(Warning: meandering thoughts. No immediate, actionable takeaways compared to most other articles on this blog. Perhaps a bunch of rationalisations as I try to live less for the future and enjoy the present.)
One of the challenges of planning is finding the right balance between making the most of the present, versus making provision for the future.
It’s a perennial tension.
As you get older your balance shifts. It makes sense for a younger person to spend a lot of time thinking about the future, because they’ve got a long time ahead of them. As you get older, the natural tendency shifts from “exploring” to “exploiting” (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion – more in the sense that you build knowledge, skills, and resources when you’re younger, and you make the most of them in the later years of your life).
I was recently speaking with an especially eloquent client about this point. She worked in intensive care departments for a number of years and she could see this interplay with many of the people she cared for. People diagnosed with life-ending illnesses would often say, “if only”, and wished they’d enjoyed the time they had on earth a little more rather than persevere for a future they weren’t going to be around to enjoy.
Because the future isn’t guaranteed. We have the present. But we don’t know what will happen in five minutes or five weeks or five years.
There will come a day when our time is up, and that will be that. There won’t be any do-overs or extra time. It’ll be over.
I don’t know when that will happen. I know that bad things will happen to some of the people I know over the next decade or two. I just don’t know who it will be, and I don’t know whether I will be one of them.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Both on a personal level, and from a broader perspective.
In Nassim Taleb’s most recent book, Skin in the Game, he makes the point that our own death is never the worst-case scenario. A worse case would be our own death, plus the death or one or more of our loved ones. A worse case would be our own death, plus one or more loved ones, plus hundreds or thousands of people at the same time. A worse case would be our own death, plus the extinction of humanity.
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I’ve written about how challenging it is to plan for the distant future. Trying to work out what the world will look like in 2050 (when I turn 70) is like going back to 1986 and trying to work out what the world would have looked like today in 2018. (Look at how Back to the Future Part II in 1989 envisioned 2015, for instance. Where are our hover boards!?)
I could point to the good news in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now or the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness and take the view that these terrific trends will continue. (And for the record, I think we live in the best of all possible times.) I could borrow from my father-in-law’s book and be an uber-optimist. Maybe I should get over myself and try to finish Peter Diamndis and Steven Kotler’s book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.
But I’ve been fixated on existential risks lately. (And by existential, I mean this in both senses: of risks that could wipe humanity out of existence, plus risks that could fundamentally shift our way of existence – winding the clock back hundreds of years or more.)
- The recent IPCC report on climate change pretty much says that we’re in trouble, in the absence of a risky Hail Mary like geo-engineering. I fear that the issues relating to migration are a sign of much worse to come.
- CRISPR and biotechnologies in general offer great opportunities but horrific risks – I’m terrified of designer pandemics, and think something like a modern “black plague” is not improbable.
- AI is going to automate jobs away and society isn’t equipped to deal with this transition – despite people saying that we’ve dealt with this sort of thing in the past.
On top of this, it seems like political institutions are failing (Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation fiasco in the US was a perfect illustration – no matter your thoughts on the specific matter, the partisanship is chilling; how is Donald Trump not obstructing justice? etc) and this is exacerbated by the filter bubbles we find ourselves in via social media.
I know that there’s always something to panic about (eg The Population Bomb in the sixties) but I have this nagging feeling that this time could be different. And Malthus can keep being wrong, until he’s right. If I thought too much about the sixth extinction I probably couldn’t sleep at night.
Again: I’m not saying that bad outcomes are inevitable. And I’m not saying that we don’t live in good times – I think we’re in the most prosperous, safe time in humanity’s history and agree with Pinker and Rosling on these points.
But I think the risks that we face are enormous. And I think the probability of bad outcomes for humanity – for my children, their children, and their grandchildren – are very high.
So where does that leave us?
At a personal level, I’ve tended to be a person who has prioritised the future, often to the detriment of the present.
It has made me realise that I need to focus a little more on the present. I need to “eat, drink, and be merry” – for at some point I’ll die. And I only get once chance at life.
While it’s true that many people are the opposite, and don’t plan enough for the future, there are many people like me. Maybe you’re the same. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably in the same boat.
I understand why some people want to be extremely frugal and have a super high savings rate so they can become financially independent and retire early. I emphasise with that.
But we don’t know what’s around the corner. We need to balance this need to prepare for the future against enjoying the time we have in the sun. Because the present is here, and it’s ours to enjoy. Who knows what the future will bring.