One of the most memorable bucket-listy things I’ve done this year is visiting more national parks and canyons than I can count on my hands within a span of a few weeks. In fact, I wrote about a couple of those experiences last summer, all while enduring the slow upload speeds of remote hotels and middles-of-nowhere I was writing from. But one of the most remarkable things I experienced from that trip was sitting over a ledge on the Grand Canyon overlooking the sunset.
It’s one thing to be staring out into the setting sun in such a beautiful place, it’s something on another level to experience that while realizing that literally right beneath your feet are rocks and sculptures dating back millions of years into the past – structures whose temporal scale is so unimaginably huge literally thousands of Entire Human Histories fit inside. I never quite got over the scale of everything I saw or did during that little walk in the park. I stared out into the nearly mile-wide gap onto the other side of the canyon walls as I walked along my side of the river, I got to see the incredible scale of the canyons from a bird’s eye view, and then back down, while I let myself fall into the mesmerizing color tones of the canyon walls reflecting shades of orange and blue from the sunset. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, especially augmented by the colors of the sun hanging over the horizon.
But not all was perfect and beautiful that night. For starters, I was planning on taking some time-lapse shots and photos of the sunset before the sun went below the horizon, but being on foot, I got there quite a bit late. And through the walk there from my lodge that measured in at a bit under an hour, I kept visualizing the shots that I’d take, the colors and dynamics that I might be able to capture. And unfortunately, I ended up admiring a good chunk of the sunset from the half-shadowed viewpoints along the way there. And when I eventually got there, it was probably well in to the last half of the sunset as I salvaged what shots I could. And then it was over.
It’s kind of startling, the difference that’s often between how you imagine something will go, and how it actually happens. There always seems to be some sort of a mental expectation – its own model of how the story unfolds. But the reality is often much more direct and to the point, because it’s tasked not with impressing our minds or telling beautiful stories, but just happening – just existing. And when the reality betrays the trajectory your mind’s carved out for itself, it feels hollow, like something’s gone missing.
I’ve had similar feelings after a marathon of a great book series or film franchise – the feeling of “now what?” that falls down as reality sets in and your anticipation of reality fades away.
So what’s the use for these misguided, biased, often inaccurate projects our minds make subconsciously about the future?
At this point, it’s a scientifically verified fact that humans are just terrible at dealing with chances and probabilities. We don’t know probabilities of even relatively simple events, we can’t make reasonable predictions about the future, we’re irrationally sensitive to events that probably won’t happen, and yet we persuade ourselves that no matter how many people around us experience something awful, we won’t be the ones stricken with the same fortunes. For the most part, without careful mathematical analyses, the roll of a few dice is just about the best we can do. And that’s disappointing, but that also gives rise to something whose benefits might just outweigh our apparent lack of probabilistic intelligence – Hope.
Our ridiculously terrible ability to compute probabilities and predict the future isn’t great for gambling, but it does have its benefits in making things a bit more exciting for everyone.
While we’re uniquely horrible at predicting the future, we’re uniquely talented at persuading ourselves that there’s generally going to be more good than bad. Our internal crystal balls are generally rather positive compared to their counterparts in the reality – it’s the simple mechanics of hope and anticipation. We see an idyllic future, we overestimate its potential, we over-aim, shoot for the stars, and while we might not get exactly where we thought we’d end up, without exception, we often push things forward. Hope, try, regroup, repeat – it’s the mentality of entrepreneurship and creativity.
In that way, there’s a bit of escaping-the-reality magic associated with anticipation, with the act of waiting for our mentally constructed, idyllic futures to arrive. The weird enchantment of moments before something happens – and what we imagine those future moments to be – is what drives passion and motivates us towards the future. Were we blessed with the ability to predict the future with much better certainties, we wouldn’t try to realize crazy daring ideas that advance technology. We wouldn’t believe in the potential of avant-garde, innovative artistry. For many, many things, it’s not the end result, but what we reap from the moments and experiences leading up to something that creates the value, and that’s the gift on the other side of our mathematically, fantastically flawed sense of probability – we gain motivation not from the goal, but from our inbuilt optimism in the moments that are not quite there, not quite the end.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Splitting time.
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