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Piero Ferrucci

How Predictable Are You?

What it means and why it matters.

When I receive book recommendations from online vendors and their guess is wrong (which, I am happy to say, it most often is), I experience a small triumph. Somehow I feel my mind is ahead of them. I like to think of myself as unpredictable. But is that really so? Works such as that by the mathematician Albert-László Barabási, who found (by tracing 50.000 cell phones) that 93% of our movements are predictable, cast a dubious shadow on our independence. Our patterns betray us. We may not be as original as we think.

Why is it that we do not like to be thought of as predictable? Because it is the same as being banal. Our originality is what makes us unique individuals. We do not want somebody to be able to know what we are going to choose even before we choose it. The roots of this attitude may lie in the distant past. Unpredictability is adaptive: as prey, if you are predictable your days are numbered. You can hope to save your skin only if your movements are always new. The predictables have all died a painful death. We are wired to be surprising.

The very core of unpredictability is free will. How free are your decisions? As a therapist, one of the things I am most interested in is, how much has my client’s freedom of will been tampered with. Often it has been violated, thwarted, discouraged or ridiculed. Sometimes openly and explicitly, other times subtly and invisibly. Remember Procustes? If his guests did not fit his bed exactly, he would either stretch their legs or amputate them so they would conform. What a potent metaphor! The constraint of conformity! The expectations of the world! Peer group pressures, parents’ ambitions, school standards, work rules, mate’s and friends’ demands, doctor’s guidelines, are all procustean – they leave you feeling that you have to fit a form somebody else has created for you.

So: how free are you? In spite of Procustes, we are all apparently blessed with freedom galore – outer freedom that is. And thank God for that: since the time of habeas corpus, outer freedom is a formidable conquest of our civilization. But what about inner freedom? Freedom from pressures, guilt, anxiety, phantasies, obsessions? I regard my task as therapist to affirm and help develop the inner freedom of my patients. I know that when freedom is oppressed there is much suffering. Breaking the chains of one’s jail and training the will training are crucial.

Another Greek myth: Icarus and Daedalus were able to release themselves from the constraints of the labyrinth by flying above it with wings they constructed themselves. This unpredictable move worked. But Icarus fell prey to his own exaltation and flew too close to the sun. The wax in his wings melted, he fell into the sea. Having no limits could be a trap. Only the wise Daedalus was able to fly to an open destiny, and conquer his freedom.

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About the Author

Piero Ferrucci is a philosopher and psychotherapist. He has written a number of books, including The Power of KindnessBeauty and the Soul, and Your Inner Will (Tarcher Penguin). 

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Piero Ferrucci