Foresight and Foolishness

On April 1, 1976, Ron Wayne entered a partnership with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Called Apple, the new company prepared to launch its first computer. By the end of that same month, Wayne agreed to a payout of $2,300 to give up all rights to future Apple earnings. He just didn’t want to take the risk that a partnership entailed, in which he could be personally liable for debts. Had Wayne hung in there, his assets today would be larger by about $40 billion.

Wayne was not alone in the early days of Apple. As chronicled by Walter Isaacson in his biography, Steve Jobs, Wozniak worked at Hewlett Packard and offered to let them produce the Apple I. HP declined. Jobs made a pitch to Atari (where he had worked), and they threw him out because he was unkempt. Commodore Computer said they felt they could produce their own computer. Not too much later, Jobs saw the heart of what would become the Mac at the Palo Alto Research Center run by Xerox. Xerox, with headquarters back East, did not know what to make of the graphical user interface and computer mouse that its west coast lab had come up with, so they saw no problem with giving Jobs all the information he wanted about it.

The rest being, as they say, history, this seems an object lesson in the absence of foresight. Jobs had it. All those who turned him down lacked it, at least in regard to the revolutionary and market potential of the personal computer.

We are talking about foresight, not predictions. No one in 1976 could have predicted the precise and rapid rise of Apple nor the specific ways in which the PC would transform society – or morph into the iPhone and iPad. Those who make predictions about the future are more often wrong than right, in fields as diverse as politics, economics, and technology. They are seldom worth what they expect to be paid as pundits and prognosticators. But those with foresight help individuals and organizations prepare for the world to come, and they are worth far more than we usually pay them.

Predictions don’t require much skill. We all make them. Foresight, however, requires a careful and continuous immersion in the past, present and future. Not surprisingly, then, we seem to get far more of the former and far less of the latter than we need.

As the Berlin Wall fell, how many of us suspected that the unrivalled military and economic power of the United States would so soon be challenged by non-state actors and ethnic movements? The 9/11 Commission cited a lack of imagination – that terrorists could use airplanes as bombs – as characteristic of the intelligence community in the late 1990s. Too many of us lacked the foresight to see that low interest rates and surging home prices could produce a housing bubble that would in time spell disaster. Today, significant segments of America cannot see that rising atmospheric CO2 levels and a warming climate require significant changes in energy, economic, political, and social institutions (whether you believe that humans are causing it or not) .

Perhaps foresight is not a natural tendency. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains may be wired to worry about where dinner will come from, not what disaster or opportunity lurks in the distant future. Perhaps we are just better at handling data we can see, hear, taste, smell and touch in our immediate lives than the abstract meaning of conflicting information about potential futures. Perhaps the financial and social rewards for being very good at what people want from us today just overwhelm any acclaim we might get for being good in thinking and acting in the future perfect tense. Perhaps the future just seems too scary – almost all science fiction movies are dystopian in the picture they paint. Perhaps we are just more comfortable with the immediate than the imaginative.

Even if this is true for most of us – because as Steve Jobs’ life shows, it is not true for all of us – reality need not be destiny. A society without foresight faces the future with at least one hand tied behind its back and one eye shut. As we have found, the economic, environmental, social and political costs of nearsightedness are huge.

Part of the problem may be educational. We don’t teach long-term thinking. Most of our educational system is geared to transmitting knowledge already recorded. Standardized tests focus on what we should know about the past, not what skills we have to anticipate the future. School curricula need to complement this orientation toward accumulated knowledge with appropriate attention to generating insights, using such skills as thinking creatively, testing assumptions, future scenario creation, and generating implications of proposed actions.

Generally, society and its institutions get what we place value upon. Behavior most often follows incentives. There are too few directed at foresight. We reward the stock price for the next quarter and the candidate for the next election, but we seldom reward those who warned us that the stock would fall because of actions taken last year to prop up the price or hold the candidate to wild promises made two years ago that we – and he or she – have forgotten. Until we put more emphasis – resources and political action – on thinking ahead and rewarding those who do, we’ll continue to react to events rather than anticipate and plan for them. Like Ron Wayne, we’ll make very “sensible” decisions in the moment that look pretty foolish when viewed from some years down the road.


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