“Gentlemen,” Sloan said, “I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here… Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement.” – Alfred P. Sloan, former Chairman of General Motors
If there’s one thing about which I’m absolutely certain, it’s that it doesn’t pay to be too certain. If I knew all the answers before taking on a task, it probably wouldn’t be a very interesting one. Early in my programming career, I made the decision that I would only stay with a job as long as I was learning new things. Any time I knew everything, it was time to move on.
Twisty Passages, All Different
“You can never step into the same river, for new waters are always flowing past you.” – Heraclitus of Ephesus
Life has a lot of repetition. Sometimes it feels as though you’re dropping a red vase in a “maze of twisty passages, all alike”, exploring the maze for several hours, and ending up back at the red vase. At first, it seems as though no progress has been made at all.
But there is progress. Before returning to that spot, you probably also dropped a few other objects in different sections of the maze. You may be revisiting a location, but the state of the maze – like that of Heraclitus’s river – has changed. You have more information and can make more refined decisions.
It’s All Right to Be Wrong
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard
The key to making a tough choice is being willing to change your mind. If you reach a dead end, back up and try another path. This isn’t true only in adventure games; real life has many opportunities to rethink decisions and make better choices. Some choices – taking a particular job or having a baby, for example – of course commit you for a time. And that’s a good thing – You really need to give either of those time to do well; then decide whether your original decision was the right one.
Remember, there are no bad decisions. If it’s a meaningful choice, it’s also a difficult one. And that means that there are reasons for making a particular choice and reasons for doing something else. Don’t beat yourself up over small “mistakes”; learn from them instead. And when it’s time to make a similar decision, you’ll have more information and the chance to make a better choice.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
To me, oversimplification of a complex issue is a capital mistake… and one we see all the time in news reporting, political analysis, and the corporate boardroom. It’s very understandable – When confronted with a really complex issue, we feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Simplifying the decision – usually by focusing on a single aspect of it – makes us feel more in control.
Politicians are often tarred with labels such as “fence-straddler” or “flip-flopper.” We want our representatives to have definite opinions and stick with them. But that isn’t a good reflection of reality. The issues debated in Congress, Parliament, and other political institutions don’t have nice simple answers. That’s because the simple questions get handled all the time by individual workers. Only the hard ones come up for voting.
Currently, the United States suffers from an excess of certainty. There is a line drawn in the sand between the Republican and Democratic representatives, and very few are willing to cross over it. Instead of carefully considering each issue, representatives blindly vote on party lines. Issues such as the bank bail-out, universal health insurance, and others are not at all straightforward. And yet, on many of them, all of the Democrats vote one way, and all of the Republicans against them. That degree of consensus tells me that our representatives are not thinking about the issues. They’re voting the way they’re told to vote. There is no individual judgment, and to me, that means there is no real intelligence being applied to our laws.
That’s an oversimplification in its own right, of course. I’m sure our representatives and their staffs do a tremendous amount of work writing bills and amending them to reflect their constituencies. That’s where the intelligence comes into the process. But the final decision is a vote, and most of the time, that vote doesn’t seem to reflect anything more than a rubber stamp of political party positions.
We can suffer from too much information. Our brains are designed for simple survival decisions – “If I sleep on the ground, predators may kill me, so I’d better either sleep in the trees or make myself a strong shelter.” We can cope with decisions like these. But modern life is much more complicated. We can spend hours – or hundreds of hours – researching questions on the Web and other resources. It’s very easy to get so much information on a subject that a meaningful decision is too hard to make.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this conflict in several of his New Yorker Magazine articles reprinted in his book, “What the Dog Saw.” For example, he talks about intelligence failures in attacks such as 9/11/2001, the 1973 Syrian and Egyptian attacks on Israel, and the 1998 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi. Each time, there were – at least in hindsight – clear indications that an attack was imminent.
The problem is that there is just too much information. Yes, there were leads suggesting each of these attacks. But in the case of the 1998 attack, for example, “the FBI’s counterterrorism division had sixty-eight thousand outstanding and unassigned leads dating back to 1995.” It isn’t in the least bit surprising that one letter – from an informant who was considered not credible – was ignored. There was just too much information, much of it contradictory, and most of it useless.
Trust Your Instincts
How do we make intelligent decisions when we have too much information, or too little? “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, studies this question. While people can’t make millions of calculations per second as does a computer, we make surprisingly accurate decisions all the time. That’s because we have a built-in memory and feedback mechanism that recognizes patterns and gives us positive feedback when the patterns look “right”.
A chess grandmaster can glance at the board and immediately pick out four or five moves that have the most potential. Then he’ll work through those possibilities and choose the move that seems most promising. This sort of decision is based on knowledge and experience, but the immediate decision is made by “feel”.
Are your palms sweating as you contemplate a decision? Ears ringing? Arms shaking? Your body and mind are trying to give you feedback that – based on your previous experience – something is wrong. Pay attention to those instincts and you’ll make much better decisions than if you try to exhaustively analyze every question. Then learn from the results so your instincts will improve each time.
The Simple Answer Is…
… that there are no simple answers. We live in a complex world full of difficult and complicated decisions. The best we can do is to try to make reasonable choices, pay attention to our instincts, and learn from our inevitable mistakes.
Life isn’t just an adventure game; you have a lot more freedom of choice. Sometimes you need to break out of the maze and make your own twisty passages. And sometimes you seem to end up right back where you started. But you never step in the same river twice; the experience from your previous decisions helps you to make better ones as you go along. In the end, it all comes down to this simple guide:
- 1. Make a decision that feels right.
- 2. Live with it, but also learn from it.
- 3. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. Being uncertain just means you have meaningful choices. And that’s what makes the game (of life) fun… even when you don’t know what your next move should be.