The Future Habit

By Jim Selman | Bio

It is almost impossible to turn on the television or read a newspaper or a magazine without encountering one pundit, expert or “man on the street” either talking about the future or trying to blame someone for something. Our media commentary is rarely about what is happening now: mostly it’s about what happened in the past or what someone thinks is going to happen in the future. Combine the establishment media with all of the blogging and chatting going on, and it is incredible how fixated we are on what will happen next.
For example, we have around-the-clock coverage of the stock market, the weather, the price of currency, and sports, just to name a few. All of these aspects of life are historically unpredictable and uncontrollable—although we’re getting better at predicting the weather in the short-term. Recently I read an article about how someone has a model for economic predictions based on society’s demographics—their view being that older populations save more than younger populations. This makes sense. In fact all good predictions make sense. The problem is predictions just aren’t ‘true’. Predictions are assessments or calculations.

If enough of our predictions are reasonably accurate, we begin to believe that they are ‘true’ and make our decisions accordingly. In effect, we create self-fulfilling stories, then decide what we do based on our predictions, and then produce more results to confirm our predictions. If you think about it, this is the way a habit works (or in extreme cases, how an addition works).

Are we addicted to our ideas about the future? Do we then keep looking for evidence to confirm what we already believe?

My work and my life are based on three principles or beliefs (depending upon your view of science or philosophy). The first principle is that we have no real control over people, places or things. That is, we have a choice about how we relate to the world, but not about what is happening in the world. By the time we perceive it, it has already happened.  The illusionary notion that we are ‘in control’ can be dismantled very easily just by observing all the examples of where ‘reality’ isn’t consistent with what we say we want.  This is not to say we cannot ‘force’ compliance at times. But force is not really control.

The second principle is that we always are acting and behaving in some relationship with how the world ‘occurs’ for us. If something appears as a threat (whether it is or isn’t), we will always respond however we would respond to that kind of perceived threat. This doesn’t mean we all respond the same way to the same threat. Our responses depend on our commitments and competencies and how we think the threat will impact our future. Most of how people and things occur for us is grounded in some interpretation of the future (that is, we’re always relating to them out of a concern for our future). Effectively, we are ‘used’ by our interpretation. For example, whenever we use predictions to make a decision, we are projecting the past (what has happened) into the future and basing our choices on what we perceive the future will be.

The third and final principle is that, while we are always used by our interpretation of the future in this way, we do have a choice about which future will use us. We can be ‘used’ by our predictable future (and continue the patterns and actions that we think have allowed us to succeed up to this moment), or we can create a vision of a desired—although unpredictable and unreasonable—future and organize our commitments and actions around that. In all cases, our individual and collective futures are a function of our actions.

In practice, these principles reveal that our relationship with the future is mostly a habit. As long as we believe the future can be predicted, as long as we believe that accurate predictions will improve our ability to exercise control, we will continue to respond to what is happening in predictable and habitual ways. Our ‘way of being’  (who we are in the matter) will be determined by our past, both individual and cultural, and persist—even when it is obviously not working.  

What alternative do we have?

The alternative is a transformation in how we relate to the world. In particular, a transformation in terms of which future we surrender to—which future we unconditionally commit ourselves to. In doing so, we call forth new and unprecedented actions. In effect, we create new habits for living based in possibility and commitment, rather than in prediction and control.

Human beings have a choice about how they perceive the future. Therefore, they can learn to master themselves, their relationships and their circumstances by changing the context in which they observe their world. By that I don’t mean being pessimistic or optimistic, as that is just a variation of attempting to predict or exercise control. If we can change the way we observe the world, we have choices and possibilities that we would not otherwise have. In the words of W.H. Murray, leader of the Scottish expedition to Mt. Everest:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meeting and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.’”

Millions of people are committing themselves to a future based on some vision for creating a world in which we collaborate, in which we allow our differences to contribute to the common good, and in which old habits and prejudices are replaced by higher values of compassion, respect and love of community. They have surrendered to an unpredictable vision—a vision I believe is worth living for.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.