When I was framing this long form Credidero writing project late last year, I was living in a high-rise condo just off the Loop in Chicago, with plans to move back to Des Moines in the spring, where my wife’s work was based, where our daughter lived, and where we’d kept a second apartment for three years at that point, splitting our family life in professionally expedient, but personally unpleasant ways, for both of us. Despite the planned change of residency, my Board of Trustees asked me to stay on in my job as a nonprofit CEO, working remotely, with a monthly visit to the Chicago-area office, supplemented by my usual national travel schedule. Seemed like a good and stable “new normal” to me at the time, and I would have expected and predicted that when I was writing the final Credidero article (this one) twelve months later, that still would have been my current personal paradigm.
But that’s not the case, not at all. My wife and I are still in our Des Moines apartment, yes, but I retired from my nonprofit CEO job in November, and my wife shifted from her in-house corporate general counsel position to a freelance/contract situation that same month, allowing her to work from home. Our daughter and her partner are in the final phases of evaluating their next steps after she finishes her dual masters degree program next May, and they hope to be moving by next summer to an area that will allow them to pursue their outdoorsy activities more regularly, and for more months each year than frigid Iowa allows. My wife and I are using our newfound ability to travel when and where we want to both for international pleasure trips, and also to do our own sussing out of potential domestic markets for our own next steps.
If I had to guess, none of us will be in Des Moines by Christmas of 2020. New Mexico seems like the likeliest destination for my wife and I, with Arizona in second place (we’re both ready to own a house and some land again after five years of apartment/condo living), while Nevada looks to be the leading contender for our daughter and her partner. On the professional and personal improvement fronts, I’ve registered for two writers’ workshops in the year ahead, and may do others as time and resources permit, working toward a goal of getting back into paid freelance and/or contract work, and taking on some larger projects than have been possible for me while working full time. Once again, it seems like there’s an appealing “new normal” out there for 2020 and beyond, if I was asked to predict one.
But I could (and probably would) be just as wrong about that prediction twelve months from now as I was in the ones that I would have made a year ago. And therein lies the beauty and mystery of “Possibility,” this month’s Credidero topic. There are a lot of futures out there with our names on them. While it’s a obviously hyperbolic to claim “anything’s possible,” there certainly are a lot of branching decision points ahead of us, some within our control, some driven by external forces, with myriad variant outcomes shaped by ever-shifting combinations emerging from each of those nodes. We have a frequent family saying (and belief) in our household that “options make everything better.” I truly believe in that more and more as I get older and (maybe) wiser, given that the more options one has, the more possibilities that may spring from them. I find that to be deeply exciting, if only occasionally a little nerve-racking.
I referenced an old song of mine called “Anathematics” in an earlier Credidero article, and it contains the line “The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be” within its chorus. Indeed. Possibility can conceptually only be forward/future-looking, as what’s happened in the past is set, 100% possible by definition, at least outside of quantum or multiverse realms beyond what human beings can actually experience. That said, I do know that our tree of possibilities is heavily shaped by the decisions we’ve made in the past, e.g. what resources we’ve accrued, what types of work we’ve done, what we’ve valued and prioritized in how/where we live, how we’ve managed professional and personal relationships, etc. We’re always positioned at an inexorably forward-moving crux point, where all we are is all we’ve been, and all we can be is cantilevered out in front of us, hinged precipitously off of this slippery now. But as our collective past gets longer, and heavier, it provides an ever-more robust inertial ballast to what may yet be. No paths forward exist independent of the paths that carried us to this point, right here, right now. That’s why I don’t believe in regret. We can’t change the past, and wishing to do so devalues our now, and cramps our then.
If words can carry emotional heft beyond their dictionary definitions, then “possibility” certainly seems to bear a positive energy in most Western Cultures, most akin to and aligned with “hope” in its most common usage. People generally want to and choose to consider that tomorrow, and its tomorrows, will be brighter and lighter and better than today, even if today is pretty darn good, and we all hope that from all the possible futures before us, we may be graced with benign and gentle and prosperous ones. Just a quick surf through any online quotation bank for famous aphorisms including the word “possibility” affirms this sense:
“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” (Thomas Merton)
“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.” (John O’Donohue)
And those are just the first three of 489 quotes returned from my single search, with most of the ones following them carrying similar optimism, joy and wonder about that which is not, but yet may be. Of course, it’s also possible that nuclear war will scorch the planet into a cinder tomorrow too, or that one of countless possible natural apocalyptic events (super-volcanoes, asteroid strikes, solar eruptions, etc.) could render 2020 a year much like the one at the heart of the K-T Boundary. Some folks spend much of their time considering such possibilities, either for professional, or personal, or poor metal health reasons, but for the vast majority of us in prosperous developed cities and nations, when we ponder possibilities, we’re generally seeing them as paths to future health, wealth, and goodness, or at least improvements on the now, whether subtle and personal or transformational and global.
When we want to consider the less fuzzy and warm facets of possibility, we generally turn to its more mathematically robust cousin: probability. While every child in America may cheerfully be told, under our “land of opportunity” rubric, that it’s possible for him or her to become President some day, we know that with ~325 million people in our country right now, only ~0.0000005% of them actually achieve that goal in a typical eligible lifetime. And as we assess those few human beings who are in reasonably serious consideration for that leadership role at this point in our never-ending political cycles, we’re bombarded by polling that attempts to cull the probable from the possible in next year’s elections. (You’d think we’d be better at picking Presidents, given their statistical oddity and uniqueness, yeesh!).
Natural global catastrophes are assessed in similar probabilistic terms: they’re pretty much all possible over the remaining existence of our planet, but when they happen, how much they destroy, and how likely each one might be at any given time are subjects for whole schools of research, scholarship, and (sadly) crank science and pop culture or religious fear-mongering. Climate change certainly has emerged as the most possible existential threat to our species in the short term (geologically speaking), but even there, credible experts and specious profiteers still differ wildly in their views on the when, what, how and how much of this evolving global process. Bringing things closer to home, in the era of big data, similar probabilistic and statistical analyses are constantly helping our governments, our doctors, and our businesses to make macro decisions that ideally reduce micro individual uncertainty and move us toward desirable (to them) possible futures. We can only hope that what we might actually desire doesn’t deviate too far from those calculations and the policies built upon them.
I found an utterly fascinating article by futurist Ruud van der Helm written in 2006, wherein he adds a third element to evaluating what may yet be: he considers the possible, the probable, and the plausible, and hopes that semantic clarification between those terms may improve both science and practice in the domains of future studies and foresight. I could easily spend the full text of this month’s Credidero piece summarizing his report, since it rings most true and clear to me, but I’ll settle for quoting the definitions that he uses in his summary for those three key terms:
Probability refers to concepts of chance and likeliness. A probable future is a future that is more likely than some other future. Likeliness should mainly lead to the ordinal ranking of alternative futures between more likely and less likely. Whether we select likely futures or less likely futures is a matter of study objectives. Any future, whether probable or improbable, is by default a possible future.
Possibility refers to a claim of reality, whether some future either can be or cannot be (and nothing in between). A possible future is considered by default potentially realizable (either passively or actively). Possibility can be challenged for absolute reasons (violation of established laws) or for contingent reasons (lack of realism with respect to the proposed time frame or available means). The latter consideration is the most relevant for futures studies and may yield important input for futures analysis.
Plausibility refers to the structure of the argument, where truth-value is based on the convincingness, the credibility, of the discourse describing the future. A plausible future is a convincing description of a future, which we can hold true, even though this future itself can be factually fallacious. A future can be plausible without being possible (excluding Bloch’s primary level of the formally possible). As a consequence, plausibility cannot be established beyond a personal or social process of negotiation.
When I personalize those concepts as I look forward (actuarial science would suggest I’ve got another 22 years or so before I’m beating the longevity odds), I see great possibilities in terms of my core personal goals, beyond just being a good husband and father, and a decent participant in the communities in which I reside. It’s entirely possible that the great American novel that I believe has been percolating within me for most of my adult life can finally be brought to fruition, for example, with the gift of time that retirement and smart management of family resources has bestowed upon me. It’s possible that novel could be successfully published. It could be a best-seller, even. And it could spawn some sequels, or a movie, or a television show. The sky’s the limit, hooray! But, then, yes, the probabilities of those high-achieving successes are lower, even though I think that their plausibility is actually quite reasonable, since I have been paid to write already, I am often told that I am good at it, and writing seems to be one of the few professional skills where practitioners can get better with age.
I do tend to see the arc of my professional plausibility with a bit more of an optimistic edge than others might, in large part because my career to date has been, by most objective standards, fairly to extremely implausible. If I pitched a story to a publisher about a Marine Corps brat Naval Academy graduate who went from working as a contracting officer for a highly classified military organization involving nuclear reactors to jobs as a music critic and museum development professional, in one step, and then went on to head organizations devoted to tree research, managing a historical house museum, and University food service, after stops in Catholic campus chaplaincy, independent K-12 education, and HIV/AIDS community service, do you think the average editor would buy it, or deem it an unbelievable narrative? I’m voting for the latter choice.
But whether or not it tracks as a viable fictional narrative, it is my personal reality, and I can only model my own possibilities, probabilities, and plausibilities upon it. Which is good, I think. I’ve played things in ways that most people wouldn’t have tried with the cards that I’ve been dealt, and I’ve been able to invent and adapt myself to wildly changing circumstances, with reasonable success, as judged objectively by outside observers of my work and its outcomes. And if I had to pick a single word to describe the best and most important facets of my professional work over the past 40+ years, that word would unquestionably be writer. I had my first paid freelance writing gig when I was 13 years old, hired to be the teen editor of a military base newspaper. Two years later, I won a state-wide poetry contest, competing mainly against writers far older than me. And I’ve never stopped scribbling since then, writing for more organizations, customers, clients and colleagues that I can begin to remember, crafting and sharing millions of words, covering a dizzying array of topics and writing types.
This Credidero writing project itself was designed to help bend some arcs of possibility over the course of a year, to hone some writing chops in different disciplines and styles that I felt were missing from my portfolio, as I look to a future where writing will be even more of an anchor for me than it has been over my working and student lives to date. The project was also designed to bend other arcs of possibility by forcing me to consider some topics of relevance and interest to an aging creative type, in ways that I’ve not often done in the past, looking at personal beliefs, rather than just reporting on or reacting to something placed before me, and seeing if that focus might produce some changed or changing behaviors as an outcome. I’ve now produced about 45,000 words in the project, which is a credibly hefty manuscript in its own right. It may just stand now as a completed personal exercise, or it may be something that takes life in some other form. We’ll see. The possibilities certainly aren’t endless, but they’re there, adjacent to or supporting other possibilities. And, again, I find that exciting.
As I usually do in these articles, I looked up the etymological background on my subject word for the month. “Possibility” came into use as a noun in the late Middle English period, derived from Old French possibilite, which in turn came from late Latin possibilis (“able to be done”), which followed from Latin posse (“be able”), which is posited to have evolved from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root poti-, which means “power.” It’s pleasing to me to perceive possibility as a source of power, be it political, or financial, or psychological, or spiritual. Once again, options make everything better, and there’s motive energy to be gleaned from the worlds and experiences ahead of us, with that energy being directly correlated in my mind to the number of nodes of opportunity we face. Open doors are far more exciting than blank walls, and if one door leads to a room with two more doors beyond it, then the excitement grows.
This Credidero project has opened some doors of interest for me, and the courses of my family and professional lives over the past year have opened others. I’m eagerly peeking into each of them, treading through portals as confidently as I’m able (with a beloved buddy by my side, which also makes everything better), hopeful to explore as many rooms of possibility as I’m able with the years left before me. I do feel powerful in this exploration, and I do believe that I have opportunities to use that power in meaningful ways, though I may not know what that meaning will be until I can assess it as fact, not potential, from the other side of the experience.
Not everything’s possible, but more than enough things are plausible, and probable, to keep my sense of wonder and expectation high, and I believe that’s a rubric worth living in, and living through, and living for. And as I wind down this writing project, I find it apt and fitting that the final randomly-selected topic was “possibility,” as that’s on some plane exactly what I wanted to create when I embarked upon the project. It’s not the one word I likely would have selected had I planned out the course of the twelve articles in advance, but sometimes chance, and choice, and options, are smarter than we are, if we open ourselves to them and let them be. And let them Be.
Note: This article is the final monthly installment of a 12-part, year-long writing project. I plan to spend a month or so reflecting on the series as a whole, and will prepare one final epilogue piece before January 2020 ends to capture any general themes or take-outs that I glean from it all. Watch this space . . .
All Articles In This Series: