Hindsight is 20/20 is an expression used to express the acknowledgement of an error, misstep, or missed opportunity in the past, and the recocognition of what the right course of action should have been once the dust has settled. The expression is frequently preceded or followed by some statement in the mixed conditional, which describes the present results of an unreal condition in the past. Grammatically, it follows this construction:
If + Past Perfect - would + infinitive
A basic and common example could be a missed investment opportunity in the form of the following:
If I had invested in Apple when it went public in 1980, I would be a rich man today.
This example provides an action not taken and the result that would have manifested in the present if the action had been taken in the past. Knowing what we know today, an investment in Apple in 1980 would have indeed created immense wealth for the investor today. Thus, purely from the perspective of wealth accumulation, an investment in Apple in 1980 would have been a wise action to take.
In essence, this is a perfect example of hindsight being 20/20, and this kind of thinking is both useful and helpful at times. In many ways it is an essential tool in the learning process; a way of identifying past errors, missteps, and missed opportunities, and laying the groundwork for the avoidance of similar errors, missteps, and missed opportunities in the present and future. It can also make us more keenly aware of missed possibilities in the past and perhaps help us identify similar possibilities if and when they manifest later.
This type of thinking works best in concrete situations in both the past and present, and for statements that do not wade into the realm of value – be it moral, ethical, political, social, or aesthetic.
In this sense, the investment example above works. In many ways it merely states the obvious result of an unreal action based on known, that is, real knowledge. There is little speculation at play and no attempt is made to add any additional value to the result that would have manifested had the action been taken.
In other words, the statement reveals a fact based on what we know to be true (you would be rich), but it does not attempt to assign additional value to that fact (like being happier, more content, a better person, etc.) These values may be implied through connotations of the word rich, but the fact remains – explicit value has not been stated.
The hindsight is 20/20 framework and the mixed conditional construction used to describe present results of an unreal condition in the past are useful in concrete, non-value situations, but it tends to run into problems once notions of value seep into the equation.
Consider the following:
If I had married Susan, I would be a happy man today.
Unlike the Apple investment example, there is really no concrete knowledge in the present or the past that can support the result stated in the example above. In other words, there is no guarantee the man in question would truly be happy had he married Susan because there is no concrete evidence in the real world to support this declared result.
Let’s imagine Susan ended up marrying one of the man’s friends, and the man bases his declaration upon the evidence he detects in the marriage between Susan and his friend (it is a solid marriage, they are happy, Susan is a good wife, etc.). Though this evidence may be true, it is only true for the concrete marriage between Susan and the friend, not the theoretical, unreal marriage between Susan and the man who made the mixed conditional declaration. While evidence for the former exists, evidence to support the latter does not. Simply put, there is no guarantee of similar results had the man married Susan because his marriage to Susan would not be the same as the existing marriage between Susan and his friend.
The same could not be said of the Apple example. If I invested money in the company in 1980 and you did the same, we would both be rich because ample evidence to support this notion exists in the real world for both of us.
The man in the marriage example is, essentially, making an unreal, fantasy statement that has the potential to be both harmful and hindering as he moves forward in life. Unlike the Apple example, the poor man cannot even state something as simple as “If I had married Susan, I would be married” with perfect certainty because there is no evidence in the external word to support this result either and the result would not have been up to him alone (they could have divorced the next day, for example). Thus, his declaration remains speculation here as well.
Why am I going on about all of this?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I experienced a hindsight 20/20 moment yesterday when I began reading about William Arkle. After thirty minutes of reading, I experienced the following thought:
“If I had discovered William Arkle earlier, I would be so much wiser today.”
It is immediately apparent that this thought expresses a value statement. What is also immediately apparent is the tinge of regret the thought exudes.
It took me about ten minutes to recover from this thought and begin to examine it objectively. The conclusions I reached after having dissected the thought helped me understand much about hindsight, mixed conditionals, and what I have learned about Arkle’s own ideas concerning the difference between Will Power and The Will.
Firstly, I had to accept the following – for reasons unbeknownst to me, I was not meant to discover, I mean truly discover, William Arkle until now. As regrettable as it might seem, there was a reason why I had not engaged with Arkle’s work earlier. Perhaps I had not been ready to do so before. Perhaps I had to engage with other thinkers and their works first.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that I would have liked or even been drawn to Arkle’s ideas had I encountered them earlier in life. I was a different person back then and reading Arkle’s writings in the past may have put me off Arkle entirely.
Thirdly, I cannot say with certainty that I would be a wiser person today had I engaged with William Arkle’s work previously because I could have rejected his wisdom outright, or misunderstood it, or misinterpreted it.
To conclude, I had to accept the following – I had not engaged with William Arkle because I had not been ready to do until now. As much as I would like to regret not discovering Arkle sooner, I must realize I have nothing to regret, and that engaging with him now rather than earlier in my life indicates good luck rather than bad luck. In essence, I had to understand that I have basically lost nothing and stand to gain much by not discovering William Arkle until now.
Thus, I had to recognize the fantasy contained in my original thought regarding Arkle, and reformulate the thought in the following manner:
“If I had read William Arkle earlier, I would have read William Arkle earlier.”
This is the only true hindsight 20/20 statement I can make about not discovering William Arkle earlier in my life. Notice how it lacks any description of value; and I am almost certain that is exactly what I would have received in value terms had I encountered the man’s ideas in the past.
Thankfully, I have found an amazing amount of value in reading Arkle now, which supports the notion that I was, perhaps, not meant to discover William Arkle until this moment in time.
If I have it right, this is what William Arkle himself would have referred to as The Will at work.
The regret I experienced for not reading Arkle sooner might be considered an example of my Will Power trying to exert itself in the world – on an unreal situation to create an unprovable present, no less!
Lesson learned? Renouncing Will Power and embracing the Will truly is crucial in life; even, it appears, in matters of hindsight.
Note added: I would like to express a word of gratitude to Professor Bruce G. Charlton whose incessant and inspired writing about William Arkle over the past four or five years finally motivated me to begin studying William Arkle myself. What a gift that is proving to be. Thanks, Bruce.
On a side note, Bruce Charlton also describes how it took him many years and many "missed opportunities" before he felt ready and compelled to begin studying William Arkle - seems like Arkle is one of those rare individuals who becomes engaging to a person at exactly the right time in life, if the person in question allows it.
Bruce Charlton's superb William Arkle blog is an excellent place to begin the William Arkle journey if you feel so inclined. Who knows? It might also be your time to do so.