I watched an elementary school teacher lead her charges across a gravel lot. “Lisa! Carlos!” she said as soon as the kids’ sneakers crunched the stones: “DO NOT throw rocks!” As far as I could see, no child had so much as stooped to finger the ground. But this teacher’s pre-emptive strike bore astute witness to a principle which, in broad application, would solve many of the world’s woes.
Each of the following situations could be prevented by a single, utterly simple principle. “I didn’t know it would get this cold!” chatters the woman who left her sweater at the hotel because the morning was sunny. A family arrives at a highly anticipated event or restaurant, only to learn that you needed reservations. Or, as I have experienced more than once behind the register at more than one fine establishment, a customer arrives to pay for a service with a single, pre-written personal check. Not only has she incorrectly estimated the cost of the service (forgetting the sales tax, for instance), she has not brought an extra check, a credit card, or even her purse, because “I didn’t think I’d need it!” Are these blunderers bad people? Certainly not. What do they all have in common? They did not think ahead.
A commitment to thinking ahead would quickly solve a majority of the world’s present and future woes. The abandoned sweater, the neglected reservation and the insufficient check are minor hiccups in the grand scheme of things. But thinking ahead can also be the key to widespread economic problems. I’m no economist, and I’m still not really sure what a credit default swap is (something about insurance for default on an insanely risky debt), but if banks and massive insurance firms had practiced a little more thinking ahead, perhaps we could have bypassed the financial meltdown. Ditto for the signers of impractical mortgages (and the banks that winked at them) and those who ran up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. If an 18.9% variable APR isn’t enough of a clue to think ahead, what is? “Let’s Move”, Mrs. Obama? Want to fight obesity in America’s kids? Keep plying your kids with Happy Meals, pop tarts, Super Big Gulps and Oreo cookies made into milk straws, America, and see what happens. Think ahead, parents.
It’s the underlying principle of the now-ironclad social entitlements that took shape in 20th century America. I bet the most fervent Tea Partier doesn’t want Obama to revoke his Medicare or Social Security, because even Tea Partiers don’t really think America is going to go up in flames before they retire. Schooling for our youngsters? Kids are pretty tough to deal with, but someone has to run the world when we die – it’s thinking ahead on a massive scale. Checks and balances via Judicial, Executive and Legislative branches? Way to think ahead, Founding Fathers.
This is not to say that the exceptionally effective power of thinking ahead cannot be abused. When Hugo Chavez campaigns to remove his term limits and to muzzle any of Venezuela’s opposition media, he’s thinking ahead to the day that someone, somewhere, might whisper that it’s someone else’s turn to be president. When John McCain declares that the GOP will refuse to cooperate with Democrats on any piece of legislation in the aftermath of Obamacare’s passage, might he be thinking ahead to an election packed by an angry conservative base?
Thinking ahead takes experience, and the ability to project the outcomes of our behavior in the past into our future. Perhaps those who irritate me by getting on the train without any fare, or vomiting drunkenly on the platform, are committing a first-time offense. Perhaps, instead of habitual stupidity, I am witnessing someone’s seminal think-ahead experience – a moment that will forever haunt them when they get on the train (with cash or ticket in hand) or step into a bar (at which they will drink moderately). Perhaps. I can only imagine the scene of that elementary school teacher’s first outing with Lisa and Carlos. Her piercing vigilance is a tantalizing clue to the stony transgressions of the past, but today, this soldier for the future of a projectile-free field trip is protecting me and everyone in the vicinity by her outstanding commitment to thinking ahead.
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