When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
— HUNTER S. THOMPSON
What if I told you that telepathy is real? That I have this power myself? I wasn’t born with it, but I learned the technique many years ago.
These days I can do it effortlessly: beaming out invisible waves that vibrate at frequencies of 110 cycles per second, zip through the ether, and transmit my thoughts into the minds of my targets. Sensations, emotions, mathematical proofs, poetry; you name it. I can send any of these ideas right into your head. And you can send them right back at me.
OK, I’m talking about talking: air pressure from the lungs, channeled and squeezed into vibrations by the vocal cords, sound waves sculpted more finely by the lips, tongue, and teeth, picked up by ears and relayed to a brain designed to find signals in the noise.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and humans are built on extremely advanced technology: the best we’ve ever encountered, possibly the best in the whole frickin’ universe. It took billions of years of cutting-edge biological innovation to unlock the skill tree, but it’s hard to maintain the requisite sense of awe: we do nothing but talk, talk, talk; ninety-eight per cent of the shit that dribbles out of my mouth on any given day is so staggeringly banal that it makes my head spin to realise we made it this far. In science-fiction, telepathy is used for soul-bonds and mission-critical information; you never see anyone exchanging hot takes on the finale of the SpaceBachelor.
Nevertheless: this is one of the near-magical superpower that humans, and only humans, possess.1
So now you will hopefully be primed to feel a sense of wonder at our second quasi-magical ability: time travel.
Mental Time Travel
Our meatsack bodies slavishly plod along at the precise rate of one second per second. But our minds are unbounded by the constraints of time or space, free to wander the past at will, and poke into the distant corners of the future.
There’s endless entertainment in reliving the highlights: your first true love, that touchdown in high school before you busted your knee, madeleine crumbs that instantly transport you to a distant land. And that’s only looking back. Traveling forward in time is even less constrained by boring old reality, with boundless potential to inhabit realities that delight and inspire us. No wonder no-one wants to ‘live in the moment’.
Of course, entertainment is just a happy side-effect.2 The ability to create vast, hyper-detailed simulations of the past and future is the closest thing we have to a superpower, because it lets us do the following:
- Relive past experiences
- Learn lessons from the things that happen to us
- Use these lessons to run simulations which have some predictive power
- Having imagined a desirable future, take steps to steer the universe towards it
Step four usually goes by the name of ‘goal setting’. The Blogging Mafia mandates that the first post of January must always address this topic, so you knew this was coming; just be grateful I got halfway through without mentioning the g-word.
The ability to set goals is powerful—sometimes too powerful, as described in Goals Gone Wild: it gives you tunnel vision, you Goodhart yourself and maximise the wrong metric, you give yourself pats on the back merely for forming an intention to change. Rather than repeat that stuff, I want to focus on a failure which I only touched on briefly last time.
All of the other mistakes can happen when you’re actually running the simulation correctly, i.e. you really have conjured up a desirable future to bring into existence.
But what if your starting simulation is wrong?
Mental time travel is much more of an art than a science. This is not for lack of raw compute: the human brain is ridiculously powerful for a few pounds of gray jelly you’d hurry to wipe off your shoe if you stepped in it. Our simulations rarely lag or freeze—in fact, it’s the remarkable clarity and vividness which makes them so seductive. The real problem is that we have to run simulations with imperfect information: in the language of computer science, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.
This is not an issue when we’re running simple simulations of what would happen if e.g. we jumped off that big cliff over there without a parachute. The laws of physics and the squishiness of human bodies are reassuring constants.
But there are two unstable variables which consistently lead our inner simulators to produce garbage-in-garbage-out results.
The Dynamic Self
The self, or the ‘soul’, whatever you want to call it, is not fixed over time. This probably needs a post of its own,3 but for now, picture your five-year-old self: is that little guy or gal really ‘you’, in any meaningful sense? Sure, there’s some continuity—you can travel into their past more readily than other people—but you’re unlikely to have a whole lot in common. Five-year-old-you doesn’t want what you want, and had no way of guessing your grown-up preferences. Outside of the worst cases of arrested development, you’re much closer to a series of strangers inhabiting the same body than a constant ‘me’.
If you don’t buy the extreme version of this argument, fair enough, but the problem doesn’t go away on smaller timescales. We’re surprisingly bad at predicting how we’ll feel in any given situation: whether it’s five minutes from now or five years, there’s a mismatch between what we think will make us feel good and what will actually make us feel good.
The psychologist Daniel Gilbert4 calls it ‘affective forecasting’:
“We toil and sweat to give [our futures selves] just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.”
In other words: we have to set goals that will benefit some future stranger who happens to inhabit our body, without knowing exactly what that stranger will want.
That would be challenge enough, but there’s another problem.
The Dynamic World
For most of history, there was no history. You’re a swineherd; your father was a swineherd; your grandfather was a swineherd.
This made it easy enough to make solid predictions about the future prospects of, say, swine herding (you’re guaranteed to be happy as a pig in muck, which is to say, not very).
Almost all of your ancestors lived and died without experiencing a single cultural or technological change. It wasn’t until a few hundred years ago—the last 0.1 per cent of our species’ existence—that the pace of change started to accelerate.
Nowadays, history is being foisted upon us at an extremely obnoxious rate.
Entire industries are being innovated into obsolescence, while new ones rise in their place. There are people working in jobs right now that didn’t exist when they visited their high school careers counselor. Imagine trying to explain ‘Instagram influencers’ to your great-grandma.
This is why venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s first rule of career planning is so counterintuitive: don’t.
As Andreesen explains, you have no idea what industries you’ll enter, what companies you’ll work for, what roles you’ll have, where you’ll live, what your preferences will be, or what you will ultimately contribute:
“The world is an incredibly complex place and everything is changing all the time… trying to plan your career is an exercise in futility that will only serve to frustrate you, and to blind you to the really significant opportunities that life will throw your way.”
It’s a head-scratcher. What’s a time-traveler to do?
Resolving the Paradox
One answer would be to drift aimlessly through life, refusing to set goals, make predictions, or commit to anything, and generally to embody a sort of eternal nihilistic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji.
…I don’t recommend this approach.
To restate the problem of goalsetting: we have to figure out a way to generate the best possible set of outcomes for all our present and future selves, while operating with extremely limited information about the state of the world they’ll end up living in.
The good news is that there is a systematic approach to doing exactly this. What is this ingenious future-proofing system, you cry?
In a word: Optionality. The right, but not the obligation, to take action. Preserved potential in a bottle. Accumulating capabilities and resources that let you pivot towards whatever makes sense at any given moment.
Options are unique in that they become more valuable under conditions of uncertainty. That means an increasingly volatile world is a welcome development: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Now I’m going to do something extremely annoying, and not give any concrete explanation or examples. This post is long enough, and I want to save some Original Content for the book.
I’ve started laying out the basics of optionality here, and here. If you read those posts and still don’t get it, no worries! I have time-traveled into the future, and it looks like I’ll have quite a bit more to say over the course of this year.
UPDATE: My book, Optionality: How to Survive and Thrive in a Volatile World is available now!
- Other animals can perform a pale imitation of this power, but real telepathy requires a massively combinatorial communication system (‘language’).
- It’s not all sunshine and lollipops: mental time travel serves up nostalgia, rumination, and trauma to those who can’t stop traveling back to the past, and anxiety, dread, and depression to those who vividly simulate all the terrible things the future holds for them. The blind idiot god of evolution don’t care about your happiness.
- In the likely event I don’t get around to writing this, check out this lovely New Yorker profile on the late Derek Parfit.
- I first came across mental time-travel in Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, which I highly recommend (ignore the cutesy name). Or you can skim the Wikipedia page.