“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So spoke the character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. While Montoya was referring to the word “inconceivable,” he may as well have added another word to the list: “visionary.”
As a society, we adore creative visionaries. We follow them on social media, praise them in blog posts, and eagerly listen to them on podcasts. In this influencer-obsessed era, we’ve reached Peak Visionary, creating idols out of people whom we believe can see the future.
But that’s where we’re wrong. Visionaries don’t see the future; their magic is that they’re able to see the present while the rest of us are busy looking at the past.
While researching for my book, Break the Wheel, I stumbled on a psychological issue which causes most of us to base our thinking on the past instead of the present. It’s called “cultural fluency,” which is your behavior when the world unfolds as expected, based on past precedent. When someone shrugs and explains, “That’s just how we do things around here,” they’ve fallen victim to this form of mindless decision-making triggered by cultural fluency.
On the other hand, those “visionaries” we admire are more willing to question conventional wisdom. They understand that best practices are lagging indicators, and so they ask, “What if we made decisions based on leading indicators instead?”
Sure, an innovative thinker can more easily extrapolate their ideas from today into the future, but it’s only because they start by understanding the present so intimately. Like building a skyscraper, their foundation is strong enough to support the heights they reach. Meanwhile, we’re too reliant on details pulled from a bygone moment instead of updating our knowledge using our present context.
We often learn of great artists, builders, and scientists who were rejected by their peers only to be revered today. We conclude, “They were ahead of their time.” But consider that their contemporaries were merely stuck in the past. History shows us that it might take decades, even centuries, for people to look back and say to themselves “Ya know, that fella was really onto something. Maybe that whole ‘clasp him in chains’ thing wasn’t the best move.”
Weren’t people from olden times so silly? Yes. But we’ve only gotten goofier today. It’s easier than ever to base our decisions on the past thanks to the endless amounts of supposed “right answers” shared publicly online. In the end, we need to set that information aside—if only for a moment—to inform our decisions using the present. Despite how innovative a supposed “visionary” seems, we need to embrace the truth: Innovation requires clarity, not prescience.
There’s an old quote often attributed to the great investor Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway fame, which he borrowed from the British economist John Maynard Keynes: “I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” This idea is simple to understand but hard to execute: it’s more effective to continually update your knowledge rather than profess to know “the” answer all the time. When you routinely course-correct as you acquire new information, you shape your thinking and thus your work to the present moment. Whereas best practices provide security in their absoluteness, it’s dangerous to base a decision on something that precise. Any mandate or blueprint must be contextualized to your unique and present situation to be as relevant and effective as possible.
As Keynes first suggested, we should embrace a more zig-zaggy truth than best practices offer: To succeed in the real world is to admit that the world changes, every day, all the time, and thus we should act like lifelong learners. If we adopt this idea of being “vaguely right” instead of “precisely wrong,” just as Munger later did, we might see visionaries for what they truly are: Investigators. They regularly update their knowledge as the context changes. In this way, I suppose they do possess a kind of “vision,” but it’s not the kind we usually imagine. It’s not foresight at all. It’s the ability to see the world around them more clearly. What if we did too?
I’ve written before on this very site about how to do exactly that. Today, I’d challenge each of us to rethink the absolutism proliferating around the business world. That glut of prescriptions has turned all those “how-tos” into “have-tos,” but the only thing we have to do is find the right approach for our current and unique situation. Visionaries are investigators, not experts. That’s not a gift they were given. It’s a skill each of us can hone.
Seeing the world as it really is—today, right now—can help us make better decisions in our work. It can snap us out of cultural fluency, that tendency to lapse into stale patterns because “that’s how we do things around here.” Visionaries aren’t more creative than us. They’re more mindful. They’re more focused on developing the self-awareness and situational awareness they need to see the world as it really is—then act accordingly.
My challenge to you: Let everybody else place visionaries on a pedestal. Let them agonize over understanding their “secrets” and how they peer into the future. The next time you start assuming that those people see something you can’t, I hope you’ll smile and shake your head. Because it’s inconceivable.
“Visionary.” Ugh. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.