Tuesday, June 1, 2010
After watching the above video - sent along to me and my fellow LDTers by one of our cohort members - I'm struck not by the differences in the ways we interact with time, but by the similarities. Regardless of whether we tend towards present hedonism or are instead future oriented - or, I suspect most often, some balance of the two - I think we are all beholden to the past in a subtle and not always obvious way. That is, whether we live in the moment or live for the future, it is the past that shapes that living, and the past which allows us to create expectations for both the present and the future.
A silly example of this is in how baseball teams sign players. While increasingly the MLB is moving towards younger, cheaper talent, there is still tendency to pay enormous salaries to older players not because of what they will do, but because of what they have done so far. The same problem runs rampant in the NFL and the NBA and, I imagine, European Soccer.
Where the reality of paying for what has happened instead of what will becomes more troublesome is in business or politics. In theory, where baseball and football players reach the heights of their abilities in their late twenties, we men and women of the real world don't really even start our proper careers until we're 30, and aren't expected to have the skills or experience necessary to lead until we're 50 or older. The assumption here - based on experience, granted - is that we continue to learn and improve as we get older, and that more knowledge, especially experiential knowledge, equates with more ability.
The problem is, while even the most future-oriented decision maker elects to do what he thinks will result in the best outcome, all of that future orientation comes from what has happened so far, collected from both personal experience and from learning through books, articles, and conversations with others (that is, the personal experience of others). That's not a problem, per se, expect that it is a terribly unreliable way to make effective decisions.
Which is not to say that there's a better way to make decisions. We can't, after all, depend upon much else than past information. Indeed, the word "information" practically has the past built into its very meaning. Rather, what I think we too often fail to realize is that, because the past is an imperfect predictor of the future, and because the systems and situations in which we make decisions are usually mind-boggling complex (whether we acknowledge it or not), there is simply no good way to know what will work, and it is irrational to expect anyone to make the right decision at almost any time.
The famous saying "hindsight is 20/20," comes to mind. But that's just the thing; hindsight isn't 20/20. Sure, we can know what happened, and we can watch the "will do" turn into a "has done," but even so, we are left with a single, anecdotal data point in a vast field of possible results. "What would you have done differently?" is, actually, one of the most difficult questions to answer when you really think about it, because there's simply no way to know what the effects of a different action would have been.
All of which is to say, time is a complicated, confusing thing that we often take for granted because, frankly, we must. Efforts like those in the video above to characterize our personal conceptions of time are useful, certainly, but we have to also remember that how we interact with the temporal world is not so easily categorized that it fits into neat boxes. All of us - at least all of us Westerners - to one degree or another, understand time in a fundamentally similar way, and while there are permutations between our understandings, it is not easy to say that high school drop-outs do so because they have different temporal priorities. Hindsight, in that case, is not 20/20, and there is no reason to believe that addressing that supposed cause will change anything about the future.