How to predict the future
3 min read

How to predict the future

The Buxton Index measures the time period over which people and organizations plan for the future. A painter who only thinks about the next brushstroke will find himself painted into a corner. Gardeners, by contrast, are patient. A gardener plants a seed with next year’s harvest in mind, understanding that their work will require time to bear fruit. Behold, the Buxton Index in action.

In a document written nearly fifteen years ago, Elon Musk demonstrates the benefits of a long Buxton Index. From The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan:

So, in short, the master plan is:
  • Build sports car
  • Use that money to build an affordable car
  • Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  • While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options

Having a long-term view of the future doesn't need to be complicated. In fact, simple models often outperform complicated ones over long time scales. This is because simple models are easier to intuitively understand and act on. Elon's master plan is the length of an email, yet it’s just as actionable today as when it was written in 2006. It takes a lot of work to make something simple.

So, the question is: how to have a longer Buxton Index?

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Part of extending your Buxton Index is anticipating change. Wayne Gretsky, the best hockey player of all time, described this as "skating to where the puck is going." Doing it successfully involves some amount of prediction. This is difficult but not impossible, as most people assume. As Richard Hamming said in The Art of Doing Science and Engineering:

Our ability to predict the future is often not limited by physical laws, but rather by human-made laws, habits, organizational rules, regulations, personal egos, and inertia.

Before we talk about how to accurately predict the future, allow me to describe two common strategies that don’t work:

  1. The tendency for most people is to predict the future through analogy. Analogies are a helpful tool to explain an existing conclusion, but they are a poor way to prepare for technological change. An unforeseen technological change can completely disrupt even the most careful prediction.
  2. Another way that we try to predict the future is through history. These methods often fail due to a flawed understanding of the past. We tend to take historical accounts at face value because they describe events that already happened. Unfortunately, the “facts” presented in these documents can be as incorrect as most projections of the future. Garbage in, garbage out.

So, analogies are out. Extrapolating from history is out too, unless you can be reasonably sure you’re not falling for an ex post facto narrative. What does work?

Having an active imagination can help to create meaningful visions of the future. This requires setting aside dedicated time to focus on trying to understand what will happen in the future. This can be as little as a half-day a week, but it requires consistency. These sessions can be improved by having conversations with others who share a similar sentiment towards long-term thinking. Try to ask yourself the following questions every week:

  • What is possible? (science)
  • What is likely to happen? (engineering)
  • What do I want to happen? (ethics)

The most successful predictors of the future are not passive observers. Individuals with long Buxton Indexes tend to have a hand in making the future that they want to see happen. Ray Dalio calls these people shapers:

A shaper is someone who comes up with unique and valuable visions and builds them out beautifully, typically over the doubts and opposition of others.

Shapers do not believe in a predetermined future. To a shaper, active participation and creativity are the best tools for successfully predicting what tomorrow will look like. Or, as Alan Kay said:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

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