June 13, 2021 · 2 min read

It’s almost impossible to predict the future. But it’s also unnecessary, because most people are living in the past. All you have to do is see the present before everyone else does.

To be less pithy, but more clear: Most people are slow to notice and accept change. If you can just be faster than most people at seeing what’s going on, updating your model of the world, and reacting accordingly, it’s almost as good as seeing the future.

We see this in the US with covid: The same people who didn’t realize that we all should be wearing masks, when they were life-saving, are now slow to realize/admit that we can stop wearing them.

For a dramatic historical example (from The Making of the Atomic Bomb), take Leo Szilard’s observations of 1930s Germany:

Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. … In late March, Jewish judges and lawyers in Prussia and Bavaria were dismissed from practice. On the weekend of April 1, Julius Streicher directed a national boycott of Jewish businesses and Jews were beaten in the streets. “I took a train from Berlin to Vienna on a certain date, close to the first of April, 1933,” Szilard writes. “The train was empty. The same train the next day was overcrowded, was stopped at the frontier, the people had to get out, and everybody was interrogated by the Nazis. This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier.

How to be earlier

  1. Independent thinking. If you only believe things that are accepted by the majority of people, then by definition you’ll always be behind the curve in a changing world.

  2. Listen to other independent thinkers. You can’t pay attention to everything at once or evaluate every area. You can only be the first to realize something in a narrow domain in which you are an expert. But if you tune your intellectual radar to other independent thinkers, you can be in the first ~1% of people to realize a new fact. Seek them out, find them, and follow them.

    I was taking covid precautions in late February 2020, about three weeks ahead of official “lockdown” measures—but only because I was tuned in to the people who were six weeks ahead.


  3. Distinguish independent thinkers from crackpots. Both are “contrarian”; only one has any hope of being right. This is an art, honed over decades. Pay attention to both the source’s evidence and their logic. Credentials are relevant, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

  4. Read broadly; seek out and adopt concepts and frameworks that help you understand the world (e.g.: exponential growth, network effects, efficient frontiers).


  5. Learn how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Even when you see the present earlier, you won’t see it with full clarity, nor will you be able to predict the future. You’ll just have a set of probabilities that are closer to reality than most people’s.

    To return to the covid example: in January/February 2020, even the people farthest ahead of the curve weren’t certain whether there would be a pandemic or how bad it would be. They just knew that the chances were double-digit percent, before it was even on most people’s radar.

    Find low-cost ways to avoid extreme downside, and low-investment opportunities for extreme upside. For example, when a pandemic might be starting, it makes sense to stock up on supplies, move meetings to phone calls, etc.—these are cheap insurance.

In some fantasy worlds, there are superheroes with “pre-cognition”, able to see the immediate future. They’re always one step ahead. But since most people are a few steps behind reality, you don’t need pre-cognition—just independent thinking.

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These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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