June 24, 2015

No progress-warranty

Making progress in what is important to us is very motivating. I am referring both to individual progress, progress in your own life, and collective progress, progress at the level of groups and societies. What can be a problem is that progress is not always easy to see. When we do not pay close attention we can easily overlook it. Also, it is not always clear whether we should interpret a development as progress. There is, I think, an inherent reason why progress can be hard to see. By making progress we may encounter new situations which pose higher demands on us. Those higher demands, we can perceive as signs of decline or regress instead of progress.

There is, in my view, often more progress than we are aware of. My experience with students and clients who I work with, gives me reason to think this. When I ask them questions about past successes and about what they have already achieved, and when I patiently keep asking questions about these things (for this reason), I often notice that they are surprised to discover that they have achieved more progress that they realized. The same is probably the case on the level of the collective. While many people seem to think that the world is in a worse shape than ever before, this is probably not true. The world may be in a better shape than ever before. At least, there are many things which are getting better, demonstrably. For example, have a look at the work by Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, Zack Beauchamp, and Max Roser.

Many people do not know that in many areas in the world there is great progress. They think they know that the world is a worse shape than is true and that many important issues are getting worse while they are actually getting better. This is bad because a perception of failure and regress undermines motivation. It can keep us from making an effort to establish further progress. Also, an unfounded sense of alarm can make us focus on the wrong things or use too drastic measures.

Am I saying that everything is rosy on earth? Certainly not. While in many places important things are improving, it is also true that their is a great deal of local misery. I am talking about misery which can be heartbreaking. Yes, it is true that while many things are getting better, other things are getting worse. Furthermore, it is a fact that everything in our existence is confined. Eventually we will all die. And eventually humanity and even our solar system will perish (I admit, that will take a long time). And this is not all. I already mentioned that the question whether there is progress is often to some extent a matter of interpretation. Although life of most modern people is much more comfortable and better than that of people living decades, hundreds and thousands of years ago, it is also true that are faced with new problems which did not exist in the past. There are new diseases and new threats, and our potential for self-destruction is greater than ever. There are various scenarios which may lead to humanity's extinction, sooner than we would hope.

More than before, as humans, we must learn to live with uncertainties. We learn more about the world and much of what we learn is that what we used to think was true, turns out not to be true. The future may become better but we are not sure it will. We have no progress-warranty. As I write this, I am reminded of words by Karl Weick. In 1984 he wrote: “It seems useful to consider the possibility that social problems seldom get solved because people define these problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.” And in 1988: “To be wise is to proceed anyway, knowing that your knowing is fallible and that whatever you do will shape what you face…..”

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