Tripping Over Predictions

It’s May 22. It’s 37 degrees. And it’s snowing. Go figure. My weatherman rightly predicted snow in May. Snow in May isn’t that unusual. We’ve even gotten snow in June and July. What’s unusual is that my weatherman got his prediction right.

The local station I watch recently hired a new weatherman to replace the outgoing weatherwoman. (Funny. Spellcheck says that last word isn’t right.) I went from being pleasantly surprised at how often she was right (forecasting is tricky) to downright aggravated at how often the new guy got it wrong.

I’m not a weather junkie. However, I’m aware mostly due to my farming family. Few things grab my father’s attention, besides his email (that’s another story), like the weather forecast. Understandable given his occupation. The weather matters like few other things do in this business.

Sometimes the forecast is accurate, like today’s snowfall. Other days you’d assume the weatherperson (spellcheck says this word is spelled right) was actually looking at airflow over South America instead of your backyard. Predictions tend to be slippery buggers. But predictors can sound so certain sometimes it’s hard not to trust the predictions. And some predictions prove more entertaining than others (I can’t vouch for the validity of each quote, but they are funny):

“It will be years—not in my time—before a woman will become Prime Minister.” -Margaret Thatcher, 1974

“That rainbow song’s no good. Take it out.” -MGM memo after first showing of “The Wizard Of Oz.”

“Radio has no future.”
“X-rays are clearly a hoax.”
“The aeroplane is scientifically impossible.” -Royal Society president William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, 1897-9.

“Forget it. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.” -MGM executive, advising against investing in Gone With The Wind.

“Very interesting, Whittle, my boy, but it will never work.” -Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Cambridge, shown Frank Whittle’s plan for the jet engine.

“Brain work will cause women to go bald.” -Berlin professor, 1914.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” -Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.” -Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 19,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1.5 tons.” -Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949.

“640K ought to be enough for anybody.” -Bill Gates, 1981.
(Link to all quotes)

The certainty of some predictions is mind-boggling (I’d hate to think that we’d invented EVERYTHING by 1899). Others are just flat out hilarious (640K anyone?). People take comfort from predictions because they offer up a potential future.

The unknown can freak people out. I should know. Sometimes the unknown makes me a bit shaky. However, predictions can do one of two things: spur you on to something better or make it easy to quit before you ever start. My favorite are the people who ignored forward thinking ideas and then offered up the cliché, “I knew it would work all along.”

Luckily, I still have an amazingly full head of hair, and I’m patiently (ok, not so patiently) awaiting the arrival of my new 2G laptop. Predictions have value when they open your mind to new ideas and force you to think through your basic assumptions.If I’m lucky, my assumptions receive a challenge every day. However, if I believed every prediction, I’d live in a hole underground and do my best to not let my brain form a thought.

The goal isn’t to ignore predictions but to weigh their value. How many entrepreneurs would have achieved success if they’d paid attention to those predicting their failure? I suspect you wouldn’t be listening to your iPod, reading this post on a computer, or texting your friend on a device the size of a card deck.

And remember, few predictions matter unless they come true.



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May 2007
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