By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.
Nicholas Cage has starred in two movies, Knowing and Next, where he played characters that could predict future events. In both cases, that ability hurt his characters more than it helped. —- However, the next person I want to discuss has also been privy to the future, but his talent has helped him and others enormously.
John Naisbitt, following his daily routine of buying a New York Times from his newspaper vendor, had an epiphany. As he looked around he noticed a lot of newspapers from other cities. He had a sudden thought. If you understood what was going on locally in all these places, then you would understand what was going on in the world. Not only that, but you could predict the future through trends, patterns and events.
Soon thereafter, he quit his IBM job and used his last check to fund a new company. This was in the 1960s. With the help of hired hands, they would comb through 160 newspapers each day and (along with other methods) they would predict what would happen in certain markets, industries or parts of the globe. His talents were so respected that he would go on to have as clients, U.S. presidents, government officials, industry leaders and CEOs. You may have heard of his book, Megatrends published in 1982, where he predicted our shift to an information economy, the focus on a global economy, the increasing role of technology in our lives and “participative democracy.”
In his most recent book Mindset, he provides a nuanced discussion on how he was able to be so successful in determining the ‘future’ without having a shred of psychic ability.
“Future Embedded in the Present”
I won’t share his entire argument, but I will share some important points. Naisbitt constantly stated that the “future is embedded in the present” and “the seeds (of that future) are all around us.” He elaborated by saying that patterns, trends an present directions are being forecast all the time. But, you have to start developing the habit of looking at the big picture by focusing on many smaller pictures. A similar approach would be the way his organization studied 160 city and international newspapers each day to understand what new developments were just around the bend.
Knowing the Score
Naisbitt also asserted that many people keep up with all the happenings of issues but don’t really know the “score.” He used sports as an analogy to emphasize that in games we play, we keep clear records. If we see the results of a tennis match we can say with absolute “surety” what player won how many games in a set and sets in a match. However, if we try to understand an issue outside the realm of sports, many things become fuzzy. People say they win when they have lost and vice versa. Naisbitt discusses a term used by economists called “revealed preferences” where consumers tell you one thing, but behave differently when you observe their spending habits and purchases. Developing the ability to know the “score” is a talent that can help you measure real progress and can help in a number of ways.
But what good is obtaining this type of information if you can’t do anything about it?
Well, one of Naisbitt’s final points is that “you don’t get results by solving problems, but by exploiting opportunities.” No, Naisbitt is not saying that we should ignore real issues that have to be addressed, he is stating that if you have a strong grasp on where something is headed you can capitalize by ‘setting up shop’ before everyone else. One of his quotes is, “Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.”
In Mindset, he points out that some things do change but most remain the same and that “almost all change is evolutionary, not revolutionary.” By understanding what is “constant” and what is capable of being changed (and at what pace) we may be better able to take advantage of opportunities that could lead to massive success.