How to live a meaningful life in a world that is spinning out of control?

A slightly modified version of this blog was posted on our Behavioural Design Digest Newsletter (subscribe now). 

In this blog I want to share a couple of thoughts on how we can use a better understanding of human decision making to cope with the complicated challenges of our time. I want to make the case for living an anti-fragile life. It’s a bit of a provocative story, but it has a happy ending with some very practical guidelines on how live a great life. So please bear with me.

I’m not going to make silly predictions of what will be big next year. These forecasts are utterly pointless. On the one hand, because these forecasts are not meant to predict the future, but to show off the depth of expertise for the one who’s making them. On the other hand, because the future is becoming increasingly complex and complicated at an accelerating speed. Please allow me to zoom in on these two concepts.

Accelerating Complexity

The future is complex because of exponential technologies. Technological progress is now accelerating so fast that a lot of things that seemed impossible two years ago are already achieved. Just to give you a couple of recent examples that were featured in Peter Diamandis’ amazing newsletter on exponential technologies.

The speed with which radical technological changes are being introduced is so beyond the scope of what we can imagine, that I think it’s just pointless to think about which technology will grow incrementally in 2019.

Accelerating Complications

The second problem with forecasting is that the future is that we have to deal with accelerating complications. Stability is rapidly crumbling on a global scale. The failure of the radicalised free-market to create prosperity and wealth for the many, instead of the few, has set into motion accelerating public anger towards the leading elites. This resulted in a global rise in the demand for radical leaders. This accelerating demand for radical nationalistic leaders has created a critical threshold of leaders that make any coordinated attempt to fight the wicked problems of this time impossible. The Trumps, Putin’s, Orban’s, etc. of this world continuously need to signal their virility to their base. In the world of the alpha male leader, compromises are for pussies.

The big problem of this critical decade is that the demand for strong leadership is only understood by radical demagogues who seize the moment to offer the public what they need –  which is simple explanations and simple answers -, thereby making the complexity of both the problems and the solutions even further out of reach.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, An ecosystem collapse is taking place. The bottom of the food pyramid is crumbling. Populations of Insects, birds, bees are rapidly declining. Global warming is spinning out of control, creating rising sea levels and more draught, leading to more refugees, leading to more instability. It’s basically a clusterfuck running out of control.

Human irrationality is making things worse

So we have to deal with accelerating complexity and accelerating complications. To make matters worse: humans have all kinds of mental flaws that make it impossible for us to make rational decisions and judgements to solve these challenges. In an accelerating complex world, we just have to revert to simple shortcuts for decisionmaking to make sense of things. Elites feel more and more entitled to their wealth because they think they earned it. It’s not: It’s the system that decides who gets the opportunities and who’s not. The middle-class is more and more sold for the story that it’s the immigrants and the politicians are responsible for their declining wealth. It’s not: it’s global financial markets and the monopolistic multi-nationals. It’s not too far fetched to think of global capitalism as a virus that turned into cancer, whereby rogue cells are rapidly killing all the healthy cells that keep an organism alive. Local politicians are powerless.

Another bias is the presence bias: we are not able to see changes, because they are not changing our surroundings fast enough. We like to look at the future as a simple continuous line evolving from what we know from the presence and the past. The optimism bias is also related to this: We tend to think the future will be positive and problems will be solved in time.

I hate to say it, but let’s face it: It looks pretty grim, doesn’t it?

A happy ending

Am I a pessimist? No! Those of you who know me, know I’m a very lighthearted person. But I’m not stupid. And I’m not blind. I know we much rather prefer to turn our head away, but this is the – fascinating – time we’re living in. So we have to put our big boy and girls pants on and face things as they are.

In the context of little positive outlooks, how can you remain optimistic and positive? It definitely helps to be an atheist. The only point in life is to experience love, find passions and explore curiosity. If you are able to design your life around these three principles, then you’re going to live a happy life as long as you live. Because – in case you missed the meeting – we’re all going to die.

A second thing you can do is to practice anti-fragility.  I love the concept of anti-fragility as proposed by Nicolas Nassim Taleb. Anti-fragile systems increase in strength, because of stress, shocks, attacks or failures. The better we get in dealing with randomness, change, bad luck and errors, the stronger we will become. Being an entrepreneur creates a natural context for becoming anti-fragile: you’re always experimenting, tinkering and failing your way forward. Taleb also suggests staying out of debt as fast as you can.  And take a lot of small risks instead of significant risks. You can find more tips on how to live an anti-fragile life here.

I can’t predict what 2019 will look like. The only thing I can wish for is to be prepared for unexpected shocks in the system that follows from accelerating complexity and accelerating complications. And if these shocks won’t come in 2019, then my practicing in anti-fragility will have helped me to have a year as great as 2018. I wish you a lot of anti-fragility in 2019.

Enjoy the holidays!

Image courtesy: A great metaphor for a clusterfuck.