#11 Understand your mind, better shape your future?

Hello!

Welcome to The Makers and a very warm welcome to new subscribers joining us this week.

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Today’s newsletter includes: 1 video; 1 podcast suggestion; 1 article.

Let’s go. 

1. This week’s introduction 🤝

This week’s video explores how time eats your commitments for breakfast. And what you can do about it.

2. Future jam today 😋 

This week’s recommendation is The Futures Podcast, hosted by Luke Robert Mason. In this wide-ranging podcast, Mason speaks with scientists, technologists, artists and philosophers who are working “to imagine the sorts of developments that might dramatically alter what it means to be human.”

Why ‘futures’ in the plural? “Future is singular” Mason explained in a recent interview. “And the challenge with assuming that the future is going to be one thing means that we can be led to believe that the future is inevitable. I’m much more of an advocate of futures, the plural, a multitude of possibilities for what may occur. Everything is up for grabs, anything that you essentially imagine, can come to pass.”

3. Understand your mind, better shape your future?  

Can a greater understanding of how your mind thinks about the future help improve your future-thinking skills?

Every day you take hundreds if not thousands of decisions that shape your today and your tomorrow. 

I’ve discussed previously how you think about the future in four ways (simlutation, prediction, intention, planning). But, can a greater understanding of what and how your mind uses information (data, memories and knowledge) help you to improve your future-thinking skills? 

You already think about the future – a lot

As I’ve previously mentioned, every day we spend a lot of time thinking about the future. 

We think about our upcoming appointments and scribble down to-do list items. We form intentions to read, exercise or practice musical instruments. We look forward to spending time with family and friends at the weekend. We ponder and predict what our futures might hold in ten, 15 or 20-plus years’ time. 

(Well, perhaps the last one is something we all do a little less of…?)

One study canvassed 500 Chicago residents on what they were thinking at random points throughout the day. It revealed they spent 14 per cent of the day contemplating the future compared with just four per cent thinking about the past.

All of this thinking feeds into the hundreds – if not thousands – of decisions to act or not to act that we make every day, all of which will influence – perhaps profoundly – our future.

What does your mind use to decide your future?

When you think about the future and think about how you may feel in a possible upcoming situation, your mind draws on essentially two types of information

  1. your experience 
  2. your beliefs and theories

Using your experience to assess the future

Information drawn from your past experiences (known as episodic memory or sometimes referred to as using analogies) are memories about a *specific* event that you experienced in the past. For example, you had a cup of coffee with Martin in central Copenhagen, last Tuesday morning.

So how does this work in practice?

Ok, let’s imagine that you expect to have a typical day’s work tomorrow. 

In order to help you anticipate what you’ll likely encounter, your mind begins to marshal all available information to help you picture, predict and prepare for what it believes will likely lie ahead. 

You believe tomorrow will be a normal working day. So, in the first instance, your mind reaches for a recent experience to inform your picture of your day ahead – your most recent ‘typical’ day at work is a suitable candidate. The memory is relatively new and the details fresh. It also appears to be highly relevant as it captures a day similar to the one you expect to experience tomorrow in terms of meetings, tasks, etc.

Your mind has found a satisfactory match.

So far, so good.

But what happens if tomorrow isn’t a typical day? 

Let’s consider a new scenario. What if you have an important meeting with senior executives from a prospective client organisation that you’ve never dealt with before?

In order to anticipate how the day might pan out, your mind will seek out (in other words, try and access from your mind’s archive) the most relevant experience to use as a template for what may happen tomorrow.

Let’s say that the most relevant past experience your mind can find is a meeting with your colleague Joanne, Head of Products and Marketing, last Thursday. As the meeting was recent, you can recall the details clearly.

But, there’s a problem. In fact, there are several.

First, the meeting you’re set to have tomorrow is on a topic completely unrelated to last Thursday’s. Second, your experience wasn’t with external clients. What’s more, you’ve worked with Joanne for over three years and have built up a good working relationship with her over several projects. Tomorrow’s meeting is with strangers.

In other words, your experience may tick the box for being ‘a meeting’, but fails on a number of other pretty important counts. Therefore, it’s simply not relevant enough to be included in your mental briefing pack for tomorrow. 

So, what happens then?

Using your beliefs and theories to assess the future

In the absence of a relevant past experience, your mind widens the search. It starts to gather your more generalised theories and beliefs about the situation in question. In our example the situation could be summarised as: ‘important work-related meeting with senior decision-makers you’ve never met before’. 

Your mind will then proceed to serve up how you feel in general terms about situations like this. These beliefs, which are specific to this particular situation, are essentially a set of generalisations about how you think you will emotionally respond to a meeting of this type.

Our own personal beliefs

You hold your own personal beliefs about the emotions you’ll experience in certain situations. So, you may link dinner with friends with happiness; your phone with (useful or irritating) distraction; arguments between strangers with anger; holidays with relaxation. 

One person may link ‘highly important meetings’ with uncomfortable levels of risk. If meetings like these go wrong, they believe, reputations get damaged, possibly beyond repair. This person may think that the stakes are raised higher still for initial meetings with unknown people. These beliefs build up over time, with each experience of a meeting adding to what they’ve read, seen and been told by others.

However, another person may view this scenario quite differently. 

Perhaps they associate invitations to important meetings with reward and recognition for hard work. Or perhaps important meetings signal that they’ve gained their boss’s trust, and represent an opportunity.

Whichever version resonates most with you – and, of course, there are others – will clearly frame how you view and prepare for the upcoming encounter. But in either version, you are drawing not on a specific past experience, but on your general beliefs and abstract theories about ‘important business meetings with people you’ve not met before’.

But what happens when you’re faced with a situation that you haven’t experienced before?

What if you’re starting a new job in a new company, in an unfamiliar sector? 

Let’s imagine you’re not even going to a typical meeting. 

Your prospective client, instead, is sending an electric car to pick you up from your front door, tomorrow at 9am. There’s no agenda beyond an invitation to “come and join us away from the office for the day”. It’s the first invitation of this kind you’ve ever had. You don’t know the potential client’s main line of business because their website offers few clues. You don’t even know who you’ll be meeting: a junior researcher or the CEO?

As the unknowns stack up, what information does your mind call on to help you prepare when it lacks even situation-specific beliefs?

Answer? It casts the net even wider.

You mind looks to draw on your generalised beliefs and abstract theories. However, these beliefs and theories are not related to any specific situation (i.e. ‘meetings with prospective clients’) – because they were not deemed relevant enough. Rather, they’re related to the world. In general. 

Identity-based beliefs

These general beliefs and theories are tied to your identity. They tend to be long-held, rarely updated views about how things operate. They can be deeply embedded and difficult to shift. They are often wedded to your personality and moulded by social norms and stereo-types. 

In contrast to memories of your past experience, memories allied to your theories and beliefs (known as semantic memory) do not decay rapidly. Importantly, they can help you to create more stable expectations about your world.

In contrast to a memory of past experience, your identity-based beliefs are not grounded in a specific event. Instead, they are made up of a handful of general and abstract thoughts and theories that you seldom replace nor update

The above examples are designed to highlight the different roles of experience and beliefs. It’s not to say that your mind uses only one or the other. Our minds will draw on everything and anything it believes to be helpful to solving your questions relating to your upcoming events. It’ll drag in the kitchen sink if it thinks it’d be of service. It can be helpful to view experience and beliefs – episodic and semantic information – as more of a sliding spectrum, with a blend of experience and beliefs used to help us consider what the world in the future might be like. 

The order in which your mind uses information

This said, scientists believe there is a clear order in which your mind prioritises the information it uses to form assessments of the future: 

  • We prioritise our experience over beliefs and theories
  • We prioritise the relevant over the general

First and foremost, we reach for directly relevant experience (scientists call this episodic memory). 

Failing that we move on to our general beliefs and abstract theories about the world (known as semantic memory). We start by considering our general beliefs about a given situation (meetings, parties, gardening, speaking Italian). Failing that, we draw on our general beliefs about the world, which are closely linked to our identity.

Possible vulnerabilities in your source information

These are a few possible vulnerabilities in your experience:

  • No experience. You don’t have experience relevant to the potential situation in question.
  • Forgotten experience. You do have relevant experience, but you’ve forgotten it, or can’t access it. This can be for a variety of reasons.
  • Misremembered experience. You think you have relevant experience, but you’re actually misremembering it. This could mean you’re either overplaying, under-appreciating or misinterpreting an experience’s lessons and insight.

Then there are possible weaknesses in your general beliefs and theories:

  • You lack relevant and sufficiently developed beliefs and theories. You might be faced with a situation that you know little about. You might therefore lack the knowledge, rules of thumb (sometimes called heuristics) or mental models required to make a reasonable judgement of a possible situation.
  • You’re out of date. Your beliefs and theories are no longer true nor wholly applicable. Perhaps they’ve been left unchallenged or you begin to draw an unwarranted level of confidence from them. Your beliefs and theories may also introduce errors and biases.
  • You’re just plain wrong. Your beliefs or theories are regrettably just not backed up by robust measurement or observation. Sorry.

TL:DR

When you think about the future, your mind draws on essentially two types of information

  1. your experience 
  2. your beliefs and theories

There’s a clear order in which your mind uses information to form assessments of the future:

  • You prioritise your experience over beliefs and theories. 
  • You prioritise the relevant and specific over the general. 

This means in practice, the less familiar a possible future scenario looks to you, surprise surprise, the less likely you are to have relevant experience to call on. So, the more you’ll rely on generalised, theoretical information to make your assessments and decisions.

Thanks 🙏 

Thanks for reading, watching, subscribing and being a Maker! I really appreciate it.

If you’ve enjoyed this edition of The Makers, you’d be doing me a kind and generous favour by sharing it with someone who might enjoy it also. 

And if you have questions or comments, do hit reply! 

Until next time…

Best wishes,

James

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