully competent to understand what goes on around me and to take effective action. Alternatively, I could be missing the obvious, failing to see the truth, but acting very effectively in the wrong direction. Or, I could be inept, unable to plan or execute effectively despite seeing things accurately.

So, I sketch all this out in a classical MBA-style two-axis grid, filling in the nine intersections:

Destiny is under my control.Destiny is under other people's control.Destiny is controlled by random luck.
I understand events and take actionThings work out as planned.Thwarted by lack of sufficient information.Surprised that things turn out so different.
I can't see the obvious.Delusional: missing the truth all around me.Self-absorbed and myopic.Fantasizing that I'm in control.
I can't plan or execute.Incompetent: missing the opportunities.Impotent: failing to have influence.At best, sailing with life's wind.

'Faced with this array of unhappy alternatives, I conclude that there is no single failure here. Rather, things don't turn out the way we expect because life is full of all of these moments, in varying proportions. Reflecting, I believe that I'm largely competent, but that I'm also plagued by incomplete information, somewhat lacking in influence, and can be opportunistic when attractive alternatives pop up.

Even beyond that, my biggest failures to predict the future came from not recognizing disruptive "forks in the road", moments that redefined life's available constraints and opportunities.

My takeaway from all this musing is that we are probably very limited in our ability to predict or influence the future. 'Not surprising, then, that life's road twists, or that I seldom end up where I expect we might.


TextualHealing said...

The good things often come by surprise too - fortunately because we can't always imagine how to achieve our hearts' desires (or even sometimes articulate what they are or how they might take shape)

Dave Hampton said...

Agreed, and I really love the moments in life filled with discovery and epiphany.

I think that what troubles me is that life turned out so differently. Not badly, mind you: I love where life is today.

But if I had written a paragraph in 2003 about what myself, my job, my life, my kids, everything would be like in five years, I would have been completely wrong. Not just a little, but on almost every count.

Five years isn't that long a time. I would have expected that you form a settled basis around home and career, and that simple extrapolation of work assignments, kid's education, domestic conversations about plans, would have landed a pretty close approximation.

As a research guy, I think about the future a lot. Maybe, as a result, I tend to make jumps when I see opportunities, and to ride those to the next jump. A couple of disruptive decisions may be all it takes.