Untangling How the Future Really Works

I almost talked myself out of the two-hour drive to see the eclipse in 2017. I couldn’t understand all the fuss. I was not thrilled about giving up a whole day to stare at the sun through cheap solar film of questionable origin, or maybe project a fuzzy crescent through a pinhole in a cardboard box. Boohh-ring…

Fast-Forward to 2024

This year, I just prayed that the forecast for clouds and rain would be as wrong as I had been seven years prior.

Fortunately, forecasts can change rapidly, and the weather on April 8, 2024 was nothing short of spectacular on our perfectly situated hilltop in southern Indiana.

I watched the entire spectacle, from first contact at 1:47 p.m., until the moon's trailing edge slipped away from the sun 4:21 p.m.

This time I knew what I was in for, and as the first-timers around me commented on how cool it was that they could actually see the moon crawling slowly in front of the sun through their eclipse glasses, I smiled to myself and thought… just wait.

You have no idea.


Twenty-five seconds after 3:03 p.m., the moon blocked the last sliver of blinding sunlight. The world went dark, not normal dark, but the strange, quivering dimness unique to a total eclipse. 

The silver-white corona of our home star radiated five million miles into space. Venus and Jupiter emerged. Multiple solar “prominences” could be seen with the naked eye. Appearing as tiny magenta dots on the rim of our blacked-out sun, these loops of glowing plasma were, in reality, many times the diameter of Earth.

After several seconds of stunned silence, distant cheers swept over the landscape from thousands standing in collective awe.

If you have not experienced totality, you have not experienced an eclipse, and even when you have, the transformative change that occurs is somehow still unexpected.

We Don't See It Coming

Our minds simply do not work that way. Instead, we automatically project the steady, incremental change of the moon’s march across the sun forward in time, and we form an intuitive image of what each additional one percent will bring... of what the future will look like.

But our intuition is often wrong, because the future doesn’t work that way.

A ninety-nine percent eclipse bears about as much resemblance to totality as liquid water does to ice. Sure, they are made of the same stuff, but once that zero Celsius threshold is crossed, everything changes.

We are wired to understand and expect linearity: steady, incremental change, the future as a slightly modified version of the past.

How the Future Really Works

In reality, just as totality looks nothing like a ninety-nine percent eclipse, the actual future is often quite different. The real future is full of the unpredictable, the nonlinear, the novelty of things we didn’t know we didn’t know.

The real future is subject to threshold effects, exponential growth and decay, straws that break camel’s backs, tipping points, and rapid, transformative change.

Not all increments are created equal.

This is the nature of the complex world we inhabit, of the complex lives we lead, and the complex work we do. We cannot change it, but we can (we must, I would argue) get better at working with it.

To do so, we must first accept it.

What Stops Us?

What stops us from embracing the truth of how the future really works?

It seems to me that fear, that most primal of influences, probably plays a leading role.

Confronting the uncertainty of life requires that we face facts that are quite difficult to think about.

  • Yes, you or a loved one could receive a devastating diagnosis tomorrow.
  • Yes, an unforeseen change with a key customer or the market at large could cost you your job or your business.
  • Yes, violence, accident, or natural disaster could shatter your world without warning. It happens every day.

All of us have events like these deeply imprinted in our psyche, pressed there indelibly by the terrible weight of painful emotions. These memories make it natural to turn away from the uncertainty of the future.

It takes effort and courage to counterbalance our justifiable fear, yet there is ample reason to invest the cognitive effort.

An Eclipse Does Not End With a Blacked-Out Sun

Yes, all of those terrifying possibilities are real.

  • Also yes… Your struggling career or business that feels like an endless, painful slog could be approaching an inflection point that transforms everything (witness every “overnight” success, ever).
  • Also yes… “Hopeless” trajectories can be rapidly altered by breakthroughs and new insights (witness the fact that when I was in high school—not really that long ago—HIV was a death sentence, and in 1997, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy).
  • Also yes… You could be one chance encounter away from more love and joy than you knew possible (witness me, stumbling blindly into Martha, my wife and partner).

Complexity, uncertainty, and transformative change are how the future really works, but they are not inherently negative.

In life, as in an eclipse, the darkness can give way to light as suddenly as the light gave way to darkness.

You have to stay for the whole show.


Until next time,

If you are up for confronting life's complexity, we are here to help. It is time well spent, because you never know when another one percent effort will transform boring into breathtaking.

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