Thinking about turning points

It’s human, oh so human, to project the future as deriving in a linear fashion from the past.

No matter how many times we see the investment industry’s famous “past performance is not a guarantee of future results”, we don’t act on it.

So learning to think about turning points is a tool to help hone your ability to overcome that human tendency to figure tomorrow will be just like today, only more so.

Here’s how to do it. Start with an intractable problem, one that makes it abundantly clear that the future won’t be an extension of the past.

It doesn’t matter what it is; it just has to be something you have a decent working knowledge of.

Grab a pad of post-it notes, and write the problem on the first one. Stick it toward the right hand end of a long table (a coffee table will do if you don’t have a desk handy).

Now, what was the last major event that led to this dilemma, this intractable or incurable problem?

Write it on a post-it note and place that note just to the left of the problem post-it.

Now, what was the turning point or event that led to that? (Now you’re thinking of the one you just wrote as the “problem” and looking for what led to it.)

Write that on another post-it note and once again, place it to the left.

Do this again and again, working your way backward through history one event (or turning point) at a time. Go as far back as you can in about fifteen or twenty minutes.

Resist the urge to jump around. You won’t get good at seeing the future differently if you do.

You don’t, by the way, have to be “right” about the events. It’s how you remember it, not whether the encyclopaedias and historians would approve with a “well done, m’boy, you remembered it well”.

That’s the first part of seeing the future not as a straight line from the past. The second is to look at your events.

Are they all from one and the same line? Or do they actually come from different forces, different influences, that cause the apparently straight line to deviate here and there?

As an example, one person doing this exercise with the problem of “gasoline is getting too expensive to have to commute to work” connected a chain that went “depression era jobs program paved roads” > “suburbs offered lawns to sit on” > “television meant people stayed home and didn’t need a town centre” > “more stuff meant moving out farther to get bigger place” > “once you drive a long way you’ll drive for anything” > “gasoline is getting too expensive”. Economics, not having to share the park, entertainment, shopping … these aren’t linear.

Is it likely, when you look at that list, that the solution to expensive gas is simple? That more oil being available would solve the real problem of needing to use so much of it? That a hybrid or electric or hydrogen car would be any better, really? See how suddenly the future opens up into a wealth of possible answers and futures instead of a simple straight line projection?

Now, to really hone your skills, there’s nothing stopping you from laying out a future state — a place where the problem has resolved itself. You can do one where everything works out in a best case scenario, or one where the absolutely worst case has come to pass (both have their uses). These are meant to be extreme and not likely to happen, because they’re literally “too good” (or “too bad”) to ever be true.

Now chain the imagined events and turning points backward to say how we get there. Do that the same way you did the first chain … one at a time, working backwards. Again, resist the temptation to jump around!

What this will do for you is open your mind to signals, and things to start watching for.

And that’s what you’re looking to do. It’s human nature to do that “the future is just like the past” thinking, but this helps break it up a bit and get you to let what’s actually going on become more obvious to you.

This works best with someone helping you pull out the threads — perhaps even setting the original problem to work on. But it can be done alone if needed.

To profit from the work of diligence, you must be prepared to see what others don’t see.

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