To See the Future

A common question arises in the minds of all of us, even the most lackadaisical—what am I doing with my life? Or perhaps you hear yourself wondering, where is my life going, exactly? What direction am I heading in? Am I going to be successful? How do I know what I’ll be successful in? How do I even get there?

Am I doing anything meaningful? Is it meaningful enough that people will actually remember me for it?

While it’s dangerous to obsess too hard over these questions, it’s impossible to avoid them. Why do these ideas bother us so much?

the gem of success

There is a lot of advice out there when it comes to things like “success” and “legacy”. The internet is bursting at the seams with self-help articles. Whole books, many running hundreds of pages long, claim to have the secret recipe. Even when we try to avoid the topic altogether, words of all shapes and sizes appear before us at every turn—podcasts, magazines, radio talkshows, television, and more. Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding them.

Even if we could avoid them, it’d be hard to resist their messages. They claim to know the shortcuts to fame, glory, and the well-appointed lifestyle. Just pick me up, open the link, they whisper. I can make your life play out exactly as you’ve dreamed it could. And they claim to have the evidence that makes their whispers seem oh-so-true. I was written by this multi-millionaire. Or, I am the reason that this entrepreneur is a household name. If it worked for others, surely it’d work for us, right? Of course, they coax. We know what that gem of success is and we know exactly where to find it. You can’t see your future, but we—removed from living your life, having the outside view—oh yes, we can.

Interestingly, there’s a flaw to their tempting words. Not the part about them being able to see our futures (who knows if that’s really true or not), but the part about about us not being able to see our own futures.

In fact, what makes this whole idea of shaping our futures so irresistible is because we can actually see the glimpses of what the future could be. We know that our actions, our milieu, and our circumstances make certain futures more likely and certain futures less likely. This knowledge doesn’t make the future any less obscure, of course, but it’s not like we’re looking into a black hole. In fact, it’s more like looking through a dirty pane of glass. This distorted lens sits between the us of the present and the us of tomorrow. We see vague shapes beyond and maybe give some of those vague shapes names. We try our utmost to mold that shape into the object we so desperately desire it to be. But we can’t reach beyond the glass. Our moldings are nothing but mental projections. We can’t even reach the glass to clean it so we can see more clearly what’s beyond. In the end, no matter how hard we peer, we can’t make sense of what’s on the other side.

hazy windows

Not that this stops us from trying. In fact, society even rewards us for attempting the impossible. In my line of work, we do lots of research in an attempt to chart people’s pathways throughout an experience. We take all of the data we can get our hands on, and from that information, we try to make an educated guess about what people will think and do. By doing so, we can then figure out when they go the “wrong” way, so we can steer them the “right” way. We can see when they do the “correct” thing, and then we examine how to make more people do the same thing. A lot of the world’s money goes into unearthing and understanding complex patterns in people’s behavior. Even if it’s not successful 100% of the time, at least we can increase the likelihood of what we’re defining to be “successful behavior.”

Even if we’re not all attempting to control the world by mastering the future, maybe we just want peace of mind for ourselves. If we know what’s going to happen, it’s easier to prepare ourselves adequately for the inevitable. No more unpleasant surprises.

What if we actually could see beyond the glass, though? It’s a highly unlikely if, but certainly I’m not the first one to wonder about it. Or better yet, what if we could tear down that wall and step through to the future, gaining the ability to reshape it to our own liking?

Maybe it’d all be blurry anyway. Without the glass as a focusing lens before us, we’d only see haziness stretching out before us. The objects out there might reveal themselves to be ethereal beings with no physical form. Maybe we couldn’t touch them and mold them, after all. Even without the glass in the way. We’d see the future just beyond the present, but it’d be so indistinct that we’re no better off in this hypothetical future than we are now, facing the reality of the glass.

blurs in the distance

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