Why a balanced perspective on the past and present helps you to understand the future
If I had been born earlier and started my career 15 or 20 years ago — I probably wouldn’t have become a writer. There are many opportunities to succeed today that weren’t available back then.
Back then, being a totally independent writer who earns a good income was mostly impossible. It’s easier to succeed today than in the past. Otherwise, I’d have had to work for magazines and other gatekeepers.
But thanks to today’s technology and the internet, I’m grateful I can do what I do.Me being a minority also doesn’t negatively impact my career as much as it would have 10 or so years ago. (The impact is still significant. But not as bad).
So whenever I hear people talk about how “everything is better in the past,” I could only think: “Maybe for you. But not for everyone.”
For many of us, life has improved because there are more opportunities. And we don’t have to rely on the usual institutions that tend to discriminate.
That doesn’t mean the present is perfect. It’s better, but we still have ways to improve.
Having a balanced perspective on the past and present helps us to see things as they really are. Which helps us succeed in what we do today.
Things are better now
How can we say things are better now? What does “better” even mean? What is progress?
The most reliable way to do that is to find something we can measure. I like how evolutionary psychologist and professor, Steven Pinker, talks about this idea. He’s known for his (overly) optimistic ideas about the present and future.
In his book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker says:
“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny… All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”
Growing up in The Netherlands, I learned about how the county’s history was filled with kings and military leaders. These people were born in their position. And their skills or experience didn’t matter. It was all about royal blood and class. The same was true in most old societies.
Then America introduced this whole new way of life. It was the only country where “worker” was a job description than a badge of class. Workers believed their lives would get better through hard work and imagination.
They were not stuck in past practices. They were driven to improve their lives. And technology made that happen.
Without technology and social acceptance of new things, I wouldn’t be a writer. I’d have to get hired by a magazine or newspaper, then, get a publishing deal. As a minority, that would probably never happen.
Not everything is better
When we become too optimistic, we risk being naive about things. And this blinds us from real problems in the present. Some things get better, other things get worse.
Many people have a harder time having peace of mind when everything is getting more expensive. As prices go up, people’s salaries and income don’t seem to match the inflation rate. Two-thirds of American workers say their salaries are not keeping pace with inflation, and the percentage of employees considering quitting a job is now at a four-year high.1
These kinds of news affect market sentiment. And this applies heavily to investors. When the sentiment is bad, people feel bad about the future. So they don’t invest. When things are going well, people are more confident to put money in the stock market.
As the saying goes, “everyone is a genius when it’s a bull market.” So if you’re an investor, try not to get too swayed by market sentiment.
What is more disappointing than being overly optimistic about something, only for it to crash down? That’s exactly what market bubbles are.
One of the investors who accurately predicted some of the biggest finance bubbles, like the Japanese stocks, real estate, and so forth, is Jeremy Grantham. But we have to be honest, Grantham has predicted many more crashes that never happened.
And yet, I like to hear what pessimists like Grantham have to say to have a balanced view. It’s the same reason I want to see what optimists like Pinker say.
Another thing that worsened over the years is how people become glued to their phones.
When faced with a choice of listening to a loved one vs “checking an important email” or social media notification — many choose the latter. And they’re not even aware of it!
That’s probably why meditation apps are becoming more and more popular. Especially during the pandemic.2 Self-awareness is not easy. And it’s getting harder to focus on the right things.
The good outpaces the bad
Still, there are more good trends today than in the past. It’s all about understanding and preparing for ALL kinds of trends. Good or bad.
The news talks about shortages in water, land, and food. And we probably will go through those, if we aren’t going through them now. But in the long-term, I believe we’ll create sustainable solutions.
It’s all about balance. I like the ideas of both Pinker and Grantham. But I don’t like to lean excessively towards one direction.
That’s why I relate the most to Warren Buffet. To me, he’s got one of the most balanced views in the world. He’s skeptical about many things (like how he didn’t invest in tech during the dot-com boom). But he’s also optimistic enough to invest.
The human race has gone through various wars, famines, and diseases. And we’re still here. That’s a good sign.
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