Anticipation: Are You a Rock Star or Storyteller?

How many times have we read books or articles about someone who seemed to see the future and made all the right moves? How often have the “rock stars” of the business world been featured speakers at industry conference?

Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The business world, which used to be dry (at least, I thought of it that way when I was young), has now become like the rest of our culture: fast, noisy, and prone to hero-worship. The fact that I used the term “rock star” in the previous paragraph is not even all that unusual.

I was at a conference some time ago where Gary Vaynerchuk talked to an auditorium full of bankers. I wrote about that presentation here. For those of you who don’t know him, Gary is one of the internet sensations who is self-made and a guru of sorts. Since he clearly felt it was his job to shake up the staid bankers, he wore a hoodie to the event, paced the stage like a lion, and dropped a few F bombs to demonstrate his street cred.

I have become suspicious that many of the luminaries who we worship are better at constructing narratives after a series of events than they are at actually anticipating them.  This isn’t a slam on Gary, who I think did some amazing things.  But I think for every self-made Gary there are a thousand “success stories” who were in the right place at the right time and were better than others at getting their story out there (that’s not meant to be cynical, but I think there’s truth to this).

Before we get too smug, let’s admit this to ourselves: we all do it. The universal inclination to blame failure on external forces yet take credit for successes (despite the insurmountable odds!) causes us to construct narratives that explain how it all came about.

Psychologists have long understood this. Confirmation bias identifies our inclination to select data that confirms our theories, and if our theory is “I anticipated what was about to happen and acted accordingly”, then the data that supports that view is the data we’ll be citing – whether it’s in a hallway conversation or in a submission to a publisher.

One of the great books about our ability to construct narratives is The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In the book, Taleb used the existence of black swans as a metaphor for how we react to unexpected events.

When England had only white swans, then the logic held that all swans were white. When a type of black swan was discovered on the other side of the world (Australia), the very people who said there could be nothing other than white swans constructed narratives about how not only were they unsurprised to hear about black swans, but in fact the existence of those swans was somewhat expected.  In short, people react to the unexpected by constructing narratives that suggest the unexpected event was expected all along.

So here are some tough questions we need to ask ourselves: how often do we write down our predictions about what is going to happen next? How often do we pull out the three year predictions we wrote three years ago and see how close we were?

If we don’t spend time anticipating change, then how accurate are our post-event narratives which emphasize how we saw the change coming and acted boldly?

If there are as few people spending time actively anticipating events as I think there are, then it means we have an opportunity.  The opportunity is to do something important that most people don’t take the time to do.  The opportunity is to “prove it” to those who doubt your narrative by showing them your work (kind of like the long-division problems you slaved over in elementary school).

How do you know when you’re investing in anticipation and when you’re constructing a narrative?

Anticipation looks forward. Narratives look backward.

Anticipation focuses attention on markets and people.  Narratives generally focus attention on individuals or small groups.

Anticipation sees opportunity. Narratives see credit and blame.

Anticipation is murky and hard. Narratives are clear and easy.

I wish you every success as you anticipate what comes next in your industry.  Good luck!

P.S.  For more posts on anticipation, go here and here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.