How To Deal With An Uncertain Future

by Stephen Mills on April 10, 2011

Crystal Ball

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Expert Predictions

We are bombarded daily with predictions by experts; both long and short term predictions that are supposed to help us plan for our futures.  The problem with all this is that you might as well be flipping a coin.  Research clearly shows that once you get outside simple phenomena that are driven by basic physical laws and into complex systems, prediction becomes practically impossible.

Human beings can’t seem to cope with uncertainty and so we spend enormous amounts of time trying to predict what is going to happen.  I guess we simply feel better pretending like we know or pretending like someone else knows who can tell us.  We want to be prepared for the future so we feel better knowing what is likely to happen.

The problem is that if all these experts really could predict what was going to happen they would be trillionaires instead of slaving away on MSNBC telling you what was going to happen with the stock market or with oil prices.  The fact of the matter is nobody knows and nobody ever will know.

A few weeks ago I read an excellent book called Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better.  The author skewered everyone who ever thought or now thinks they have insight into what the future holds.  If you look at what experts predict and then compare that to what actually happens you’ll end up on the floor laughing.  It’s pathetic, but it makes no difference.  The same people who were wrong last year are back again telling us what’s going to happen next year.

I live along the Gulf coast of the U.S.  Every year the local weathermen haul out the National Hurricane Forecast Center forecast for the upcoming season.  A few years ago we were told we were going to have the most active season in decades.  It turned out to be the least active season in decades.  It was a big dud.  The next year they made a similar prediction with another fairly inactive season resulting. This is typical.  It’s not unusual for them to be wrong, it is normal.  And yet year after year, as if we have amnesia, they go through the same nonsense.  Somehow I’m supposed to believe anyone has a clue what the weather is going to be like 50 years from now.  Oh I know it’s just going to be “bad”.  Pardon me for being skeptical as to whether any side in the debate really has a clue.

But that’s just the weather.  We can surely predict the stock market, or geopolitical trends, or the economy, or other things can’t we?  No.  The record is clear.  If you are expecting a return from the stock market over the next decade, you might want to look at what happened over the last decade (in the U.S. at least).  It was basically flat, but it was supposed to keep climbing like it had in the decades previously.  Oops.  What’s going to happen now?  Will it go up or down or stay flat?  If it goes up or down how much will it change?  Nobody knows and if they did they wouldn’t need to be trying to sell you on that information.

How To Deal With An Uncertain Future

Invest in Yourself

I have little confidence in the stock market, currency values, precious metals or anything else that is supposed to be crash proof.  However, there is one thing you can always count on and that is yourself.  35 years ago my uncle told me that people with talent will always be valuable no matter what happens and I think that’s just about the best advice anyone can give.  When I say invest in yourself, I don’t mean developing a specific skill or trade.  That is the trap we are trying to avoid.  Trying to figure out what occupation is going to be in high demand 20 years from now is a losing proposition.

You need to develop general skills like people skills that can be useful no matter what you are doing.  Develop the growth mindsets and the attitudes that lend themselves to peaceful well being, detachment from outcomes, and resilience.  People who are resilient and resourceful are able to deal effectively anything that may arise in their lives down the road.

Develop and Maintain Deep Social Relationships

Being lonely correlates with all kinds of bad things like disease and early mortality.  If there is one thing that is clear from the research it is that active social lives, deep and meaningful ones and not 1,000 Facebook friends, correlate with all kinds of good things.  It might just be the best advice for human flourishing one can receive.  Of course we are all different and the number and kind of social relationships that individual people need are different.  However, everybody needs at least some meaningful relationships.  When times are tough those with deep social connections do fine.  Those that lack them often flounder.

Accept What You Do Not Know and Can’t Change

First of all you have to accept that you don’t know what is going to happen.  If you believe you do then fine, but I think you are fooling yourself.  The best way to be prepared for the future is to accept that you don’t know what is going to happen and stop worrying about it.

Secondly, you have to accept what you cannot change.  I hope we stop the massive destruction of the world’s forests.  It used to almost make me physically ill thinking and worrying about it.  However, I have accepted that I can’t do anything about it one way or the other.  I can plant a tree, own a bit of land, or contribute to the Nature Conservancy but that’s about it.  When the settlers or the loggers move into the forest and cut it down, they aren’t thinking about me. Getting upset about what you think is going to happen will simply make you less effective in dealing with it.

Become Independent

I don’t mean that you own your own business or that you are independently wealthy or that you don’t have meaningful relationships or anything like that.  What I do mean is that you depend primarily on yourself.  I assure you that when things go bad and there is no more money to steal from its citizens, the government will not be able to help you.  When you make yourself a slave to your job, your spouse, your family or whatever, you limit your options significantly.  When people take on heavy debt load and then lose their job or business, they are up the proverbial creek.  When people who depend upon their spouse find themselves newly divorced and without independent means and skills, their future plans die a very quick and ugly death.

Prepare a Cushion For Bad Times

I save money for the future but I don’t count on it.  The government policies may make it worthless in the future.  No matter what happens in the long term though, at least in the short term it provides a cushion for me.  Were I to suddenly find myself without an income, I could live quite a long time on what I already have.

Whatever you are concerned about, consider setting aside some kind of cushion to deal with it and then stop worrying about it.  It is unlikely to ever happen, but if it gives you a little peace of mind then deal with it and move on.  If you obsess about it you are doing exactly the wrong thing.  You will end up unprepared for what actually does happen; and that something will likely be something entirely different from the specific thing for which you were so diligently preparing.

Seriously, I believe you should eat, drink, and be merry and simply let come what may.

If you have taken care to make sure you are an adaptable, knowledgeable, resourceful, and connected individual, you will likely thrive no matter what happens.

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