thinking

Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.

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thinking

Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.

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