Monthly Archives: August 2013

When Timing is Everything

Predicting the future: How ocean kayaking compares to picking the next bestselling book.Illustration of Pond Island, Maine

Only once we concede that we cannot depend on our ability to predict the future are we open to a process that discovers it.
- Duncan J. Watts [1]

Just several hours earlier, I had been walking through soft mud on the spot we now sat floating. My wife and I had been rowing our rented kayak in Sagadahoc Bay, Maine during high tide and had stopped for a rest. The shoreline in the bay will move by over a mile depending on the high and low tide, so our break needed to be short. We stole one more look at the beautiful trees on both sides, and then started in again towards Pond Island. Our plan was to get a quick glimpse of the historic lighthouse standing on the island prior to the tide going back out.

We had been informed by Pat (the person who rented us the kayak) that Pond Island would be straight ahead and to the right when coming out of the bay. Sure enough, as we rounded the right shoreline at the mouth of bay, there sat the small island in the distance.

After leaving the protection of the enclosure, the waves became much choppier, in part, from motor-powered boats passing through the waterway between the shoreline and the island. The larger waves and traffic meant less opportunity to cruise along and take in the surrounding beauty. Our focus was straight ahead on the island, or scanning to avoid the much larger, faster boats.

It occurred to me while rowing in the rougher stretch of water that predicting the behavior of other boaters was considerably more difficult than predicting the historically documented high and low tide water marks. This comparison was spurred in part by reading about the complexity of predicting the future in Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts. Using book publishing as an example, Watts describes how challenging predictions can be:

When a publisher offers an advance for a book, the book itself is typically at least a year or two away from publication; so a publisher has to make a prediction not only about how the book itself will turn out but also what the market will be like for that kind of book when it is eventually published, how it will be reviewed, and any number of other related factors. [2]

Rowing with our eyes closed and guessing where another boat might be in ten minutes is a pretty silly strategy. Similarly, predicting a book’s success two years in advance requires a whole new way of thinking in this rapidly changing marketplace. Whether it is in ocean kayaking or book publishing, it’s important to recognize the limitations of using common sense and intuition as methods (please see the The Gatekeeper is Guessing by Michael Boezi) when trying to predict a future outcome in complex world.

1. Duncan J. Watts. Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer (New York: Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc., 2011), 196.
2. Duncan J. Watts. Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer (New York: Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc., 2011), 164.