December 3, 2008 02:18 AM

Navigating by the Rearview Mirror

By John Phipps

Like Wall Street, the White House and hapless Iceland, I didn't quite see the events of the past few weeks coming. Heck, I didn't think some of them were possible. But it all seems so straightforward now.

This phenomenon is a common trick of our brains. Simple magic tricks are amazingly obvious after we are shown the gimmick. For the life of us, we can't understand why we didn't see it in the first place.

The reason is equally simple. Identifying one sequence of cause-and-effect in the midst of millions of possibilities is not what we do best. What our brains do well is sense patterns. Once you are shown the Big Dipper, it looks like that ever after, for instance.

Looking back on 2008—or 25 years, as we are doing in this issue—reawakens memories that we have internalized as accurate data. Over time, we have connected these dots of the past to provide a satisfying explanation and a powerful tool for guessing the future.

Only I'm not sure the past is prologue, or even very useful data. Because our hindsight can fit a pattern to an event does not necessarily mean the pattern explains it.

Count on it. What retrospection can do is help us predict how we will respond. In fact, psychologists know that despite education, training and good intentions, the smart money is to bet humans will repeat the same responses in similar situations. We may think we are doing them for different reasons, but it's hard to stray from our instinctive reactions.

More disturbing is the current rise in the belief that random action is the underlying force of our time. Author Nassim Taleb has made believers of many by demonstrating mathematically that there are no brilliant traders or CEO geniuses—only lucky ones.

Indeed, increasingly, we use computers to quantify our lives by looking for correlations and occasionally identifying cause. The results have been depressing for baseball fans and executive wanna-bes. In the overwhelming number of cases, sheer serendipity accounts for most success. (I always save that rationale for my failures.)

If the past cannot guide us, and popular gurus are essentially frauds currently on a roll, what do we have to help us deal with a future that looks like nothing we've ever experienced?

Same darkness. I think a few ideas can stabilize the urge to panic just a teensy bit. (1) Apparently, we never have been able to predict the future at all, so we're actually no more in the dark in 2008 than we were in, say, 1975. And being clueless didn't seem to stop us. It got us to 1976, didn't it? There is no reason to expect this will not yield similar results for 2009.

(2) We tend to overlook our ability to manage unexpected and even disastrous events. Respecting our innate capacity to recover from unforeseen problems is a more reliable source of confidence than believing we know what will happen next.

(3) We know things have changed: Chinese business owners and Brazilian bankers now nudge markets that used to include only Western industrial chieftains. Indian consumers and Polish manufacturers help shape economic curves for the first time.

The action of new minds introduces a wider range of outcomes. As we have seen, not all of them are pleasant. While it is inevitable we will all puzzle over the future and try to apply lessons from the past, a low success rate should not be discouraging.

We have not arrived by easy roads, nor have we lost the essential character that embodies the American spirit. The same instinctive judgment that carried us through past challenges abides in us today.

A prediction of muddling through does not inspire as do calls to bold action and prophetic visions, but trial and error is always a viable strategy. The sooner this humble plan of action is deployed, the more real (rather than speculative) data we will have to guide corrections.

Too much time and hope will be wasted looking for comprehensive solutions, which tend to be neither. Nor will abdication of determining our own destiny in favor of inspirational leaders or organizations be the answer. Group responses will be too slow and too unwieldy.

It will not be a question of winning or losing, but simply winning slightly more often than losing. None of this will occur if we are unable to grasp that the rearview mirror is not the windshield.

John Phipps,, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report.” For local station listings, log on to

Top Producer, December 2008

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