As a futurist I spend much of my time searching for failure points. Why failure points? Because they are the unforgiving anchors around which society changes directions.

In the U.S. we are now witnessing a record number of failures taking place. Just look around. Failed businesses, failed systems, failed jobs, and failed marriages.

Some failures are easily predicted, where a known problem looms larger and larger until a solution is found. Most, however, are not so easy. In many respects, failures are nature’s own system for checks and balances.

Failures attract attention. Much like a car accident causing a gawker’s block along the highway, failure attracts onlookers, some with offers to help, others moving quickly to avoid being painted with the same failure brush.

So what causes failure? Turns out that failure is just one relentless driver being perpetuated by a series of other relentless drivers. As we lift up the hood on this eight cylinder engine, here is what’s really going on.

To be sure, there are many forces driving the world around us, and each one of these drivers is like a hand grenade generating a blast zone of forces pushing in multiple directions. However, these particular forces concentrate an unusual amount of energy in the directions I’ve indicated here to keep this cycle in motion.

  1. Mortality drives urgency
  2. Urgency drives purpose
  3. Purpose drives our quest for knowledge
  4. Our quest for knowledge drives technology
  5. Technology drives complexity
  6. Complexity drives failure
  7. Failure drives conflict
  8. Conflict drives mortality

As we begin to study these linkages, we are able to uncover fascinating relationships which help enormously in explaining the nature of humanity and the world we live in.

Mortality Drives Urgency – The fact that we will someday die gives us only a short runway of time to get things done. The clock is ticking. We either get things done today or we lose a significant piece of the time we have left before we die. Even though people are living longer today than 100 years ago and we have a slightly longer runway, the urgency we feel is still a prevalent force in everything we do.

While it’s true that competition and our need for status also drive urgency, the constant trickle of sands falling through the hourglass leaves us feeling like our own lives are slipping through our fingers. The sound of our own mortality is a sound few can avoid listening to.

Counter to what some believe, living forever may indeed be counter-productive. People who live with no end in sight may well lose their motivation for “doing anything important today.”

Urgency Drives Purpose – How many times have you heard someone ask, “Why am I doing this?”

It’s a very common concern because most of us simply despise doing anything dubbed “meaningless.”

Baby-boomers are getting older. As this massive bulge in the population moves into their retirement years, many are feeling the regrets of not having lived up to their own expectations, and in doing so, are searching for higher meaning. In what Forbes Magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard describes as the “Age of Meaning,” the former hippie generation is now searching for a higher calling, and they want it now.

Purpose Drives our Quest for Knowledge – To find meaning and purpose, we need more knowledge.

In today’s world, information is infinite, but knowledge is finite. According to a 2010 report by the Global Information Industry Center, the hours we spend consuming information has grown 2.6 percent per year from 1980 to 2008 to an average of nearly 12 hours per day.

At the same time, our ability to sort through the growing storehouses of information and find those shimmering glints of needles-in-the-haystack information is a relentless quest. It is a quest we cannot do alone, and so we turn to technology.

Our Quest for Knowledge Drives Technology – Human frailties and our own physical limitations drives us to find technical solutions.

How can we think faster, see things outside of the range of normal human vision, hear things on the other side of the world, or process information that baffles the normal mind?

Virtually every invention known to mankind is an extension of human senses or human capabilities.

The more information we consume, the greater our need for technology, and that’s where things start getting complicated.

Technology Drives Complexity – Technology drives many things, but when it comes to complexity, technology acts as the great enabler.

Rather than managing 100 accounts on paper, we can now manage 1,000 accounts with a computer. Rather than spending 10 hours sorting through 20,000 books in a library, we spend 10 minutes sorting through 2 million books online.

Technology extends our reach, but it also extends our ability to devise complex systems for managing it, and complicated solutions to our problems.

Complexity itself is neither good nor bad, but it increases fragility and too much complexity pushes us beyond our ability to manage it. And that’s where things begin to fail.

Complexity Drives Failure – The more complicated something is, the more likely it is to fail.

Yes, in abstract terms, complexity adds function. And some measure of complexity is both necessary and beneficial.

However, according to complexity management firm Ontonix, 80% of companies that fail experience at least one year of rapidly increasing complexity.

Complexity tends to function like a self-perpetuating organism. Complex systems tend to expand until they reach a breaking point, and that is where the conflict begins.

Failure Drives Conflict – Yes, failure causes many things, but failure is very emotional, and emotional intensity leads to conflict.

Our first reaction is that failure is bad and conflict resulting from failure is even worse. Yet at the same time, failure is a time of renewal, a new branch growing where an old branch just died.

Conflict arises from our resistance to failure, and in many case we need to resist because failures are not inevitable. We only appreciate that which we struggle to achieve, and virtually every conflict clears our mind about the importance of what we are struggling for.

Conflict Drives Mortality – Every conflict gives us another look into the frailties of being human.

Conflicts are riddled with confusion and doubt, second-guessing and regret. They are the friction from where the rubber-meets-the-road on this turning wheel.

But most conflicts come from within. As famed country singer Garth Brooks says, “The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.”

In the end, we ask what we were fighting for, and that, in turn, drives our own feeling of mortality.

So What Can We Conclude?

It was several weeks ago when I first sketched this out, trying to decide if it was indeed meaningful, and whether this kind of insight could be helpful.

In the back of my mind I kept asking, “Is this cycle inevitable” and “Can it be stopped?” Perhaps, more importantly, “Should it be stopped?”

We each have many wheels to contend with. Our family wheel overlaps our business wheel, and those overlap our social and side-projects wheels.

With global databases of information skyrocketing and technology improving access to it, the wheel is turning at a faster and faster pace.

Every imbalance in the wheel causes a ripple effect throughout the rest of the wheel.

Are we better off trying to eliminate conflict and failure, or trying to optimize it? With the new mantra being “fail fast and fail often,” we have begun to accept the inevitability.

Is purpose more important than knowledge, or does strengthening one driver simply create an imbalance that strengthens the other?

Is our quest for knowledge making us smarter, of just more confused?

As you can see, I have far more questions than answers, so I’d like to hear your thoughts. If possible, please take a few moments to write down some of the ideas that formed in your head as you read through this.

I look forward to hearing your insights.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

10 Responses to “Eight Fundamental Drivers Controlling Our Future”

Comments List

  1. Alan Parisse

    Good stuff. A lot to think about. I am struggling with the first two premises. If I accept those, the rest falls fairly neatly into place. But: At times mortality drives urgency, but many if not most of us do not fully embody our mortality until late in the game. Yet even "immortal" teenagers and twenty somethings have non-biological urgencies. Similarly, urgency can clearly drive purpose, but cannot purpose drive urgency? Alan
    • admin

      Alan, Thanks for the comment. You are right about the “immortal” teenagers and twenty somethings not feeling much urgency. Yet society, for the most part, is not run by them. The agenda is being set by older people who very much sense an endpoint in their future. I'm sure that's not a complete answer, though, just as I'm certain this model has gaping holes in it. Thanks for pointing that out. Tom
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Pastor Kratz</a>

    Your thoughts make sense to me. I am reminded of another wise man who thought about life and concluded,"Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (Ecclesiastes 1:2 - The Bible) He discovered meaning in life can be found only in connection with the Lord and the truly eternal.
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Amanda</a>

    I have come to think of my failures and mistakes as the bricks of the "yellow brick road". They are indeed hallmarks to evolution and deeper meaning. I think that is true even of a nation. We, as a nation, have been living on credit for a long time, and now that is no longer possible. The American Dream that includes countless McMansions on the horizon has died. Some new dream will evolve and it will have deeper meaning to us all. Our "new normal" may look horrible to many, but it is evidence that we're still on the "yellow brick" road towards truth and a sense of "home" - which is what we're all after, I do believe. Fail fast and fail often is really out of our hands and inevitable as you say. I actually don't believe linear time has anything to do with it. Failure is a cycle, as you drew yourself. The idea that we are on a spiral staircase may be more helpful as an image. We can evolve up the staircase or involve down the staircase. It is never lateral. The good news is there is no ceiling and no floor. The bad news is there is no ceiling and no floor. So eventually "truth" and "home" will cease to be static concepts. For instance, check out the 300 and some square foot apartment in Hong Kong, that can be moved within to create 24 different living spaces. We could find that living in 300 square feet as an adult is a horrifying prospect of failure, or a triumph of creativity. It all depends on whether we're willing to climb up the spiral of failure or if we'd rather bump on down. Finally, I don't believe knowledge and purpose can be separated. What we can do is let go, yes give up on our plans. It is only when we acknowledge our doubt that true understanding begins. --Amanda
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mark</a>

    Actually the passage goes on to conclude "So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" Ecclesiastes 3:22
  5. Doug

    Interesting stuff. I especially like the question of whether we should try to stop a given change or let it happen. Important question. Meanwhile, have you read the Fourth Turning? Useful insights abound therein about this topic. Personally, my opinion is that we have mission creep in the American Experiment, and that we need to return to our Jeffersonian roots to be worth a flip. "Purpose" you call it. In your chart, purpose seems to require creative destruction to be renewed, so interference in events may tend to deflect us from our higher purposes. Example: Immigrating here used to require a HUGE commitment by most immigrants. Sell everything, take a long and dangerous one-way voyage to a wild and dangerous new World, leaving kith and kin forever. Now it's a first class plane fight from Dehli, Hong Kong, Nairobi, etc., with multiple annual visits "home" and a cushy welfare state, if needed. I fail to see the "purpose" of this new system. Or of exporting our jobs overseas using the export of warfare as the principal trade good. This and other mission creep factors in our culture will (already have?) unbalance the system. IMHO, the consequences (collapse of the system) are necessary to get the original mission back on track. That mission, to remind you, was the spread, eventually worldwide, of personal sovereignty as mankind's birthright. In our current trajectory, a collapse of the present system may be the only way to reacquire our basic purpose, and propping the present system up may be handing ammo to our own firing squad. Have you seen Clif High's description of the McBride hurdle? "Complex systems burdened with overbuilt layers of abstraction behave in unexpected, almost organic ways. From our work with complex systems in predictive linguistics, and especially the early years up to 1997, we have learned a thing or 2/two about how complexity and systemic failure can bite the unsuspecting butt. When complex systems fail, they are most likely to follow reasonably predictable patterns right up to the devastating point known as "McBride's hurdle". This is also known as the 'first is last hurdle hypothesis' in complex system testing theory. Bearing in mind that complex computer systems require a very specific protocol for testing, it should not be surprising that systems testing has become just as high an art as has complex software design. McBride's contribution to the art was the 'discovery' through research on operational failures (very large computer systems which ran, but failed to meet any of the performance standards), that every 'hurdle' or 'juncture of control' in a complex system can become the 'last hurdle' if it fails in an unexpected manner. The analogy she (McBride) worked out was that unexpected (to the designers) some systems *will* fail in such a manner as to abrogate their own input to the overall complexity of the network, but also to continue to allow other systems to continue to operate. Thus a node is knocked out of production by the collapse of its own system, but it fails to notify any other part of the larger complex system that it had reached the BLOOEY state. So other, dependent nodes continue to operate, and here is the rub...with input values NOT being fed by the now defunct component, the operating parameters of the dependent parts of the system are both unknown, and unreliable. McBride determined that the "very first hurdle failure" in a complex network of systems, *needs* to also be the "last hurdle" and in essence, trigger the whole of the system into "error state" until a restart or other fix can be made. We can tell from the actions of the politicians that NO human who recognizes the actual error state of our current, complex global 'financial' system is involved in this process. ALL the politicians, and so far ALL the officialdom gathered [sorcerers] and [wizards] are ALL still running their systems as the various hurdles fall." Here is my (Doug's) prosaic analogy - which regular guys all seem to grasp immediately: Suppose you are in a 1970's American car, stuck in traffic, with a tailwind, on a really hot day. The windows are up, the A/C is on full blast, and the radio is cranking. Maybe you have your eyes closed, 'cause the traffic guy says it'll be a couple of hours. Now suppose that the thermostat you just replaced got stuck in the closed position, which seems to happen a lot these days, with the crappy aftermarket ones. And let's suppose the idiot light is out of commission. You didn't notice that the idiot light was burned out, this morning, when you fired up Old Faithful. There is, of course, no temperature gauge. So a few minutes back the 20-year-old lower radiator hose split and dumped all your fluid. You didn't smell it because of the tailwind. Now, though, your eyes flutter open and you notice some smoke coming from under the hood, blowing down the freeway. And there's a kind of slight diesel sound/vibe, when you shut off the radio and turn down the A/C blower motor. Since you are pretty savvy about cars, you know this means at least a valve job will be required. You also know that if you turn the engine off, immediately, you MIGHT save the pistons, block and crankshaft. Might. But you also know that if you shut the engine off, there's a very high likelihood you will never be able to start that engine again. And it's REAL hot outside. And miles to a store, much less a service station. And you have those front row tickets people would kill for to tonight's farewell tour gig. And you don't actually know the hose is broken, and you can't smell anything yet. Much. And maybe if things work out you can pull over at a gas station. With air conditioning, maybe. Maybe even some ice cold brewskis while you wait for a cab. But for sure you can't even get off the freeway if you turn the engine off. And it's an old car anyway, and the engine will need a complete overhaul soon, anyway, and .... All because the system used an idiot light? No, because the human component of the system lost purpose/focus/feedback. History could be said to be the continuous repetition of this type of thing, on a civilization-level scale. Regards, Doug
    • admin

      Doug, Your thoughts are very much appreciated. I especially like your car analogy and the McBride hurdle. I still haven't read the Fourth Turning but plan to do so shortly. As I've often said, conflict is necessary. There is probably an optimal level for conflict, but the world stops functioning if there is only an "upside." Thanks again, Tom
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Mike McGill</a>

    Hi Tom, Thank you for this post. For your consideration. Replace "technology" with "innovation". After "innovation" insert a decision tree. "More Complexity?" or "Less Complexity? Less complexity leads to success and expansion, no conflict. The good side of the equation. :-) Mike
  7. Mimi K

    Interesting stuff, and has some very interesting resonances with my own model of Futuring/Foresight. My model of Foresight (in development/almost complete) is based on Tragedy and Comedy. What Tom is describing fits perfectly with how THE TRAGIC PATTERN "plays" out. Forget just about everything you learned in school (if you learned anything) about ancient Greek Tragedy; it is virtually all wrong. Ancient Greek Tragedy was, in fact, the very first futures scenario in human culture. Ditto Comedy. Both were not "plays" but wisdom about "how life plays out" into the future, and both describe a PATTERN in human action that determines whether life goes 'tragically' for humanity or not. The Tragic Pattern is a pattern of REVERSAL from thriving to collapse, success turning into failure, like what Tom is getting at. The Tragic Pattern of Reversal is always cosmic in scale and scope, involving the mutual failure of cultural and natural systems that arises FROM success. Our situation today. The Comedic Pattern is the "solution" to the Tragic Pattern; in terms of Tom's cycle, Comedy is the way out of a "vicious mortal cycle" into a "virtuous mortal cycle." In the tragic vicious mortal cycle, we 'fail a lot and fast' in such a way as to bring about the ultimate, cosmic failure of humans and planet. The human cosmic experiment turns out to be a "tragedy." In the comedic virtuous mortal cycle, we deliberately LET fail what's killing us and driving us toward extinction, and generate NEW paradigms, drivers, and technology to renew the human prospect and evolve human culture to the next 'stage.' The Comedic pattern is a pattern of RENEWAL arising from intensified, ubiquitous human creativity and innovation in the wake of total systems failure (tragic vicious mortal cycle). The new mantra of "fail fast and a lot" conflates and confuses the two patterns -- and that is NOT a good idea. To paraphrase Robert Frost, "Many failures diverged in a yellow wood. I knew which failures to follow, and it made all the difference to survival." Mimi K
  8. Frank R. Lehberger

    Dear Tom, Very good concept; it reminds me somehow of the Buddhist Wheel of Life - especially that old age/mortality comes at the top. As a CONSTRUCTIVE critique pls. let me point out that here you sort of "Reinvent the Wheel", or at least skillfully readapt it to the specific consitions of our age. But there's nothing bad with that, on the contrary, I am grateful that you propose such a system to the public. In my opinion exchanging 'Mortality' with 'Entropy' (or perhaps Finality) would extend its applicability. e.g. complex socio-political phenomena. As pointed out already, Mortality is too narrowly tied to a biological condition, whereas Entropy is a more general, systemic term. For example, working as a geoplitical analyst, I have to try to figure out why dictatorial systems mainly choose certain (often highly illogical and destructive) policies and not others. The answer is not that dictator XY is so much concerned with His Serene Highness's own 'mortality' (for that a posh mausoleum would do just fine!)but with the survival/decay/entropy of the SYSTEM, He and His Excellent Buddies (irony fully intended!) put in place. Furthermore I would suggest to drop Failure. In your concept, Failure has an overly negative or mechanistic connotation, when failure can often be positive (except when my laptop crashes!) -- depends how you value it. I would suggest to replace it with Ignorance (willfull or unintended), 'Non-Insight' or maybe Blindness/Darkness, because THAT is the root-cause of all (human)failure and conflict. It should be noted that already 2500 years ago Buddhist Philosophy has indentified Ignorance - and not "Evil" - as the basis of all (human) suffering. I admit that "Failure-points" much sounds better than "Blind-spots", especially if we are talking tech. Greetings & Keep up the good work Frank

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