Doubt the past, believe for the future

by Robert C. Wolcott

Culture 01 January 1970

Creating the future is tough. We tend to doubt what we do not understand, and bias in favor of the familiar. Understandably so, given we rely on data and experience to survive and, hopefully, thrive. Evolution rewards those best able to interpret data and act accordingly.

Unfortunately, in transforming environments — such as technology catalyzes today — experience limits what we see and confounds our interpretations. Quintessential skeptic David Hume challenged that we cannot predict the future based on experience without presupposing the future will operate like the past — a notion which itself cannot be grounded in prior experience.

We suffer from future blindness. Fortunately, we need not live our daily lives as epistemologists do, questioning fundamental reality. We should, though, leverage Hume’s weapon, doubt, to help us break free from the past. To think beyond legacy paradigms.

If what we have is working, a winning bias should be against change — assuming we’re in a steady-state environment.  Facing dramatic change, the opposite adheres. Doubt the past and find reasons to believe for the future.

We should leverage doubt to help us break free from the past. To think beyond legacy paradigms.

Select any pivotal change in your industry over the past decade. Search for commentaries from before the change became obvious and you’ll find industry experts espousing ‘proof’ that these new paths will never work. During TWIN Tech 2020, Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of cloud-based cybersecurity leader Crowdstrike, explained that in their early days, most experts opined that “no serious enterprise would ever trust cloud-based cyber security solutions.”  Today, the cloud appears as if it had been inevitable from the start, and Crowdstrike is a $40 billion public enterprise.

While we must rely on experts to inform decision making, when creating the future, we must not rely solely on today’s experts. Experts become experts by being masters of existing paradigms. Those paradigms work — until they don’t. We must have the discipline to challenge conventions before change occurs — before it’s too late to adjust, much less to lead.

If you aspire to lead to the future, the unfortunate truth is you’ll need to believe, and win converts, before you have proof. Transformative leaders like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk did so. They doubted the past, generated belief in a better, transformed future and, by so doing, built empires.

In a pivotal lecture near the dawn of the 20th century, The will to believe, American pragmatist philosopher William James articulated the instrumental rationality, under the right conditions, of belief without prior evidence of truth.

James argued there are critical, even essential, achievements which require belief a priori to evidence, and for which proof only emerges later. “There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming. And where faith in a fact can help create the fact.”

If you aspire to lead to the future, the unfortunate truth is you’ll need to believe, and win converts, before you have proof.

He observes that such faith before fact can be essential where significant commitment and effort will be required to discover new truths — such as transformative visions for the future. “In truths dependent on our personal action, then, faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing.” Indispensable particularly for innovators who must endure plentiful slings and arrows.

Herein lies a two-fold trap. Either excessive commitment to the past and blind or inflexible belief in what has yet to be proven can lead to extinction, figurative and literal. Expecting ever more of the same has led many to failures. Meanwhile, countless visionaries believed in visions that failed to materialize.

Rely on experience and evidence, though do so with vigilant, thoughtful doubt. Believe that the future can, and should,  be dramatically better, while adapting as evidence arises.

While we might never ultimately discover, in Plato’s words, “what is really real,” this might be the wrong question for living. Instead, recognize our fallibility — the likelihood that we will never be quite sure — and progress with discerning skepticism and open-minded conviction.

Returning to James, “philosophy is the habit of always seeing an alternative.” Via doubt and belief, we can generate limitless possibilities and, hopefully, bring futures we desire to life.