This past week, I was asked by one of my favorite journalistic writers to prognosticate a bit for his paper: What will the decade ahead bring?
The problem is that my crystal ball has been malfunctioning lately. All it will predict with any degree of certainty is that the future ahead of us will be even more unpredictable and uncertain than the future behind us ever was. And that was challenging enough. Even the relatively recent past saw its own future catching us by surprise over and over. Most of the biggest events in world and national affairs we never saw coming. Even top experts failed to anticipate the breakup of communism, the problem of global terrorism, the current economic recession, or the rise of Simon Cowell.
If you've ever paid close attention to the typical ten-day forecast, trying to discern in advance what the weather will be on a particular date, you've probably come to realize that it gets revised, sometimes radically, every few days. With all of our advanced climatology, we can still get things amazingly wrong even twenty-four hours ahead of time. But this shouldn't really puzzle us. Las Vegas was built on our inability to predict accurately what will happen in the next few seconds on the slot machine, the roulette wheel, and the card table. Dynamic complexity allows for a degree of novelty that can blind-side even the best informed.
Can we reliably foresee anything non-trivial about the coming decade? Certainly, there are trends that seem obvious. Technology will play an increasingly larger role in every aspect of life. That will lead to both scientific breakthroughs and cultural breakdowns. Basic science will begin to reprogram reality for us in medically exciting ways while basic cable continues to medicate us with reality programming. Our years to be entertained will increase. Determined researchers will make huge strides in their efforts to tame cancer, curtail heart disease, and finally get some fundamental control over the full range of possible viral and bacterial infections, just in the nick of time. After all, Mary Shelley's 1826 book, The Last Man, a tale of global plague and its sole human survivor, was set, interestingly, in the twenty-first century that we now so precariously inhabit.
Knowledge will continue to expand exponentially, while wisdom holds on for dear life. The travails of air travel will continue. The humanities will make a minor but important comeback, both in our colleges and throughout the culture. Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear on the popular television show, What Not to Wear. But then, I could be wrong about at least one of these.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "Life is full of surprises." It's no coincidence that this quintessential American thinker has come to be known to us as "the philosopher of self-reliance." Any serious reflection on what we can and cannot predict in life will bring us to an important realization about what's truly necessary as we move into the new decade ahead. And this realization immediately generates some useful advice.
What Will Be matters less than Who We Are. Don't focus on trying to predict the forthcoming, sure-to-be-surprising particulars of life. Take hold of its reliable universals instead. You can't know what the coming days, weeks, months, and years will bring to you, or what the world at any time will do to you. But you can commit to what you will and will not be willing to do in the world. You can choose your own way forward, day-to-day, based on your best and most fundamental convictions, come what may.
There is no reliable augury to guide your path through the changes and challenges that lie ahead. But there is an art of living that can help. In the best books of philosophy, fiction, and poetry throughout history, there is insight you can shine like a high beam light on the road beneath your feet as you step into the murky territory of the future. We can go to the past for our best perspectives on whatever is to come. In a world of increasing uncertainty, only true wisdom has a good chance to prevail.
Principle rather than prediction is the most important resource we have for the coming decade. So use your tea-leaves only for brewing, leave bird entrails alone, and keep that old Eight Ball in storage. We can't predict what's to come, but we can prepare for what's to come. So the best advice for us all is: Prepare well.