Farsighted … how to make the big decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come?

February 9, 2019

Steven Johnson is best-selling author of books including Wonderland, Where Good Ideas Come From, and The Ghost Map, and the host of the BBC series “How We Got To Now”. His writing delves into the intersection of science and technology within our lives, and have influenced everything from the way political campaigns use the internet, to cutting-edge ideas in urban planning, and much more. He was chosen by Prospect magazine as one of the Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future, and The Wall Street Journal called him “one of the most persuasive advocates for the role of collaboration in innovation.”

His new book Farsighted: How We Make Decisions That Matter considers if the hardest choices are also the most consequential, why do we know so little about how to get them right? In answering this, he draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature to explore how we might best think about a world fraught with uncertainty.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

What are the habits of people who excel at long-term thinking?

Adam Grant from Wharton, reviewing the book said “One of Johnson’s thought-provoking points is that they read novels, which are ideal exercises in mental time travel and empathy. I think he’s right. That said, I’ve also found value in other evidence-based techniques for catapulting our brains into the future, like coming face-to-face with an image of ourselves digitally aged to make us look 30 years older. And I finished this book curious about whether looking farther into the past is another way to paint a richer portrait of the future.”

After reading Farsighted, am I more aware of all the difficulties of making long-term decisions? Definitely. Do I feel better equipped to make those decisions? I’m not sure. This is an idea book. You won’t find the easy formulas that dominate the self-help genre or the 2×2 matrices common to business books. Johnson left me more convinced than ever of the psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.

Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.

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