The curse of overanalyzing the past

05 Jul 2021    2 mins read.

People find comfort in “knowing how they got here,” but do we really know how things unfolded, and even if we know, can we reproduce it?

If you look at the current state of a company or a person’s life, it’s easy to attribute the success or failure to a sum of events and decisions in the past. Summation is linear thinking, and not many things in life are linear. We get to linear thinking through averages, but most things in life are complex systems operating in a constant state of increasing entropy. This means that no two companies, people, or families are alike, and their path of getting to the current state is extremely unique. Just like you can’t biologically be like someone else, you can’t reproduce the same company, family, set of events, this very moment. Context matters. Learning from the past, though, is more comforting than advantageous.

The uncomfortable truth is that you got here due to the combination of events, only a small number of which were actions inside of your control. We tend to overestimate the things that are in our control and are apparent to analysis while underestimating the randomness.

Hard work or innate abilities certainly influence the outcome, but not as much as we’d like to think they do. Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness” is an excellent expose of just how prevalent chance is in our everyday life. Knowing this shouldn’t demotivate you from working hard, grasping at opportunities, and celebrating your outcome, but it should make you aware of just how much randomness affects the outcome.

As I write this, I sit here looking at the love of my life, my beautiful, wonderful, caring wife, and my two amazing kids. I can’t picture my life without them. This moment is blissful, and it’s easy and comforting to look at the present as a set of successive events we have influence over. But if you look deep, you’ll realize how random and fragile this moment is. How small and seemingly insignificant events, many of which we have no control of, could have completely changed the outcome. I can’t help but anxiously wonder that I could have just as easily done something else at the time I spontaneously met my wife and would have never experienced this present moment I’m enjoying. These thoughts are scary, but they are also valuable, for they help us appreciate this very moment, its random nature, the process, the lucky breaks, and just how fragile everything is.

In product, iterative development works because the industry realized you couldn’t preplan and reproduce past results. Instead, we plan short-term and respond to new information, unknowns, randomness which occurs. In this context, it’s great to have a vision. The result will end up somewhere close, but we must embrace the path that will be riddled by randomness.

You can look at the past but don’t gloat in it. Enjoy the process and this very moment for its uniqueness and randomness.