In the summer of 1962 I had just graduated from MIT. I had a fellowship to the Writers Workshop in Iowa, but I was restless. I was 21 years old. Dan, a friend who also wanted to be a writer, had just graduated from Harvard.

So we made a pact, the kind naive young men make.

We would apply to the Sorbonne in Paris. If we got in, we'd go. We'd follow the Hemingway Trail to the Great American Novel.

If we didn't get into the Sorbonne, well, we'd join the Army.

It seemed logical at the time: Paris or the Army.

Fate was kind. We were accepted at the Sorbonne. Later, we learned that our imagined brilliance wasn't an admission requirement. Sending checks that didn't bounce had been sufficient.

Since then I've often wondered if we would have survived Vietnam, had admission to the Sorbonne been more demanding. I am thankful for the gift of all these years, however unpredictable.

Today is my 64th birthday.

In my library, dozens of books demonstrate how unpredictable the future is. Most predictions were wrong. Some were outrageously wrong. Here are a few of the predictions that were entirely wrong:

•  Automation was going to create a vast world of leisure, much of it involuntary. Economist Robert Theobald promoted a guaranteed annual income for everyone.

•  Huge computers would do everything. Today, the computers that are changing everything are tiny, not huge.

•  Overpopulation and hunger, Paul Ehrlich declared, would engulf the world. Instead, some now worry about a global population decline. Skeptics should check the November issue of Wired magazine.

•  Resource demands were going to lead to a population "die-back," the Club of Rome declared in the early 70's. The systems dynamics models showed a global collapse. It hasn't happened yet.

Fortunately, a few predictions had value for understanding our world. The best came from two men: The late futurist Herman Kahn, author of "The Year 2000" (1967), and sociologist Alvin Toffler, author of "Future Shock" (1970).

Toffler said we were entering a period of accelerating change. It would test our ability to adapt. And that's what we've got: Change that is so fast, many people simply opt out. While millions of people mourn the bursting of the Internet Bubble and talk as though technological change was dead, only the money and market hype is dead.

The digitalization of the entire world continues. For a reality check, visit Best Buy. Count the number of digital items that weren't being sold only a year or two ago, ask for advice from a refrigerator that talks.

Digital memory chips have even played important supporting roles in two recent movies--- The Bourne Supremacy and Collateral.

Still more telling is Herman Kahn's prediction of an "Increasingly Sensate" culture---one that is "empirical, this-worldly, secular, humanistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, contractual, epicurean or hedonistic." That sensate wave did not peak at Woodstock in 1969. Today, it has morphed throughout our culture. We now live in a ubiquitous cornucopia of sensate pleasures. It overwhelms many.

These two big trends--- disorienting change and overwhelming hedonistic choice--- have been the drivers of the last half-century.   They aren't about to go away, so buckle up.

What was the biggest lesson of the last 42 years? More cataclysms are predicted than occur. While we wait breathlessly for major disasters, we forget about the individual disasters life holds. Unlike the apocalyptic visions, more individual disasters occur than are expected. They always take us by surprise.

We should invest accordingly, but few do. The consequence is a rising personal bankruptcy rate in the richest country in the world.

Remember this next time you start to worry about the entire world--- as many were approaching the election. We can save more grief by looking around the room than by watching the world.

On the web:

More about Alvin Toffler

More about Herman Kahn

More about Woodstock