Some natural events are wondrous and predictable. Such was the case of the recent solar eclipse, which created a memorable collective experience for hundreds of thousands of us who witnessed totality or just at the curb of it. For many, plans for the event occurred several months ahead of time as they locked in hotel rooms, flights and campsites. In fact, in 1979, one of the mainstream media TV anchors announced that the next solar eclipse over North America would occur in August of 2017, adding that he hoped the 2017 solar eclipse would find our country peaceful and secure some 38 years later. The TV anchor got half of what he hoped for; the incredible phenomenon of the moon butting in direct line between the Earth and the sun came to pass, and it came to pass at precisely the day, minute and second predicted by scientists.
Predictability creates calm and emboldens trust. Solar eclipse enthusiasts had time to secure proper eyewear, finagle cardboard contraptions, to purchase chips and salsa, and to fill extra gasoline containers in anticipation of the unusual event that was happening regardless of any preparations. Even the morning of, the heavens offered no hint that something unusually spectacular was about to occur.
But we were confident that the sunlight would dim, the air would cool and the birds' chirps would pause, if even for a few minutes. More unusual, admission was free and everyone had a chance for a front-row seat.
Natural phenomena can also be disastrous, even with some predictability. Hurricanes Irma and Harvey arrived like ravenous, uninvited guests. While weather experts warned that the hurricane winds and floods would likely be cataclysmic, residents in the Southeast parts of the U.S. had no idea of the degree to which they would be battered by torrential rain and wind.
As I listened on the radio to Gov. Rick Scott of Florida plead with residents to heed evacuation warnings, he exerted incredible leadership in his tone and in his command of as many of the predictable needs that were imminent: what mobile apps could help evacuees find fuel, strategies already set up with utilities before, during and after the monster storm, available school buses for residents having special needs and details about shelter options. Gov. Scott aptly walked the tightrope of creating a real sense of urgency while offering specific options to residents. He made the situation as predictable as possible given the unpredictability of a seismic hurricane.
Other natural disasters such as earthquakes are projected in the future, but the exact time and date are unpredictable. Depending on who's leading the message, predictable unpredictability can result in measured confidence or it can mean chaos. People don't do well when punishment and reward are doled out randomly and if they cannot know in advance whether a given outcome will be a win or a loss.
The power of predictability made me think of the story of Adam Smith's pin maker, printed in a July 1995 issue of the Harvard Business Review. As America morphed from farming to manufacturing, companies had to rely on each other as part of the manufacturing chain. The pin maker's success depended on the predictability of other craftsmen accomplishing specific tasks and performing them well.
"Coal and iron had to be mined, the iron had to be turned into steel, and the steel had to be delivered to his workplace. The pin maker's ability to get his job done depended on a complex sequence of events over which he had little control, but the events were predictable enough that he needed to concentrate only on creating a sharp point on a steel wire and cutting it as many times as possible during the hours allotted to work. In turn, milliners, who needed pins to fashion hats, were able to concentrate on their work without having to worry about what went on in the pin makers' workplace or in the steelworks."
Such is the nature of predictability. It makes us feel safe and secure. It leverages prosperity. It motivates us to do our individual jobs well.
Mother Nature predictably delivered on her solar eclipse and on her wrath of hurricanes. In our efforts to control outcomes, we must be able to count on others: weather forecasters, scientists and volunteers plucking people off their rooftops in flooded waters. We are individual parts in a world yearning for more tongue and groove methods of fitting together, providing comfort and safety in whatever predictability can be mustered.
Astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, "The Universe forces those who live in it to understand it. Those creatures who find everyday experience a muddled jumble of events with no predictability, no regularity, are in grave peril. The Universe belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out."