What is PastPresentFuture?
A better future starts in the past.
Ernest May was a renowned historian. Richard Neustadt was a political scientist who often advised the White House. In 1986 (picture Reagan, Gorbachev, Rocky beating Ivan Drago) the two Harvard professors published a book called Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers.
There is an elementary mistake decision-makers routinely make, May and Neustadt argued. They illustrated the mistake with a bizarre little story.
In July, 1979, a senator from Florida alerted President Jimmy Carter to rumours that a Soviet brigade had been stationed in Cuba. Intelligence confirmed it. Soviet soldiers had returned to America’s backyard.
The administration was shocked and wrestled with how to respond. In the meantime, it shared the information with key senators. One of those senators called reporters into his office, told them everything, and insisted on the record that if the Soviets didn’t remove the soldiers the administration must scrap its on-going strategic arms control negotiations.
The news hit the headlines and everyone from Congressmen to columnists compared the situation to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The administration worked furiously to save the negotiations while also trying to figure out why the Soviets put the brigade in Cuba – they had several theories – and what they should do about it. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance publicly declared, “I will not be satisfied with the maintenance of the status quo.” The situation had the makings of a major crisis.
Meanwhile, intelligence agencies quietly worked on the details. One was exactly when the Soviets put the brigade in Cuba. They combed old CIA files, spoke to retired officers, and examined previously unstudied reconnaissance photos. They drew an awkward conclusion.
The Soviets did not put the brigade in Cuba recently. Or even in the past several years. In fact, the brigade had been in Cuba continuously ever since the crisis in 1962. The Americans had known it was there from the beginning. But they had forgotten.
In 1979, one of the most popular sitcoms in America was Three’s Company, a show in which every episode revolved around a silly misunderstanding and Don Knotts making goofy faces at the camera. This crisis was the Cold War equivalent of a Three’s Company episode.
The embarrassed Americans explained everything to the Soviet ambassador. He was stunned. “Do you expect me to get people in the Kremlin to believe this story?” the ambassador asked.
“In Moscow, apparently, no one did,” wrote May and Neustadt. “There was much speculation about what Carter’s motives had been.”
And with that, an especially ridiculous chapter in the history of the Cold War concluded.
A bizarre tale, yes. But also instructive.
All the White House had to do after learning of the Soviet brigade’s presence was to ask questions about what led up to the moment when they were alerted. When was the brigade sent? Why? If they had simply asked these questions -- before doing anything else -- they “would have discovered that there had been no change,” May and Neutstadt wrote, “and therefore there was no problem.”
But they didn’t. Instead, they started by asking, “what should we do?”
That is the classic mistake.
Decision-makers confronted by a problem seldom start their response to the problem by looking back in time, May and Neustadt wrote. Instead, they immediately ask “what should we do?” When they come up with a plausible solution, they implement it. Or, in a more sophisticated form of the same approach, they develop a list of options, weigh them, choose one and implement it.
As a result, their decisions are based on whatever information they happen to have on hand when the problem surfaces. If that information is solid and complete, they may do fine. But having conducted no investigation or examination of assumptions, that information is more likely to be flawed and incomplete. And that can lead to major mistakes.
Now, if you know your behavioural science, you may be thinking, “didn’t Daniel Kahneman say something about this?” If so, a gold star for you.
A quarter century after May and Neustadt’s book was published, the pioneering psychologist and Nobel Prize-winner coined the acronym “WYSIATI.” It stands for “What You See Is All There Is.” In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explained that when we encounter a situation, we quickly and effortlessly generate intuitive conclusions about what is happening and why. The key to generating these snap judgements is to assume there is nothing more you need to learn -- that What You See Is All There Is.
This is natural human decision-making. We all do it automatically. It works well in the sorts of situations where intuition is a reliable guide, which tend to be simple and encountered repeatedly. But most important decisions in the modern world involve complex and unusual situations. And in those situations, this approach is as advisable as juggling nitroglycerin.
May and Neustadt wrote their book a quarter-century before Kahneman wrote his, but their advice squared perfectly with Kahneman’s work: When confronted by a new problem, stop. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t jump to conclusions. And absolutely do not ask “what should we do?”
Instead, May and Neustadt wrote, ask “what’s the story?” What led up to the current situation? In a word, what is the history behind what we are seeing now? Only after that has been thoroughly explored should you move on to asking, “what should we do?”
The present cannot be understood without understanding the past, May and Neustadt argued, and decisions made without understanding the present will not bring a happy future.
Always start with history: That’s the credo of PastPresentFuture.
This newsletter will feature lots of history. Mostly 19th- and 20th-century. Some war and politics. Economics. Business and investing history. Social history, particularly the evolving patterns of home and work. Maybe some pop culture history, if only so I can slip in the occasional Three’s Company reference.
And there is going to be a great deal about the history of technology. We have a strange relationship with technology today. We embrace it and look forward to what’s next with the excitement of a kid at Christmas. We also fear what it’s doing to us, resent our dependence on it, and worry about what’s coming. Think of social media, self-driving cars, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence. Think of your smart phone. But as new as these technologies are, and as contemporary as these concerns are, our strange relationship with technology is at least two centuries old. The history of how people reacted to new technologies – how they made sense of them, adopted or rejected them, regulated and controlled them -- is history we need today.
Much of the history I write about will have obvious resonance in the present. But to be honest, some of it will be here simply because I think it’s interesting or strange or fun. I love history. I find the smell of musty paper divine. (If you just wrinkled your nose, this newsletter is probably not for you.)
I’ll also write a lot about memory, both individual and collective. What and how we remember is just as important as history itself because it is the perception of the past – not the objective reality – that shapes decisions today and outcomes tomorrow.
And I’ll write about counterfactuals and alt history. In 1933, shortly before Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House, a man tried to shoot him. The bullets struck and killed the mayor of Chicago but Roosevelt was unharmed. Why? The would-be assassin was standing on a wobbly chair when he aimed the gun. He stood on the chair because a woman stood in front of him and he was barely five feet tall. What if that man had stood only a few inches taller? Speculation like that is a good way of sussing out the historical importance of people or events. It also demonstrates the pervasiveness of chaos theory in human affairs, which has enormous consequences for how predictable the future is and how we should think about planning for the future. Just as importantly, it’s fun.
And of course, I will write about psychology and decision-making, the subjects of all my books, so there will be lots about risk, forecasting, and planning in an uncertain world. If recent years have surprised and shaken you, good. You’re paying attention. Now is an excellent time to think more seriously about the future. And doing that starts with thinking more seriously about the past.
Now, if all this sounds like I will constantly shift from past to present to future, and back again, you are getting the idea.
May and Neustadt argued that poor decision-makers tend to think of time as being divided into the three separate compartments of past, present, and future. That has bad consequences. Most people – certainly most executives – spend their days struggling with problems in the present. If they see the past and future as separate compartments, then taking time to think about them will feel like a luxury. They have to get stuff done now.
That’s how you get a Three’s Company episode set in the White House.
By contrast, May and Neustadt argued, good decision-makers think of time as a “stream” in which past, present, and future are merely labels of convenience we put on parts of what is really a continuous whole. That may sound poetic or philosophical but it is deeply practical.
Imagine you are hiking in the wilderness and come to the bank of a fast-flowing river. You need to figure out the best way to cross it. Do you stare straight ahead, at a single point in the water, and ignore all the rest? No. That would be absurd. Instead, you look at various points on the river -- what’s in front of you, but also upstream and downstream. You need to understand the flow of the river.
Good decision-makers do something similar with time. They don’t look only at the present. They look upstream, downstream, and back again. They engage in “continuous comparison,” May and Neustadt wrote, “an almost constant oscillation from present to future to past and back.”
In the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy and his White House team started the usual way – “what should we do?” – and quickly concluded a major airstrike was the best response. Preparations started. Another president may have given the order. If that had happened, there’s a good chance neither you nor I would exist now. Or we would be gnawing chicken bones in a cave.
Fortunately, Kennedy grew more thoughtful. Rather than give the order, he slowed the process.
He cast his mind back to the origins of the First World War and drew lessons from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. Then he cast his imagination forward into the future. “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, The Missiles of October,” he told his brother, Robert. “If anybody is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”
Present to past to future and back. The result was better decision-making. And the world was spared nuclear war.
I can’t promise PastPresentFuture will prevent major international conflicts, but it will be interesting and get you thinking. I hope you subscribe.
Oh, yes. And about that subscription thing. There is a free option. But you can also pay. The difference? Some content is for paid subscribers only. But more than that, a paid subscription supports my work. If you agree that history is essential for smart decisions in the present and a better future, and you enjoy my writing, a paid subscription is a chance to support your convictions.