Winter is meeting season for a lot of farmers. Sometimes you feel like you’ve heard it all before, but you want a day out to connect with other farmers. Sometimes you signed up in a moment of weakness and feel obligated to go. Sometimes you just want the lunch made by someone else. And sometimes… there are speakers listed that you just have to hear!
That happened to me with Farm Smart 2019 in Guelph. I was sitting on the fence about whether to make the commitment to drive to Guelph on a cold January Saturday when John Phipps’ talk on “Better Worrying” caught my eye. I was so appreciative that the organizers thought to bring in someone from the U.S. just for me!
As it turned out, they scheduled another session at the same time with a topic that causes a lot of my worrying – dealing with grain drying and storage – so I ended up missing the “better worrying” talk. Later, I was able to hear John’s excellent talk on tools we need to navigate the future. He argued that having better tools is a more effective way to deal with future uncertainty than trying to predict what might happen. And having better tools gives us more confidence that we are well equipped to deal with unknown challenges and take on opportunities.
The first tool John discussed dealt with better managing your mind and your way of thinking. He suggested that we each have about five good decisions in us a day – so we should ration those and make sure we are spending our good decisions wisely. For example, if you eat the same thing for breakfast every day and don’t have to waste a decision on what to have – you have just saved one decision for something more important.
He also advised constantly questioning your thinking and asking yourself … what would it take to prove me wrong or change my mind? “Some of us have three dozen hills that we are willing to die on. The more hills you have, the more likely you are to die,” John pointed out. A better way is to have no more than five or six main truths in your life – be willing to defend those, but be careful about what you’re willing to get into a dispute about. Think about what you’ve become so entrenched about that you can’t even consider a different perspective. Paraphrasing Max Planck, “the truth never triumphs – its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time.”
In line with this, John talked about “information optimization”. I like this one because our biggest challenge some days is sorting through the mountains of information to find the one grain of truth. “Learn some stats! You need to understand big data – you cannot dispute it!” he said. And of course, always look for the source of information before you accept it.
Another tip is to challenge our confirmation bias – that is finding answers that prove what we already think. It usually isn’t hard to find studies and people who agree with our own way of thinking. But consider the other side of the story – when we challenge our own beliefs, we learn.
Another of John’s tools deals with history. While we can take some lessons from the past, we must also recognize that in some ways the future will look very different from what we’ve experienced and we have to be prepared for that.
George Santayana said that “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John encouraged us to remember the 1980s – a decade that most remember as being especially tough on farmers. “Safety nets save” is one lesson John reminds us of from that particular decade. While your mind might jump automatically to things such as government programs typically described as safety nets, John encourages us to think differently about the real safety nets in our lives.
John described the “friend effect – the connections you have with other people.” He described a study where researchers took participants to a remote area, encouraged them to take a look at the hill right in front of them and rate how difficult it will be to climb it. The next week, the experiment was repeated, only the second time participants were encouraged to bring a friend. The responses showed that people thought the hill would be 17 per cent easier to climb with the friend there.
“The mere presence of a friend standing next to you when you face the greatest challenges of your life made a difference. The longer the friendship, the greater the effect. Old friends – you can’t make them – don’t lose old friends – they are what save you,” he reminded us. Researchers also found that when a 50-pound back-pack was strapped on, the friend effect became even bigger.
However, he cautioned that the future will look a lot different than the past in many ways. “Seventy per cent of you will underestimate your lifespan. One in seven will live longer than you wish,” he said. And technology is changing faster than we realize. How long will it be before we don’t even need someone to drive the tractor or combine. What will your job as farmers look like then? Prepare yourself for this march of technology.
Finally, John argues that good old fashioned patience is a vital tool we will need to navigate the future. Things are getting better faster than a lot of people think, but as a society, we have less patience. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are – every day you have a choice. “You can find a way to be happy.” ◊