No one knows the future with certainty and that has implications for how we should think and behave.  Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hendrix College, Ruthann Thomas reminded me of this central fact recently with this quote:

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning.”

How Do We Know What We Want: Milan Kundera on the Central Ambivalences of Life and Love

Being able to neither compare to previous lives nor perfect future lives is a blemish, but life should not come as a complete surprise – without warning.

There is perfectly valid evidence to support decisions regarding many things about the future.

  • Each of us will die.  Perhaps soon.  The decisions we make around the time variable can neutralize the effects.  Each of us could become sick or injured.  Again we can estimate the effects and can provide for minimizing those effects.  We could lose a job or suffer a business failure.  Interest rates could rise.
  • Each of us has commitments that will endure.  We must eat, sleep, have shelter, exercise, help others, pay the bills, and enjoy ourselves with friends, family and sometimes strangers.
  • All of us make choices and each choice we make, by default, denies other possible choices.   I cannot have my cake and eat it too.  I can spend a given dollar only once.  I cannot be in two places at once, and many more similar conflicts resolved by choice.

Planning and thoughtful consideration of the things that tend to happen to each of us makes for a surprise-minimized future. 

No life is so easy that there are no unforeseen outcomes, but when we examine the success and failure of people in general, few failures were the result of dramatic and unforeseeable events.  Most occurred because the person failed to notice that the world is governed by simple rules that have consequences when ignored. 

That is known since antiquity.  Aesop wrote of “The Ant and The Grasshopper” 2,600 years ago, yet the implementation of the message is still absent from the lives of many of our fellow earthlings.

We pass this way just once, but that does not imply that we must learn everything from our  lifetime experiences.  The wise person acquires their experience from their own experience and from the experience of others.  The experience of others is what education is about.  Pay attention.

Tom Clancy has pointed this out well in “Clear and Present Danger”

“Fundamentally he was an amateur – though a gifted one – who learned from his mistakes readily enough, but who lacked the formal training that might have enabled him to learn from the mistakes of others ……..”

You can live life as an amateur but you must accept surprise as the price of your choice.  Becoming a professional is neither effortless nor cheap, but absence of surprise has a value.

Planning guarantees nothing, but it does provide a bias towards success.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.


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