How to survive and thrive in an unpredictable world
We live in a rock traveling through space at 300 km/s. We weren’t here 200.000 years ago and we won’t be here in a few hundred years. Anything could happen at any moment and the entire planet could collapse.
And yet, we pretend we are in control.
I’m not saying this to be nihilistic, pessimistic or a doomsayer. I’m saying it because I want you to realize that control is an illusion.
The illusion of control
When my son was two, we got on the train that travels between terminals at Madrid airport — one of those driverless trains. I played a practical joke on him. I told him the train will stop when he presses a certain imaginary button. It just has to be pressed at the right time.
I told him ‘now’, he went ahead and pressed the button, and the train stopped. He was in control.
Apart from bad parenting, what can we learn from this story? How often do we think we are in control when we are not? And more importantly, how can we thrive in a world where we are at the mercy of the elements?
Welcome to reality
According to physics, reality operates at a quantum level. In quantum mechanics, electrons can be in two places at once and the famous Schrodinger’s cat can be dead and alive simultaneously.
This is not bullshit sci fi, it’s estate of the art science despite how difficult is for us to comprehend.
The whole universe is made of atoms, including you and me, and these follow the laws of physics. The implications of quantum theory are very weird — things could be in two places at the same time, we change reality just by observing it and we could be living in infinite parallel universes.
Before you discard all this as nonsense, may I remind you that many Nobel prize winners support this theory?
Do you still think you are in control? In which universe exactly?
But there is more…
All we’ve got is our minds. These are the tools we’ve been given to understand reality. It’s quite obvious that reality is extremely complex and perhaps we’ll never be able to comprehend it all.
One thing that differentiates us from other animals is consciousness — our capacity to be aware of our own existence.
Consciousness is a very complex matter as well and it’s crucial for understanding reality. There are many theories to explain how consciousness operates, one of them is the quantum nature of consciousness.
Things get complicated
We (including the experts) don’t really understand quantum physics therefore we don’t understand reality. To understand anything we need to use consciousness (which we don’t fully understand either) and that seems to operate in quantum ways as well.
Is everything clear so far?
And yet we believe we are in control. Oh boy!
Forget about quantum consciousness. Let’s go back to the “real” visible world or the one we think we perceive.
Even this visible world is full of randomness and unpredictability. Not only reality hit us with shock events every so often but also we are useless at predicting the consequences of our own actions not to mention the exponential nature of disruptive technologies.
In “Fooled by Randomness” Taleb explains how we derive a false sense of security and control over our lives only to be hit by random, unpredictable events with huge catastrophic consequences — covid-19, recessions, oil collapse, tsunamis and more.
How can we be in control if we don’t even know what’s about to happen?
Delusions of control
Touching wood, rain dancing, and talismans are some examples of our desperate attempts to bend reality to suit our needs. We all think is crazy when we see others doing it and yet we all fall for it at some point.
Have you noticed how people at the casino throw the dice stronger when they want double six?
And finally, the world was ready to embrace the unsinkable ship. oops!
God could be explained by a need to bring some certainty to our lives in a world ruled by chance.
No expert has ever been able to predict a crisis, let alone do something about it.
When a new technology is introduced nobody knows how far the consequences can reach. Who is controlling the internet, A.I., Bitcoin, or driverless cars? No one, not even their makers.
Dangers of control
When you think you are in control but you are not, you’ve got a big problem.
- Complacency. Drunk drivers think they are in control
- False sense of security. Clinging on to a secure job doesn’t help when you are made redundant
- Delegation of responsibility. Following the government guidelines or the expert’s advice, thinking they know what they are doing could lead to disaster
- Bad decisions. Not taking into account the role of chance can make forecasting and planning useless
- Denial. Alcoholics and smokers think they can quit whenever they want
- Perfectionism. Often, perfectionists tend to be control freaks, they micromanage every situation to perfection. But nothing can ever be perfect and by trying to make it so can backfire.
How to avoid the illusion of control
- Realize that you are not in control. Your control over the present is limited and over the future in non-existent
- Be flexible. Be ready to pivot and change everything in your life at the drop of a hat. Travel light through life. Don’t over-commit. Always have an escape plan ready to implement. Don’t accumulate too many assets.
- Plan for disaster. Design your life so when disaster strikes — economy, war, natural disasters, pandemic — you have a limited downside and an unlimited upside. Take advantage of optionality.
- Don’t listen to anyone who thinks is in control. Nothing is more dangerous than a confident idiot
- Work on your own biases. Cognitive and perception biases make you see reality in a distorted way. Be aware and compensate for it
No one is in charge, not you, not the president and not even God.
Thinking you are is a dangerous delusion that can cost you dearly.
All you can do is minimize the damage, get ready for any situation, and try to benefit from the upside.
We know nothing about reality, for all we know this could be a simulation.
When the Titanic was sinking, some of the staff got busy tidying up the chairs on the main deck. I guess they were holding on to the illusion of control…not for long.
You are not in control and that’s great, if you were life would be unbearable.
Think of all the random things that happened in your life. Most of them were great, right?
One of them was you being born.