-Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT
The philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” His point — life is always changing.
But the underlying message might have been even more insightful. Perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting to step in the same river twice.
Life, after all, is anything but predictable. And yet how we deal with life’s uncertainties makes all the difference in the world.
In his brilliant book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Tim Harford (also known as the Undercover Economist) asked several of the world’s most recognized leaders to predict which businesses would succeed or fail. Then he compared the success rate of businesses to evolutionary trends.
What did he find? Neither successful businesses or evolutionary trends (as measured by the success of specific species) follow any pattern whatsoever. Even further, when Harford compared the “experts” predictions to that of a control group, the experts did no better than the general population at predicting business success trends.
The takeaway is that we simply cannot predict the future — nor should we try. What we should do instead (and Harford makes a strong case for this) is develop our innovation skills.
Just how do we do that? Here are four ways:
Remove fixed beliefs. Fixed beliefs are absolutes about the world. People will always be fair (or unfair). You can’t ever trust x people. Bonds will always pay out. Real estate is always a good investment. What fixed beliefs do is shut the door on variation — because we already know what is going to happen. They hold us hostage to our own internal blocks, and keep us from trying new approaches. So what’s a better way? Also yourself to see things from multiple perspectives. People are not always fair, or unfair. Sometimes businesses work and sometimes they don’t. Some people can be trusted while others can’t. Often the difference lies in how willing we are to see things from another perspective.
Expose Yourself to Other Perspectives. As Harford says, there is a reason that we don’t look for innovation on isolated islands. Isolated ideas, he says, are not subjected to contrary ideas, and like evolution, are not improved by environmental stresses. The result? Ideas that won’t stand the test of experience. So what’s a better way? Listen to other’s perspectives. Consider alternative thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. Open your mind and think beyond yourself.
Be Open to New Opportunities. Opportunities don’t usually knock on our door. Instead they are often disguised in the form of roadblocks. We are stuck. We can’t find a way. We are faced with a problem for which there seems to be no solution. But for each of these often frustrating situations is also an opportunity. What is it? The opportunity to learn something new. Maybe we have to learn to say no. Maybe we have to learn to ask for help. Maybe we have to learn to recognize our limits. Maybe we have to learn to overcome our limits. Whatever the lesson is, it is also an opportunity to discover new abilities we didn’t know we had. And given enough time, these new abilities might just take us down a road we never dreamed of.
Try New Approaches. Innovation, whether it be in deciding how best to solve a problem, how to deal with a difficult situation, or even what areas of your life to salvage after a setback, depends on varying your approach. When you allow yourself the freedom to try something new as a simple act of exploration — without judgment — not just do you open your mind to new possibilities, but your also widen the possibilities you consider. As Harford points out, some of the greatest innovations come from what Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, calls “positive black swans.” While these innovation projects, Harford argues, do not have a known payoff or a fixed probability — in fact, no one ever really knows what ideas will work or even why — they cannot be predicted or planned. For this reason, their very existence depends upon our ability to vary our approach, even trying the opposite of what we might think will work, in service of research and development.
Innovation, like evolution, often doesn’t follow a planned approach. Instead it is rooted in the willingness to look beyond, to see what might’ve otherwise been missed, to let go of our ideas about how things should be, and instead, to see them another way. Perhaps a better way.