Develop the Foresight to Anticipate Hindsight

Shopping is not my favorite activity, but when I do have that opportunity, usually when on vacation, I often find myself in shops catering to tourists. Of course, the shop proprietors have filled their shelves with arts and crafts that are cute, attractive, and generally very appealing. The imaginary shopping muse that sits on one of my shoulders urges me to buy that little figurine or that colorful knickknack. Surely, there must be a place in my house where that object would fit just perfectly. On my other shoulder is another imaginary creature with a wet blanket to dampen the urging of the shopping muse. I call this other guy the “negative ninny.” Ninny asks me to look very closely at the asking price, reminds me about how hard it was to earn that much money, and seriously questions whether there really is room in my house for the purchase. If I buy that thing, will it cause me more problems just to move previous purchases out of the way to accommodate a place to put it? Which creature should I listen to, shopping muse or negative ninny?

Once, while attending a World Congress on Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I wandered over to a municipal park where an arts and crafts festival was in progress. A colorful wooden bas-relief carving of a big-billed toucan caught my eye. It was lovely, with a dark brown background and white, yellow, orange, red, and bright green painted regions of the bird and berry-bearing tree branches. I just loved it. The shopping muse offered a much more powerful argument than did negative ninny, and I just had to have that carving.

The price listed on the carving was “18—“. At the time, I didn’t speak enough Brazilian Portuguese to be sure what the price actually was. The seller spoke no English. So, every time I inquired in English to be sure about the price, the seller responded in Portuguese with a lower price. This verbal pas de deux went on through several iterations, and I eventually drew the conversation to a close by offering 12 Brazilian reals for the carving, and that seemed to be acceptable to the seller. At that time, the exchange rate from U.S. dollars to reals was about 1:1 (it has since eroded to about 1:3), so, just by asking a few questions, I was able to purchase the carving for about US$12. I would have been willing to pay the original price but just wanted to be clear about what the sign meant. Both shopping muse and negative ninny came away satisfied from that transaction.

Since then, when faced with an unessential purchase, I have developed the habit of placing myself in the future and asking myself if I would regret not having purchased whatever it is that I am considering buying. If the answer to my question is that I would regret not having bought the thing, then I buy it, regardless of price. If the answer is that I wouldn’t miss having the object, then I pass on by. This is my test, and I have since generalized it to other courses of action as well.

The previous examples were trivial, of course. But the same process has become a very useful means for me to measure the quality of my responses to a much wider range of situations. This ability to anticipate the future to guide present actions can be a very valuable talent to develop. Having this ability can help define life goals, smooth decision making, and avoid blunders at work and at home.

Engineers need to be able to predict the future to assure the best chance of their designs being successful. That is why they learn physics, chemistry, mathematics, and engineering sciences in college. These are the tools of future prognostication. Using these ensures that the bridge beams are deep enough, the catalysts are fast enough, the resistor can dissipate enough heat, and the sterilization is effective enough. So, in a sense, engineers are well along the way to developing the ability to see what the future is likely to bring.

But looking forward is only a part of what this article is about. Looking backward is a lot more sure than looking forward. Monday-morning quarterbacking is the term used for the activity of judging actions that have already taken place, and it comes from second-guessing the actions of our favorite American football teams after they have either won or lost (mostly lost!) a game the day before. Successfully looking backward answers the “what-if” questions with confidence.

Now imagine becoming a Monday-morning quarterback, but on the day before the football game rather than the day after. That is the ability to anticipate what is likely to happen in hindsight. The engineer may not need to develop this convoluted ability to anticipate looking backward in the future if all she or he is doing is calculating the details of a design. But, as they advance in their careers, many engineers move on from calculation of design details to responsibilities that are not as easily quantified. It is then that they need to be able to see beyond the immediate.

As examples, we can take a look at famous corporate blunders. Take Kodak, for instance, which was first to invent digital camera technology but then sat on the technology without developing it further. Where is Kodak now? It fell from the dominant giant of photography to an also-ran. And then there was the Ford Edsel, one of the least successful automobiles in history. That was joined by New Coke in 1985 as a big mistake. Or there are the unhappy Starbucks customers who only wanted a fast cup of coffee rather than a protracted discussion of race in the United States. In 2015, the sports-apparel maker Under Armour unveiled a T-shirt with a design that looked similar to World War II marines raising the U.S. flag in Iwo Jima, except that the marines were replaced with players raising a basketball hoop. The protests of exploitation of the sacrifices of the U.S. military were loud and immediate.

And then there were the acts of omission rather than commission. The Western Union company refused to buy the telephone patent from Alexander Graham Bell; Ross Perot turned down an offer to buy Microsoft cheaply; the software firm Excite could have bought Google early in its history; Blockbuster, during the height of its success, could have acquired Netflix; U.S. television networks CBS and NBC both turned down Monday Night Football, which then went on to make ABC rich; the Mars candy company decided not to place M&M’s candies in the movie ET, which then made the similar candy Reese’s Pieces famous.

What each of these cases has in common is that there was not enough anticipation of the result of chosen actions. In some cases, not enough research was done to predict likely outcomes. In other cases, research was done, but the results were not heeded. In still other cases, customers were taken for granted. Sticking with what you do best is sometimes the correct course of action but in other cases can lead to inaction when action is warranted.

The future is hard to predict, but some can develop a pretty good ability to discern trends and react correctly to them. These are the people who can place themselves in the future and look back to see if they had taken the correct course of action, all before any of it has happened. These are the people who are destined to become the leaders of industry, politics, the military, and society. If you are one of these people, you have a great future ahead of you. I just looked back and saw that it would come true.