How I think about how to think about what’s next
It's messy, but it works
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HOW I THINK ABOUT TOMORROW
One big reason I write these essays is so I can work out for myself what the facts on the ground say about what’s next, knowing full well that most efforts to predict even the near future will fail (I will never ever be as accurate as I was here on March 2 2020).
Basically — what’s the near-term product of (all the inputs or shocks we’re experiencing right now) x (people affected)?
And then what comes after that?
There are two practical questions related to these: how accurate are the answers, and how far out can we predict and adjust for them?
Well, it depends, and it depends.
Before we dive into how I try to think about them, let’s take a look around.
If it feels a little bit like everything is chaos right now, you’re not alone. Here is a very incomplete list of what’s on my mind just this morning:
Israel, Palestine, Hezbollah, Iran, China
Solar and wind
India growth and nationalism
Africa growth and coups
The 2023 elections
The 2024 elections
Old fashioned disinformation
South American heat
Fossil fuel subsidies
The care economy
US home ownership affordability
Google on trial
Toyota’s mythical solid-state batteries
UK clean energy pullback
Immigration everywhere, deportations
Rio Negro water levels
Auto union strike
US House of Representatives...issues
Colorado River water rights negotiations
1989 (Taylor’s Version) (Deluxe Edition)
Great, so. It’s a lot.
It’s always been a lot, of course, but globalism, the EU, social networks, food and fossil fuels (and where they intersect, like fertilizers), climate change, Xi, Putin, Trump, Netanyahu, TSMC, Brexit, the transition away from fossil fuels, inflation, and COVID have reshaped, tied together, and then hastily untied many of the fundamental constructs of the last four decades.
Which is why you hear a lot now about the polycris(es), a multipolar world, etc.
So how do I usually try to understand these? Besides Klonopin or gummies?
Well, I find it’s helpful to start with two fundamental questions:
Is the situation localized?
Or is it commoditized?
These are decidedly imperfect terms but again, it’s how I use them, so you can either borrow them or use something else. Let me explain.
A “localized” situation is something like a wildfire, hurricane, war, drought, or election. It’s fundamentally tied to a place (even it has already grown beyond that place, or if it has layers of externalities — we’re not there yet, hold on).
A “commoditized” situation is a virus, global heating, sea-level rise, inflation, semiconductor chips, EV’s, disinformation, etc. It’s measured (loosely) in units, not place. These units don’t really have a standard definition, you’re welcome.
Next, I ask myself these:
Will these shocks continue as-is (known knowns)?
Will they grow larger themselves (known unknowns)?
Will they spillover into adjacent territories (geographical and/or economical/societal) or will the underlying conditions inspire similar, lateral shocks?
And/or will there be new, unforeseen shocks to the system (unknown unknowns)?
Sure, yes, there is the basic, isolated problem or progress at hand: “Israel and Hamas keep missile-ing each other and thousands of civilians are dying”, or “There is finally an honest-to-goodness malaria vaccine”.
Now we’ve got to dig a little deeper.
A key tool I use is to mindmap.
What’s a mindmap?
Thanks for asking.
A mindmap is how it all comes together -- the co-benefits and threat multipliers for each input, and -- if known knowns, which isn’t guaranteed -- what sort of impact those have or in the past have had on the world.
My definition of co-benefits are secondary and often indirect benefits of, for example, electrifying US vehicles. Not only do we reduce new emissions by 1/3, slowing new global heating, but we also reduce air pollution and cardiovascular conditions.
You can usually reverse them to find a threat multiplier. Combustion vehicles not only drive new emissions and increased global heating, they contribute to local air pollution and drive cardiovascular conditions like childhood asthma (a shitty hand on a day to day basis, and a weakness when, say, a novel respiratory virus comes along).
(Obviously for both of these examples, bikes, walking, and electrified, frequent, and reliable public transportation are the real answer.)
Threat multipliers are close cousins of coupled risk — when multiple things can go wrong together.
In either version, you’re acknowledging a variety of interconnected systems, where multiple parts depend on one another, intentionally, or unintentionally. Anyways, you get the point. Mine aren’t pretty, but the visual is immensely helpful.
You fill it out by asking questions like: What are the current externalities? And which haven’t been breached yet? What else are we missing?
I hesitate to use too many popular cognitive shortcuts or “frameworks”, and instead try to be analytical, probabilistic, and qualitative about any given factor, reminding myself every single second that my intuition (much less my domain expertise) in any particular discipline is, shall we say, extremely limited.
Employing frameworks you pickup from some Twitterboi (RIP) without a ruthless consideration for your own expertise or whether they hold up IRL is asking for big trouble. Overconfidence is the killer.
This is where being a generalist is really a plus, and yes I’m just making excuses for being a moron, but truly (and I promised myself I wouldn’t write “systems thinking” here), the ability to only go an inch deep but also a mile wide, so you can see how a variety of pieces connect together, is pretty helpful.
This...skill...also helps one actually see the forest for the trees, even if down deep you don’t really know if that one’s a tree or technically a bush? Is a bush a small tree?
Or is it like how a pony is not actually a baby horse?
Anyways, the X factor, of course, is people.
People as individuals and groups are both very predictable, and completely irrational. So you have to simultaneously include humanity as an X factor and also know that you’re going to get it wrong.
Let’s quickly blow through a relatively simple example, like the transition to EV’s.
The Prius was our first glorious taste of something different, but the electric transition began (in earnest) ten years ago with the Tesla Model S. The Model 3 and later, the Model Y exploded (sometimes for real), and legacy carmakers finally raced to adapt, just as Tesla was running out of tax credits because there was no long-term Congressional plan to support them.
So for a few years Tesla went through production hell made cars in tents and made most of their money from selling emissions credits and crypto, but eventually emerged as the category leader while growing the entire pie.
We inexplicably passed the IRA, inspiring an insane amount of domestic private investment in cars and batteries — theoretically the nail in the coffin for combustion — but it also pissed off a bunch of our trade allies and throttled the short-term success of super cool and beloved EV’s from Hyundai-Kia.
But also, it’s not quite so simple: new EV companies still can’t sell directly to customers in most states, and inflation is still a nightmare so purse strings are very tight at home….so people are buying way less than automakers thought…so there’s talk about “hey maybe we’re going too fast with this transition”.
In reality, we can’t transition fast enough, because the knock-on effects of one-third of our emissions continuing as is are wide-reaching and compounding as climate change speeds up and billion dollar disasters become a weekly thing. The torque is compounding every single day.
Anyways, electric two-wheelers are selling/renting like crazy in Asia and Chinese EV cars have taken over much of the rest of the world (despite a Tesla factory on-site there).
Meanwhile, we discovered a shitload of lithium in the US, but the rest of the required minerals for electrification are in China (or, controversially, under the ocean bed). Domestic autoworkers have been striking for a month and a half because they are more committed to the future than the CEO of GM, who claims paying the unions would put the companies in “dire straits”, but she has made about $29 million in each of the last two years, and at least $20 million every year of the past four.
Really, the shocks have only just begun here.
My process is messy, but you get the idea.
The EV question is pretty analagous, with some directly related inputs, for the transition to clean energy, for a world where Africa and India are among the youngest and most populous places on Earth, for crops bred for more temperate climates and for insurance markets, for AI disinformation, housing, etc.
It won’t always be that way, but the more you do it, the better you get at it. I’m constantly fucking with the system (probably too much).
Time to add on a very important layer.
One key function is to change your desired outcome from “What’s going to happen with X?” and instead use probability to detail out a range of potential outcomes, but not get too attached to any one of them.
I know, this is less fun. It’s also hard. Very hard. Our brains do not intuitively do this. Our primal tools and emotions, fears and shortcuts got us this far, but won’t help you today.
It’s really important to remember how relatively brief our stint in modernity has been. We’re in this big rush to normalize it socially, but biologically things work much, much slower.
It’s the same with probability and statistics. Most of our decisions were actually life or death for a very long time and we brought enormous bias to the table because, well, we had to. We experienced the fundamental necessities selectively through our own adventures, tacking on pretty siloed interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions, because that’s all we knew and that’s how we survived — or didn’t.
Conversely, staying open-minded and constantly looking for new evidence that might adjust or trash your whole range of potential outcomes is not only basically the scientific method, but also really important for getting a handle on potential near-term futures and also your anxiety.
Similarly, getting to the bottom of a problem -- the real bottom -- by trying to identify the root cause(s) vs a bunch of lazy proximate causes is step one.
It’s easy to build this range of outcomes in a safe space, “no bad ideas” kind of way, but I would also honestly question -- once you’ve scribbled them out -- how often each actually happens in the real world, and why or why not. What are other examples where this kind of outcome has actually happened before?
I find this step tends to push back on any sort of confirmation bias I might have (especially when I hop on my jump-to-conclusions mat or try to get to the action part too fast).
Next up, ask yourself -- where am I emotional or related to this problem?
Scribble your answer(s) in the margins so you remember it when you’re trying to understand what’s going on.
How do you need to intentionally if temporarily marginalize your principles or values to really grok what the hell’s going on here? Your feelings do not have a seat at the table right now.
I guess you could call this first principles -- separating underlying ideas or facts from any assumptions about them or based on them, especially yours.
You can also just call it self-awareness.
I’ve written a lot about how we’ve made our most basic necessities more expensive and less accessible -- these things are actually non-reducible. We cannot survive without them, full stop. It really doesn’t matter what your opinion is on, you know, air. Just like my opinion on what time the school bus comes doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, you need air, you need water.
But if the situation you’re trying to understand is, “Gazans are running out of fresh water, so they’re drinking from the sea”, and that enrages you -- as it should -- that’s not going to make it any easier to understand why Israel’s cabinet completely disagrees with one another on what it means to actually root out Hamas once and for all, and how to go about doing that without pissing off the entire world. Much less what you should post to Instagram about it.
Believe me, it’s really hard to keep this part out, whether you’re an elected official or CEO or investor or you build a company and movement (cough cough) on helping people take effective action for the betterment of everyone.
Let’s come back for a moment to the “Have any of these potential near-futures or outcomes ever happened before?”
I think it’s helpful to wrap your head around the fact that we are standing a bit on the outside of time, which will only increase in coming decades.
“The past doesn’t repeat, it rhymes”, etc, etc, but among everything else, there are three real factors that should underpin most of your questions:
1) Humans have never ever been connected more than they are right now, for better or worse
2) Humans have never had access to so much instant computing power and
3) Humans have never understood and faced that our largest cities (where most people live) will be increasingly uninsurable because of sea level rise as the rest of this century unfolds. This applies to even newer cities like Lagos. There is an actual ticking clock even if virtually all of our decision making ignores it to this point.
The circumstances of the past should inform your calculus -- raising a second child is generally so much easier than your first, however different they may be. “California is always 80 degrees and sunny” doesn’t apply anymore.
Similarly, the next steps may not unfold like they have in the past. Be careful how you weight factors like unstoppable sea-level rise, and something like more theoretical like fusion power.
Consider again, too, the human element: how leaders and wanna-be leaders have more reach than ever before, and are thus more exposed than ever before (like cancel culture for democracies or dictators).
We talked recently about why the youths are so pissed off — namely, because we’re undoing so much of our progress and they’re watching it go down, live.
Let’s flip it and put ourselves (briefly) in the shoes of a world leader or CEO of a top five tech company.
Democracies are dwindling, more fragile than they’ve been in a very long time, the market is dominated by a few players and may become even more so with AI, weapons are more powerful than ever before (even if the most powerful are (so far) used the least).
There is more risk and greater implications to every decision than ever before. There are more people potentially affected, and more people watching.
I really would not encourage you to spend very long at all inside the mind of a policymaker, elected or not, but understand this:
After considering their own externalities (if they do this step or even give a shit about it, which isn’t a given), the next logical step is to ask “What’s the adjustment cost to not let this externality flank my best laid plans?”
For example, Ulysses S. Grant is remembered not only because in isolation he was a great general, but because Henry Halleck (and McClellan before him) was such an indecisive shitshow on game day. Continuing to let Halleck lead the Union Army risked everything and made Honest Abe very, very sad.
Every battle the Union lost, which was a lot, forced Lincoln’s hand. But however well-considered and historically impactful Lincoln’s finally re-org was, understand that the internet means everyone in power today (or trying for it) is operating from an all-time reactionary bubble.
Fast interests are dwarfing slow interests in many cases where historically they might not have.
Sure, Lincoln had his testy little team of rivals, but today the richest man on earth, who inexplicably commands the satellites Ukraine uses for internet and battlefield comms, also lords over his own social network and takes cues from patriots like @CryptoBoi69.
On the one hand, the internet has changed warfare forever. Like steroids in sports, it went from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Ukraine is unimaginably lucky to have Starlink. But what does it mean for their war -- for the rest of Europe, for NATO, for the US, for food exports -- when one man can turn it off? It’s like There Will Be Blood meets Austin Powers meets Dr. Strangelove.
What these factors often come down to is the influential person’s level of trust in their own intuition and in their advisors. Are they operating from a map or the whole territory? Who drew the map? What map do they really want to see? What are they incentivized to see? Who can change that? Who needs to go?
Elon hired Linda; Putin, Zelensky, and Netanyahu have fired generals and defense ministers galore. Bezos quit, the WGA won, McCarthy got canned, is Kamala up to the job? What will the job actually be in two years after however long Mike Johnson lasts as Speaker?
Every time power changes hands, we get to do the math all over again, to account for both the irreducible and the unaccountable to -- eventually -- try to put ourselves and our resources in a place where we can put our thumb on the scale of history.
The people factor is both the most and least predictable part of your math every time: the vast majority of US voters know who they’re voting for well before every election, and Biden just (reluctantly?) restarted Trump’s border wall.
The human condition really makes you appreciate the “easier” components, like whether or not we can spin up a vaccine for a novel coronavirus in less than a decade (we did, in just twelve months) or finally factor in fusion power (we cannot).
So once you’ve gone through this process a few times, and you’re feeling good about your range of outcomes, do two things:
1) Understand random shit or at least the least likely shit really does happen.
Not often, that’s why it’s random or rare, but like Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Though you’re not developing a plan, per se, and more of a “sitrep”, Eisenhower’s quote helps, too: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
2) Go engage in some IRL (this is key) discourse with people who aren’t hacks (this is also key). Really! Agree on the facts, go from there. Ask questions of each other and your models. Follow up, keep going.
3) And of course, take action.
Two things can be true at once: there are millions of people fighting every day for radical change, and we can’t do it without you.
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