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Uncover the influence of the past


Idea Journal Weekly 3

July 10 · Issue #251 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: With rapidly advancing technologies and information overload, among other forces, the world does seem to be changing at a faster rate. But a lot hasn’t changed. This issue offers three perspectives to help you pause, zoom out, and see how much the present reflects the past.
(~3 min read)

#1. Do your past beliefs fit your present context?
Researchers Lauren McCann and Gabriel Weinberg write in their book Super Thinking that you can use the physics principle of inertia as a metaphor to understand how your past influences your present, and possibly your future. 
In physics, inertia is a physical object’s resistance to changing its current state of motion. 
As a metaphor, inertia can describe resistance to any change in direction. 
For example, take your beliefs. If you’re like most people, many of your core political, religious, and social beliefs can be traced to your family and the geographic culture in which you were raised.
Have you reevaluated any of your core beliefs recently?
If you haven’t, you’re probably hanging on to many beliefs that conflict with other beliefs you later adopted. Or maybe you have some beliefs that you’ve never questioned, even as your context and interests have changed over time.
As McCann and Weinberg point out, we tend to have inertia in our beliefs because of confirmation bias and other factors.
That inertia can increase over time: “The more inertia you have, the more resistant you will be to changing these beliefs, and the less likely you will be to adapt your thinking when you need to.”
McCann and Weinberg suggest that you can fight such personal inertia by questioning your assumptions and adapting new ways of thinking.
This exercise is increasingly important as your environment becomes more dynamic.
#2. The allure of unsolved problems
Technology expert Kevin Kelly writes on his blog that organizations can be susceptible to what he calls the “Shirky principle,” named after economics writer Clay Shirky.
The Shirky principle states that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”
For example, TurboTax is a US company that makes the process of filing taxes easier. The company also lobbies against efforts that would make it easier to file your taxes directly with the government.
One instance of this is a tax initiative called “return-free filing.” Under this system, the government would send you a pre-filled form based on available information, saving time and making the tax filing process more efficient. 
But TurboTax fights against return-free filing and similar initiatives because the company wants tax filing to remain complex. 
That’s the problem to which TurboTax is the solution.
#3. Find the future in the past
Statistician and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the phenomenon known as the Lindy effect in his book Antifragile.
The Lindy effect suggests that if something has existed for a given amount of time and continues to remain in favor, then it will likely survive at least as long into the future.
This applies to ideas, organizations, technologies, or anything else non-perishable.
For example, Shakespeare’s work has been around for roughly 400 years and it remains popular. From the perspective of the Lindy effect, you can expect it to endure for at least another 400 years.
And an item’s expected life is dynamic and grows with time. So, as Shakespeare’s work becomes 450 years old, 500 years old and so on while remaining in favor, it is likely to endure at least that long into the future.
As Taleb puts it: “the expected life of an item is proportional to its past life.”
Quote of the week
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for our understanding.”
Historians Ariel and Will Durant in their book The Lessons of History
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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