Home > musing > I wish I knew now what I’ll know then

I wish I knew now what I’ll know then

January 4, 2013

Yesterday I read this New York Times article which explains the so-called “end of history illusion,” a fancy way of saying that as we acknowledge having changed a lot in the past, we project more of the same into the future.

I guess this is supposed to mean we always see the present moment as the end of history. From the article:

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

For the record I thought my teenage self was pretty awesome, and it was the moment in my life where I actually lived as best I could avoiding hypocrisy. I never laugh at my teenage self, and I’m always baffled that other people do – think of everything we had to understand and deal with all at once! But back to the end of history.

Scientists explain the  phenomenon by suggesting it’s good for our egos to think we are currently perfectly evolved and won’t need to modify anything in our beliefs. Another possibility they come up with: we are too lazy to do better than this, and it’s easier to remember the past than it is to think hard about the future.

Here’s another explanation that I came up with: we have no idea what the future holds, nor whether we will become more or less conservative, more or less healthy, or more or less irritable, etc., so in expectation we will be exactly the same as we are now. Note that’s not the same as saying we actually will be the same, it’s just that we don’t know which direction we’ll move.

In other words, we are doing something different when we look into the future than when we look into the past, and the honest best guess of our future selves may well be our current selves.

After all, we don’t know what random events will occur in the future (like getting hit by a car and breaking our leg, say) that will effect us, and the best we can go is our current plans for ourselves.

Even so, it’s interesting to think about how I’ve changed over my lifetime and continue the trend into the future. If I do that, I evoke something that is clearly not an extrapolation of my current self.

In particular, I can project that I will be very different in 10 years, more patient, more joyful, doing god knows what for a living (if I’m not totally broke), even more opinionated than I am now, and much much wiser about how to raise teenage sons. Come to think of it, I can’t wait!

Categories: musing
  1. January 4, 2013 at 9:11 am

    It’s sensible to act as if everything will stay the same, while being flexible enough to account for changes, because it’s a balanced strategy for dealing with change. The thing is that we don’t know what’s going to change. So, accept that you’ll have to acclimate to SOME change, but just keep doing everything the same until you know how you have to deal with things – as long as you aren’t late to accept change, you’re on even footing with everyone else. Example: We went from cellphones to smartphones in 5 years, and anyone who has made that jump by now hasn’t really missed out on anything except maybe some Foursquare points.

    In any 20 year period in our society, things have not changed so much that people found it difficult to acclimate. If there’s anything that predicts near-term change the best, it’s going to be the things that iterate us forward with the least resistance or difficulty. (Tablet computing was always on-the-horizon because it was easy to see how that form factor could really fit into many day-to-day applications. Flying cars have also been seen as suiting many people in our society, but those have been harder to come by) But you don’t even need to predict. You just need to avoid lock-in for everything in life.

    Perhaps the transition away from “lock-in” is the one thing that’s the most radical, since commerce is so heavily dependent now on branding strategies. Many business models do not work if companies cannot recoup their customer acquisition expenses, which are now quite steep. Branding is one way that some companies have mitigated that. But if customers are resilient to brand-loyalty efforts, companies will go from the loss-leader model to the bankrupt model real quick.


  2. January 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    The article says, “when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same”.

    Obviously, “we” doesn’t include me, because I don’t expect myself to be the same in the future. I don’t even expect to be the same one month ago. I am radically different from how I was a month ago, or a year ago, or a decade ago, and take this as evidence that I have very little idea what I’ll be like in even three years.


  3. ky3atamo
    January 4, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    > we are too lazy to do better than this, and it’s easier to remember the past than it is to think hard about the future.

    Would you really call that “remembering” though? Don’t you mean a kind of passivity towards the status quo, of flotsam adrift?

    History is hard work: re-preserving and re-propagating the collected wisdom of civilization is an uphill struggle. Probably /the/ uphill struggle.

    To think hard about the future is precisely to remember the past, unless “remember” no longer has the force it used to, because there is no past, no history, no wisdom worthy of the effort.


  4. eoutnb
    January 4, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    “Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.”


    Taleb’s books “The Black Swan” and new one “Antifragility” are all about how to live with uncertainty.


  5. January 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Good thing I that I didn’t knew then what I know now. Honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it as a teenager or as a young adult. That you can try so hard and still fail miserably.

    But then again… either talking about changes or chances, I am indeed quite a different person. Physically I say: ‘too bad,’ but on the mental path of growing I have come a long way. And I am still learning every single day, I know I am. Nope, no rubbish about things to be thankful for. Stuff just happens – it is part of life – and sometimes that means that the shit hit the fan.

    So with the four year old ninja girl in my mind: I can only have a sneaking desire to change a bit. It is that bit about my health, but who knows where I will stand in another ten years? Good thing there is no one to tell me, what if I wouldn’t believe it?!

    Ciao, Fleur

    PS – good article, really some food for thought!


  6. bejbte
    January 6, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    Memento mori.

    But more importantly: memento getti oldi and decrepiti before you mori especially if you overdoee thingsi without giving yourself time to recoveri.


  1. January 5, 2013 at 5:52 pm
  2. January 6, 2013 at 10:50 am
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