I believe there is. And once you catch a glimpse of this mind-bending method, you’ll understand the true foundation of what it means to be smart.
To make decisions, we run mental simulations of the future. The better you get at that skill, the more likely you are to get what you want. That, in a nutshell, is intelligence.
While it sounds simple, mental simulation is a marvelous form of power. And generating complex models of the future is one of the most impressive feats of the human mind.
Would you like to get better at it?
In the movie Next, Nicolas Cage plays the part of Cris Johnson, who has one unique ability. He can see two minutes into the future.
Each time he faces a high-stakes decision, he makes a choice about how to proceed. Then he sees the future outcome of that choice before taking action. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he considers another decision option. This process continues until he sees an outcome he likes.
While Cris uses his skill to make easy money at the casino and to perform magic shows in Vegas, he’s more invested in capturing the love and attention of Liz Cooper, played by Jessica Biel.
After some action-packed scenes, Cris finds himself alone with Liz. While debating how to reveal his feelings for her, he plays out numerous scenarios until he finds the approach that wins her over.
A similar theme plays out in the movie, About Time. It’s a romantic comedy centered around a young man who inherits his father’s ability to go back in time and redo any previous life decision.
Does he use this ability to save lives or generate money for charity? Of course not. Hollywood knows what captures our interest. The movie naturally centers around his efforts to win the affection of his love interest.
And you know what? The movie is fascinating. Each time he makes a fool of himself we feel his pain and watch with intrigue to see what he’ll try next as he jumps back in time for a redo.
There’s a reason this kind of story fascinates the human mind. It’s because we can all relate.
We’ve all experienced the regret of a split-second decision. We’ve all agonized over decisions that could change the trajectory of our lives.
On top of that, the human brain is an anticipation machine. We build and constantly adjust our expectations about what’s coming next. In fact, much of the variation in our daily moods is caused by this automatic, subconscious software running in the background of our perception.
To see this effect in action, all you have to do is keep a simple mood log and watch what happens. You may be surprised at the results. Because your moods have less to do with the satisfaction of the moment and more to do with your anticipation of what’s coming next.
Psychologists who study happiness have tried this basic experiment numerous times, and the results are kind of funny. Mood logs show a weekly spike in feelings of happiness and well-being on Friday afternoons while most of the research participants are still at work.
Then, when they should be enjoying time with their friends and family on a Sunday evening, mood logs begin a steep drop to their lowest point of the week, only to gradually rebound the closer they come to Friday again.
We are anticipation machines. But as you know, we can’t do it perfectly. And that’s why we are fascinated by fictional plots that allow the protagonist the unique advantage of perfect foresight.
In the real world, decisions shape our destiny, and we can’t go back in time. But in a way, you can see the future. And those who are better at this mental simulation have a distinct advantage in life. So let’s take a look at what it means to be “street smart.”
The richer your mental map of how reality works, the better you become at getting what you want in this life.
In that sense, the ability to create complex mental simulations of the future is the ultimate form of intelligence.
While pursuing my doctorate in clinical psychology, I was required to study various theories about what intelligence is and how it can be measured. I learned to administer and interpret all of the gold standard IQ tests. But I also learned about those who saw problems with the validity of IQ tests.
Does an IQ test measure a person’s ability to think outside the box? Does it measure a person’s social awareness or natural artistic abilities? If a man can do five-digit multiplication in his head, but he can’t hold down a job, is he intelligent?
The answer depends on what you expect a person to use their intelligence to achieve. And in my view the definition should take that into account. Intelligence is the ability to accomplish whatever you set out to achieve.
I’m not the only one to define intelligence in this way. The famous theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku makes the case in his book, The Future of the Mind.
He asserts that of all the ways we can define intelligence, the ability to generate complex mental simulations of the future is the purest one. It’s the ability to get more of what you want and less of what you’d like to avoid.
Kaku points out that even a high school dropout who robs a bank can demonstrate this form of intelligence. The thief may not have a high IQ in the traditional sense, but if he can generate a sufficiently complex model of the future, he can evade the police as he robs a bank.
He can predict where the police will be at various points during the heist and during his escape, making it possible to dodge the likely traps that would ensnare a less capable thief.
He can predict how the police, bank staff, and the public will react. He can envision which roads the police will travel as they try to cut off his getaway. If his mental simulation is detailed enough, he can sidestep every trap and even have a “plan B” ready to deal with unpredictable factors.
That’s mental simulation. And it’s the same skill that allows an entrepreneur to succeed at building her business, or a mother to succeed at raising a child to become a healthy, socially responsible adult
It turns out this form of intelligence is a better predictor of “success” (defined as getting what you set out to achieve) than the ability to memorize facts from a textbook or the ability to get an “A” on a math test.
The famous psychologist, Martin Seligman has also recognized this form of intelligence. He says our ability to make long-term predictions based on working hypotheses about future events may be the defining attribute of human intelligence.
As Seligman writes, “What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: we contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society.”
He goes on to say, “A more apt name for our species would be Homo Prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospective action is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain.”
Here’s the first step for improving this skill. Acknowledge its difficulty. Come to terms with the fact that this is one mental skill worthy of receiving your deliberate attention.
As a psychologist, I have seen firsthand that intelligent decision-making is more important than IQ when it comes to finding relationship success, happiness, business success, physical health, and financial peace of mind.
Yet here’s the most compelling thing I’ve learned from working one-on-one with business owners on personal productivity. We are terrible at predicting how we’ll respond to distractions.
That’s right, some of the smartest CEOs I know will start their day with a brilliant plan of action, only to end the day in a state of stressed-out frustration after jumping from one low-impact task to another during the time they had hoped to get important things done.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell. We have unsophisticated mental models of the various ways our attention can be hijacked. We underestimate the importance of planning for our own human weakness: the tendency to forget about our big plans and chase shiny objects instead.
To accomplish more, we must first create a plan for dealing with our distractible nature. We must anticipate the internal and external triggers that Nir Eyal describes in his book, Indistractable.
In this way, we can enrich our mental model of the future, enabling us to anticipate and sidestep the attention traps that so often sabotage our biggest dreams and goals.
As a productivity consultant, distraction is my greatest enemy. And as I was reading Nir’s book, a new idea began to hatch in my mind.
What would happen if you began each workday by first considering the attention traps you are likely to face during that day? What would happen if you spent just five minutes each morning anticipating and preparing for those distractions?
My belief is those five minutes would become the most productive five minutes you could possibly invest in because they would save you from a lot of wasted time later in the day.
You can become more productive by developing a richer map of the future. How do you do it? With practice. Start by reading Nir’s book to enrich your mental map regarding the many ways your mind is susceptible to distraction.
Then, create a habit of daily practice. Practice projecting your mind just a few hours into the future. And enhance this mental simulation by taking into consideration the many distractions you’re likely to face.
Now, I’ll admit, this mental planning is easier said than done. Because your mind wanders.
Here’s the solution. Think on paper.
Thinking on paper allows you to hold more information in your mind all at once. It’s like the scaffolding that allows a builder to reach higher than he could on his own. Here’s my suggestion:
Thinking on paper should become a part of your five-minute morning ritual. It’s deliberate practice to enhance your mental map of the future.
This will be your secret weapon. Use it, and you will achieve more in less time. You’ll become a smarter version of yourself.
Dr. Todd Snyder