Discerning the Future

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb, Silicon Valley, skmurphy

Robert Pirsig in his afterward to the tenth anniversary edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.

When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?

Ten years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Ancient Greek perspective is certainly appropriate. What sort of future is coming up from behind I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight.

I feel a sense of “the future coming up from behind” more and more.  When I worked in semiconductors and later networking I used to be able to rely on Moore’s Law to see at least a decade into the future. For the last thirty years Moore’s Law has always had ten years of life left in it; we will probably be saying that on the other side of the Singularity. But now it’s hard to see what trends can be relied on to continue.  I spend more time now trying to discern the likely trajectories of various technologies and businesses but I have much less clarity.

“We build up whole cultural patterns based on past ‘facts’ which are extremely selective. When a new fact comes in that does not fit the pattern we don’t throw out the pattern. We throw out the fact.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s also hard to separate the harbingers from the outliers and to compensate for blind spots. That’s why they are called blind spots. Rejecting disconfirming evidence is another way that blind spots are preserved.  When I started this business I knew that I was going to focus on Silicon Valley startups and work primarily face to face with clients. In the first year that I started I handed my card to an entrepreneur and he said, “You need a Skype address on this card.” I didn’t agree.

Of course I was dead wrong.  Today more than 1/3 of our clients are “out of region.” And while we meet and work face to face with many clients, most of our interactions, even with Silicon Valley clients, are on-line in Skype, wikis, shared edit documents, and other virtual collaboration environments.

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.

[..]

The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one’s own stale opinions about it. But it’s nothing exotic. That’s why I like the word.

You see it often in people who return from long, quiet fishing trips. Often they’re a little defensive about having put so much time to “no account” because there’s no intellectual justification for what they’ve been doing. But the returned fisherman usually has a peculiar abundance of gumption, usually for the very same things he was sick to death of a few weeks before.

He hasn’t been wasting time. It’s only our limited cultural viewpoint that makes it seem so.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

So if I can’t see what’s coming how do I maintain my gumption? I focus more on conversation and real time collaboration, to reacting intelligently to events, and to spending more time making sense of recent events–facts–rather than trying to predict. I spend more time trying to cultivate peace of mind to prevent overreaction: I find meditation, fasting, reading all very helpful in maintaining perspective.

“Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance; that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

Serenity as a ground state allows you to react more rapidly and more intelligently: first because you overlook less and second because you are less likely to overreact.

“The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.”
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

I guess one thing I have gotten better at compared to a decade ago is admitting mistakes–to myself and to others–more quickly. Self-deception is an “own goal” that blocks debugging a situation. And prevents you from seeing the recurring problems you are causing yourself and others.

“Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. “
Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

It may be as useful to determine what’s not likely to change, what will still be true in five or seven or ten years as what will be different.

Four years ago I speculated that the twenty teens were going to be less about new inventions and more about changing the design of jobs, business processes, and business models to take full advantage of what’s already been invented. I am not saying that we don’t need more innovation, just that we have not adjusted our business practices to take advantage of what’s already here.

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