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7 tricks to anticipate better

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

1. Break problems into smaller manageable problems

The first job to do when you are doing anticipation is to focus on finding the good sub-questions that will allow you to answer your big question. Don’t try to tackle a difficult question directly, it will be more likely that you fall into biases. Hard questions are made of a lot of unknown. By breaking them into smaller pieces, you end up with much more manageable parts. Nobel prize physicist Enrico Fermi was a master at that. He is famous for his on-the-spott deconstructions of seemingly intractable problems. A famous one is : How many piano tuners are there in Chicago ? Here is how he would approach it:

Chicago has a population of about 3 million people (at the time). Now, assume that an average family contains four members so that the number of families in Chicago must be about 750,000. If one in five families owns a piano, there will be 150,000 pianos in Chicago. If the average piano tuner services four pianos every day of the week and rests on weekends, and has a two weeks vacation during the summer, then in one year (52 weeks) he would service 1,000 pianos. 150,000/(4 x 5 x 50) = 150, so that there must be about 150 piano tuners in Chicago.

2. Balance global pictures with details. See the forest and the trees.

Establish a baseline for the phenomenon you are trying to anticipate. This is somewhat more an art than science, because you need to choose the category in which our current anticipation belongs. Say you are trying to anticipate if violence is going to rise after an election in a given country. Do you establish a baseline of violence after elections for the world, within the continent, within the country? A rule of thumb is : the narrower the better, but it does not always work that way.

Once you have a baseline (big picture), you can start zooming into the details. It is important to follow this order/sequence(first the big picture then the details) to avoid falling into availability bias.

An example of the issue of going directly with details is the famous librarian example of the Economy Nobel prize Daniel Kahneman. In an experiment, he asked people the following question : “Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.” Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Most people are going for the librarian. However, the likelihood of Steve being a farmer is higher statistically, despite the details that would point otherwise (there are 20x more agriculor than librarians). This style of thinking is based on a statistical branch inspired from 18th century mathematician Bayes, that has been re-popularized with machine learning. Here is an excellent video to understand how all of that is just equivalent to 5th grade geometry.

3. Update your belief in small increment

It is equally important to examine details once you have your baseline set up. The last point was focusing on being careful to not jump to conclusions based on details and to anchor your thinking in a global perspective.. For every piece of information, ask yourself (literally and outloud, it works better, believe me) : “how does this impact the baseline? “ You’ll realise that sometimes, it does not change much. If you have the luxury of longer term questions (3 or 6 months), updating your thinking frequently will make you go a long way. Changing your mind (a little bit) frequently is good advice. However you also have to know when to radically change your opinion. Every once in a while, a new piece of information comes and radically changes your mind.

4. Have an argument. Genuinely think about its counterargument

If you think something will happen, very frequently re-run the opposite argument, give it credit and cherish it. You broke your question into smaller manageable ones. You set up a baseline, you looked at the details of the situation and you are periodically/routinely changing your mind. It is now important to not remain locked up in your comfort zone. Your opinion should not remain set in stone. You have to constantly keep in check the opposite argument. . This is incredibly difficult because it forces you to constantly live in doubt. However uncomfortable this is, it is a very strong skill to develop in order to be less wrong.

5.Learn from your errors but don’t generalize too much

By keeping track of your opinion over time and confronting it to what really happened, you are the heavy lifting to build anticipation muscles. Write everything down. Once the event unfolded, read and discover yourself from the past. Since it is really difficult to un-know something you know, you cannot really put yourself back in the shoes of yourself that did not know. When you write down stuff, you actually can. You can analyse with hindsight what pieces of information you would have liked to get, or what mental model you would have liked to emulate and try it for other similar questions.

6. Sharpen your thinking with a team

One of the best ways to refine your ideas and be less wrong is to discuss them with a team. It’s easier said than done, because once you go in talking mode, you are tempted to convince your teammates that you are right and everything they say against it, makes you feel threatened. Our biology does not give us a good head start.

A good trick to go over this tendency is to clarify roles. If you are the one bringing the material, congratulations : you did the heavy lifting. However, you really need to understand that when you pull a first raw opinion, your work is far from being done. It is actually just starting. With that in mind, you need to see your sparring partner as an ally. Assume from the start your first thinking is flawed and be happy that someone helps you debunk it. Don’t camp on our position for the sake of it. Have room to take other points of view. “Update” your thinking.

As a sparring partner, there is a great deal you can do to make the sparring session better. The most important thing is maybe to put psychology on your side. Soften your voice, be gentle to not push your interlocutor on a defensive side and to not transform the session into a “I’m right, you’re wrong” session. Speak slowly. The feeling you want to emulate is curiosity and co-thinking. Secondly, you need to make an effort to rearticulate the argument of your interlocutor. Actually rephrase it to the best of your ability. If you are wiser or more knowledgeable than your interlocutor, use those strengths to incorporate them in your reformulation. You should aim for a “it’s exactly what I wanted to say, you just said it better” face from your pal. Once you have done so, you are ready to ask questions.

While there are many kinds of questions one can ask (more on that in another post), precision questioning seems to be key to yield better anticipation. Take any concept from the argument and zoom into it till you have a clear understanding of it. For instance, if someone makes the case that the economy is good, use precision questioning to make them articulate what “economy” is, and what “good” means. Check this lecture by Richard Feynman on that.

7. Map out in advance the things that will make you change your mind

Listing game changer events beforehand is a great tool. After a sparring session, you will be left with points of dissensions. There are particular points where your mental models will conflict with those of others. That’s fine. Just map them out, list them somewhere and think about what would need to happen to change your mind over them. It is important to do that beforehand, if not you might be tempted to discard the events as they unfold to keep believing what you used to believe, and spare yourself the pain of changing your opinion. Be careful though to not focus too much and only on your list. Unplanned things have a strong tendency to happen. It is the act of planning that is carrying the value, not the plan itself.

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