Forecasting Folly

Brett Wilson of Dragon’s Den fame brought some Heritage Day weekend Hoopla to Lake Windermere in early August. He has a not too shabby lakefront spot upon which he organized and hosted a concert. He, along with a few others, hired country music star Brett Kissell. The concert was performed in Wilson’s back yard.    Music was sent via radio frequency which could be picked up by listeners along the shoreline and on their boats. It was a warm, wonderful evening. Listeners were encouraged to make a donation to a local charity. Over $130,000 was raised. RCMP were invited to observe and encourage attendees to socially distance. By all accounts, things went off smoothly and a great time was had by all.  The lake flooded with a flotilla. There were 300-400 boats in the vicinity soaking in the sounds. Though a lake that’s great fun, Lake Windermere is no Great Lake. It’s more of a pond parsed by a pause in a river. Hundreds of boats each weighing several thousand pounds with hulking hulls displaced some water.

Seeing pictures of this many boats packing the water like sardines dovetailed nicely with a business story I read indicating that 2020 to date has been the best year in over 10 years for boat sales. Who would have made that prediction in March?  In hindsight, it makes reasonable sense. Our economic experts are all too good at explaining things in retrospect. These heroes of hindsight offer, “Well, of course, boat sales are strong. Boating offers a great way to enjoy the outdoors and maintain social distance. Buying a boat is being responsible. We’re avoiding congested beaches and separating ourselves on the water.”

Really? Obvious? In March , when most of us were retracting like a scared turtle, were we thinking of purchasing a boat for some fun and games? Entry level ones cost close to $100,000. The higher end surf boats can fetch prices upwards of $400,000.  Nervously peaking out beyond our toilet paper bunkers, whom amongst us thought, this summer is going to be fantastic? Yes, let’s get that surf boat we’ve been dreaming about. I’m ready to part with a substantial part of my life savings or take on debt to get a toy right now.   Weren’t we a bit more pessimistic? Didn’t we retrench, scale back on almost any non-discretionary purchase? If we weren’t consuming something for survival, we weren’t shopping for it. Yes, those Lululemon pants you’re sporting count as survival needs. Even those embedded in the industry didn’t anticipate what’s transpired as expected. CEO of boat manufacturer, Mastercraft, Fred Brightbill observed, “Our business started taking a downturn in March. We expected the worst, planned for that, and we are very much surprised to the upside. Business strengthened in April, strengthened continually in May, and was record-setting in June and continues into July.”

Is the secret to success seeing further ahead?  Seeing what others can’t yet see?  We’re trying to find the next big thing. What’s the next rare earth metal on the horizon? Gold has been on a tear in 2020 as a hedge against bad news. What’s the next Gold? What’s the next Uranium? Are we too late to jump on the Lithium bandwagon? Rechargeable batteries are still the future, aren’t they? How about good old fashioned steel? The only thing as rare as Lithium these days is meathead metal used to make Kettlebells, barbells, and other fitness equipment. Kettlebells are as elusive as sightings of Sasquatch since COVID burst into our lives. With gym closures, home gym equipment sales have taken off. Again, who knew? Sure, it’s “obvious” looking back from where we are now. Of course, any person with a whit of wisdom left wanting a workout learned quickly that closed gyms would lead to increased demand for home exercise equipment. However, who was making this prediction back in early March?

Finally, daycares and day homes were shuttered during lockdowns leaving parents working from home struggling to support little ones and themselves. This has led to a steep interest in live-in Nannies. In order to preserve both an iota of sanity and productivity parents have sought to have childcare needs met with hiring a Nanny. In hindsight, obvious. In March, didn’t see it coming.

There’s been several pockets of optimistic economic performance that should seem a little surprising. We’ve also had any number of sad stories of commerce. Established brands have sought bankruptcy protection in order to wind down. Perennial favorites like Victoria’s Secret, H&M, and Aldo.  Other stalwarts, like Rolex, though still fighting have halted production or are committing to reducing their store footprint. Starbucks, for example, has committed to permanently closing 400 locations and Dunkin brands have expressed intent to shutter 800 stores in the U.S. We’re by no means through the other side and things could still get worse from an economic perspective. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to observe what has and is materializing relative to what we may have thought or experts were offering back in March as lockdowns were imposed. Prognosticators defaulted to doom and gloom. Widespread commercial carnage was projected. Forecasting is flawed. Experts aren’t able to predict with clarity. They don’t have a crystal ball. They are guessing just like the rest of us.

What are we to make of all this? Perhaps, we can consider embracing humility when embroiled in what is going on around us economically. First, we can step back from making predictions and forecasts. We simply don’t know, can’t know what is going to happen. This isn’t to suggest a completely passive posture. “Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it.”  We can only do what we can. We don’t know if the worst is yet to come. We don’t know how quickly things will return to “normal” or whether they will return to normal. We can work to shift our strategic perspectives from the future to the here and now. We can try to focus on what we can do today. We can then look to the future and embrace the uncertainty.

Author, Robert Greene, has observed that “the need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.” As Greene notes, certainty is not a wish, it’s deeper, it’s a need. We hate uncertainty.  An Atlantic article by Eric Weiner  reinforces this sentiment. Weiner writes of a British study that found humans hate uncertainty so much that we’d rather experience 100% of a negative event than the uncertainty of the same negative event. The stress experienced by participants uncertain whether they would receive an electric shock (of a manageable dose and duration) was greater than those that knew they would receive this exact same shock. Those that knew the sting was coming, prepared themselves or resigned themselves for/to it. They were less stressed than those stewing in their juices wondering, am I getting it, when will I get it, what will it feel like?  In our current COVID context, our minds are flooded with questions to which we have no answers, nor do the leaders and experts in our society. When does this end? What does the end look like? Is my job reasonably safe? How long can my business manage this way of functioning? How will we manage our children’s education? Will there be a vaccine? How do we know a vaccine will be safe? The questions go on, the answers don’t. We’re clamoring for certainty. A tweet from US News commentator, Laura Ingraham, reflects this reaction: “Americans need to know date certain when this will end. This uncertainty for businesses, parents and kids is just not sustainable.”  She may be referring to the lockdown initiatives of government and not the virus itself. Nonetheless, the sentiment she surfaces is one we can see in all corners of society. We are “demanding” clarity and direction when the answers simply aren’t known.

The suggestion is that uncertainty is undesirable. Clarity is calming. Even if this is so, today, uncertainty is ubiquitous. Weiner points out that there are times where we actually enjoy uncertainty. That’s the draw in books and movies which are thrillers. What we and our businesses are going through presently doesn’t feel fun like a thriller. The uncertainty is taxing on staff and planning. Weiner presents two options for decreasing uncertainty. We can work to decrease the perceived risk or increasing our tolerance for uncertainty. We’re encouraged to draw on the timeless wisdom of the Stoics to recognize that much of life is outside of our control. We should work to ignore those things we can’t control and focus our thoughts, energy, and effort around only those things over which we can exert some influence.

Stoic legend, Epictetus, is credited with “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” Epictetus identifies that “Some things are in our control and others not.” Dale Carnegie recounts a story of a military figure trying to detail how he manages with the difficulties and uncertainties of battle. Carnegie quotes Admiral King, “If a ship has been sunk, I can’t bring it up. If it is going to be sunk, I can’t stop it. I can use my time much better working on tomorrow’s problem than by fretting about yesterday’s. Besides, if I let those things get me, I wouldn’t last long.” Epictetus and Carnegie are offering us useful guidance to steer us to be constructive in the face of uncertainty. There’s little value in complaining about it or arguing with it. Claiming we need answers is childish.

Focusing our efforts more on the here and now over what we can control gives us a productive place to pursue. From here, we can work to recognize that uncertainty offers a benefit. Not knowing the answer spurs effort to try to figure things out. Cultivate curiosity in the face of uncertainty instead of fear and stress. Scientists and creatives seem to benefit from not knowing.  Because we don’t know, we need to broaden our preparation for a variety of outcomes.  In future articles we’ll take a look at two specific strategies for forecasting and planning which will help us manage the unpleasant uncertainty which is likely to stick around for a while.

“The only thing we know about the future is that it is going to be different. —Peter Drucker”

Additional Reading