Imagination comes from two facts:
We imagine when we take a step away from reality. Once we’ve removed sensory experiences (e.g., closing our eyes), we unlink our attachment from the world around us and can easily work with the thoughts in our minds. Then, when we engage our senses again, we can snap back in an instant.
By removing and adding various elements, we can form a remarkable variety of stories. Literally all knowable possibilities of what is, was, and can happen sits inside the mind as an imagined thing, and if we focus on it enough we can feel as if it’s reality itself.
Most of what we perceive as “reality” is simply our imagination, proportional to our creative ability. We incessantly play with our memories to create horrific mental illnesses, but absolutely any willfully created thing has to be imagined first as well.
Anything that isn’t real is the domain of fictional stories. But often, we constrain that imagining into only likely things. The non-fiction version of imagination, usually regarding the future, is called “predictions” or “expectations”.
Predictions are stories we have reason to believe will happen. By the time we’re adults, we tend to subconsciously say “no” to all the impossible or unlikely things and localize our thoughts to the possibilities that exist within reality alone.
When we’re children, we make sweeping generalizations with very little accuracy. Adults tend to predict things with more case-by-case focus (barring trauma), but slowing down thoughts to consider bias still takes tremendous discipline.
We must predict the future because it dictates what we presently create and consider. If you knew you’d probably die tomorrow, you’d live today differently than if you knew you had forty years left to live.
The “future” doesn’t really exist beyond our minds, and is merely a set of predictions about future instances of “now” with varying degrees of accuracy. However, since we tend to feel our predictions as if they were occurring presently, the experience in our minds is the phenomenological equivalent of reality proportional to our intelligence.
Our steady perception of “now” going from future expectation into present moment, on into our memories, makes us feel our existence is a continuum.
With very, very few exceptions we tend to find more uncertainty the farther out we go into the future or past. We trust our next or previous breath as existing implicitly, but will consider next month’s events with deep analysis to find the same certainty, and treat five years from now as a complete mystery or hope.
Our predictions never look only into the future. If that were the case, we’d always predict fantastic silliness. Instead, we’re using the framework of the past and present we know, as well any unproven impressions about them, to build a reliable-enough model to understand everything we need to make sensible decisions that create results we want.
Some predictions go backward from the present. By assembling together likely past circumstances, we can often find what caused the present situation (i.e., “blame”). We give plenty of value to it because we assume it’s necessary for fair retribution for hardship. However, blame isn’t very useful because it rarely provides legitimate answers to present decisions focused on the future.
We tend to underestimate how we’ll change from our environment (e.g., feelings a day from now) and overestimate how much our environment itself will change. This makes sense because we have much more direct experience with our minds than our environment.
Predicting the Unknown
We tend to expect the unknown more than the known because we focus on it. Therefore, unknown things seem to stand out for us more, even while mundane things constitute more of our time and purposes.
The constant uncertainties of seemingly mundane things, all the way down to the subatomic level and how we form thoughts in the first place, make predictions difficult. However, the more we understand something, the more reliably our intuitions can follow trends before they emerge, and it can create the illusion that we understand when we really don’t.
Beyond predicting chaos, we can still direct it even if we don’t quite understand how it works. Parents, demolition crews, nuclear engineers, social media experts, and politicians all share that in common.
A trend is the aggregate behavior of everyone’s involved feelings, so the secret to successfully tracking trends requires understanding which key details to focus on. However, this is very difficult, since it requires both empathy of the relevant demographics alongside a consistent analysis of those collective sentiments over time.
We only need a few key details to funnel chaos because of how values connect with each other:
- Our purposes often operate as a chain or sequence of elements.
- Any shift in that chain affects the rest.
- If we can see the weakest link in that chain, we know where a break will likely come.
- 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions (Pareto Principle), so specific small things can create a domino effect for very large things.
We need experience to see the correct details because our values tend to oversimplify results:
- The difference between passing and failing can be as little as 1%.
- There’s only a subtle difference between 89% and 90%.
- However, in a given situation 89% versus 90% may define “pass” or “fail”.
- Therefore, most of the ingredients for something changing are already present in an 89% condition, even if they appear to be as bad as a 1% condition.
Further, the Pareto Principle compounds for each effect inside an abstraction:
- 20% in one action creates 80% of the results.
- 20% of that 20% is 4%.
- 20% of that 4% is 0.8%, and so on.
- If we observe the effects of this, 4% will define 64% of the event, 0.8% defines 48.8%, and 0.16% defines ~40%!
The implications of these ripples can be stunning:
- The type of breakfast a CEO has on a specific day can dictate the fate of 10,000 jobs.
- Cracking a whip or pulling a gun’s trigger is a relatively light effort that creates a precise, powerful mark that could literally change the world at the right time and place.
- For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.
Estimating future likelihood is mostly a well-designed illusion, so it’s relatively reliable. We’re good at performing most things we’re familiar with, but we tend to assume things are more certain than they really are.
However, we tend to fixate on the end of the experience. Everything we work with in our minds is essentially a story, so we’re constantly integrating new sensations in with old experiences and rebuilding our perspective to merge what we understand and what we believe.
We tend to overestimate our predictions, and often believe that we know more than we really do. We also often tend to believe we can do more about unknown things when we’ve become certain about them.
We’re pretty good at guessing what has happened, but are typically awful at predicting what will happen, for several reasons:
- We’re bad at predicting trends we haven’t seen and things we can’t have known.
- We tend to not comprehend the effects of technology or changes in collective understanding, which often add/remove weight to variables.
- We tend to overstate what we feel, even when we’re experiencing a distinctly unlikely situation.
- We don’t like uncertainty (often from conceit or fear), which we must confront to deal with unknown things, so we assign broad values to highly sophisticated things such as mechanisms and groups, and sometimes previous models themselves!
- Technology can’t currently capture all the variables necessary to reliably predict reality and account for random chaos, especially when dealing with social behaviors.
- Capturing information is a secondary image to reality, which can make model difficult to represent reality even with reliable data.
- All events are statistical likelihoods stacked on statistical likelihoods, so finding legitimate chances with averages requires assigning it to multiple statistics, which become layers of abstraction removed away from reality. Eventually, feelings grounded in experience are often more reliable.
- Statistics will find remarkably accurate correlations, but only logic in the scope of an individual’s understanding can build causation, which is necessary for predictions.
Predicting Many People
Often, we try to track large-scale social trends. We can often feel them out from our shared human universals, but too many unknown variables make us unable to precisely track what other people are likely to do, even with technological assistance.
Predicting a trend is trying to understand a story you’re in the middle of. We can easily see how trends can cycle across history, but many people are often unaware of other trends that swung the opposite way. In effect, we’re making a gamble on the reasonable effect of a cause based on what we know.
Since we can’t even know what we don’t know about the future, many “analysts” are modern-day prophets, soothsayers, or seers. This includes game theorists, quantitative analysts, actuaries, statisticians, and poll analysts.
They can only work on logic of known things, but they continue having jobs and receiving honor because they’re the safest way to explore the fear of the unknown. Ironically, most of their analysis comes from their own fears, and their risk aversion often contributes heavily to suppressing healthy social risks.
For the sake of their livelihood, most of them will justify their beliefs with many reports. If it confuses leaders enough, those leaders will often agree and trust them even more. However, the opinions of a veteran professional in a specialty still have more validity.
Imagination is a form of understanding that isn’t constrained by reality. In that sense, children often have the strongest ability to understand (even if they’re unskilled at it) and we typically lose that ability as we gain experience.
Imagination is unfettered by nothing and nobody but our mental limits, but the practical effects of science and culture can impede our attempts to build whatever we imagine. If we become too conceited, we lose the ability to conform our thoughts to reality, which makes our imagination and feelings about them effectively useless.
The things you dwell on in your mind define what you produce and how effectively. While you don’t directly create reality with your thoughts, your focus on something will increase and decrease likelihoods of events happening that ripple out from that imagined circumstance.
Our minds have a tendency to drift. You don’t remember anything as well as you think you do, so nobody and nothing can quite measure to how you’ve reframed it in your mind. This becomes a major problem if you’re grieving a loved one’s death.
Blame is a waste of effort. Outside of the need for forgiving or power games, we don’t need to know what caused a problem, but instead what to do about it now to create desirable results in the future.
We imagine we understand the world around us, but most of our beliefs are simply prejudices we’ve acquired through experience, without much consideration for the idiosyncrasies of reality. Abstractions are valuable as theoretical concepts, but theories always take more work to become reality (when they do work).
We obsess about odd, unlikely circumstances. This gets us into trouble because we assume that the unlikely things are likely, which can make us superstitious or anxious, depending on how we imagine its results.
Statistics and statisticians feel more accurate because they’re a group instead of an individual, but look very closely at how they receive and manipulate their data, and don’t trust their predictions if it doesn’t match your instincts. They might be trying to distort the truth, especially when they have something to gain or have competitors.
Statistical analysis is useful for finding correlations, not causations, so it’s reliable to see whether your expectations have become reality. If you must make a decision instead of tracking results, ask for advice from industry veterans instead.
We can’t predict the future, so we must stay open-minded to as many possibilities within it as logically possible and stop thinking about it. Unless we’re having fun with it or minimizing presently fixable risks, dwelling on the future serves little benefit to our souls.
Staying unaware of the consequences of decisions that may have a very bad consequence can often expose us to tremendous advantages we otherwise wouldn’t have had. If we can humanly survive the likely risks, it’s always worth taking an unsafe decision for the advantages from the change.
When something happens, it typically means one thing: it happened. If it was unlikely, it’s just as unlikely to happen again. Sometimes people get lucky, but it’s better to trust an unlikely thing happening from an unnoticed place than where everyone is currently looking.
Often, the most “likely” trends are the ones that were fringe ideas:
- Investing in airplanes in 1900 was a crackpot idea for only crazy people.
- Cars were once a “dying trend” before they applied assembly line technology to it.
- Before the microchip, the “personal computer” was also a dying trend.
- Economists once predicted that New York City wouldn’t be sustainable because it’d be covered in pony poop.
- Too many others to count!