Friday, April 15th, 2011
“But choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.” – The Grail Knight (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
You are in a dusty, cramped room carved centuries ago from the sandstone cliffs of Petra. The chamber is lit only by flickering candles. An ancient Grail Knight stands before you and gestures towards the many cups and goblets. Some are gold, others silver, others inlaid with precious and semi-precious gems.
If you make the wrong choice, both you and your father will die. How will you decide which goblet is the Holy Grail?
Our lives are filled with choices. Once we make one, we can rarely go back and change our mind. If you are like me, you sometimes dread the possibility that you might choose poorly. Sometimes we refuse to choose at all, but that too is a choice, and rarely a satisfying one. Fortunately, most of our choices aren’t really matters of life and death; we just treat them that way.
We make choices because we have goals and priorities. Each decision we make is a reflection of what we consider important. When we agonize over a tough decision, it is tough because we have conflicting priorities. By looking at our choices, we can learn more about our inner motivations. It isn’t easy, and it may be stressful, but life is full of Valuable Learning Experiences… as are games.
The Interesting Route
“We came upon a crossroads, not marked on any map;
We chose the ‘interesting’ route; ‘safe’ had to be a trap.” – Corey Cole, “Can’t Keep Carolan Down”
Nick U Turner was a Game Master who ran a great fantasy role-playing campaign filled with challenging choices and sometimes deadly decisions. In one session, we came to a crossroad as we approached an unknown valley. It had a sign showing that one direction was “Safe” and the other “Interesting.”
Now Nick was one of those devious game masters. It could be perilous to accept anything in his world at face value. Then again, one of the best ways to be devious is to do precisely what you said you’d do, but have the players not believe you. We will never know whether he was offering the choice between an adventure and a shortcut, or if the “safe” route really was a trap. But we managed to convince ourselves of the latter, and an interesting adventure ensued… as advertised.
Real life offers many choices between “safe” or “interesting”, and it is often hard to tell whether a real choice is “safe” or “stupid”. There is nothing wrong with choosing the “safe” path most of the time, but if you always go that way, you will miss a lot of fun, challenge, and excitement. We all need to take the “interesting” route sometimes. The “safe” choice is not a choice at all; it is an abdication of choice. Only your “interesting” choices give you a chance to add value to your own life and to others’ lives.
“He chose poorly.” – The Guardian of the Grail as Walter Donovan drank from the wrong goblet and died horribly – from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
If you want to lead a valuable life, you will have many difficult choices to make. I’ve written in the past about “Expected Value” or EV, and the professional poker player’s approach to making decisions. This is a rational decision-making process which takes into account the anticipated probability and cost of failure as well as the likelihood and value of success. However, neither poker nor real life is that simple. We do not have perfect information from which to calculate the chances of success and failure. For that, we have to rely on our very fallible instincts.
“How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, is an excellent book that discusses how we make decisions. The process is a combination of rational calculation and emotional response. Our bodies are wired to warn us of danger through physical sensations such as shaking, sweating, and so on. Anticipated success sets off a dopamine reaction that we perceive as pleasure and excitement. These quick reactions are wonderful in a crisis, when a slow decision could be fatal. But they can be misleading when we need to find the best long-term solution.
Smart choices require us to pay attention to our instincts while also using rational thought. Sometimes we need to override our natural desire for a short-term gain in order to ensure long-term benefits. We also have to make a conscious effort to discard false influences on our thinking. As investors, we are warned that, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results,” but we often believe it is. And that makes sense – We also hear that, “Experience is the best teacher.” That is true in the long run, but we are overly influenced by what has happened to us most recently.
When we get lucky, or someone compliments us, we get a surge of pleasure that influences our next decision. We are more likely to say “Yes” to a question or take a risk. When we have a loss, or failure, or are criticized, we become depressed. Then we are more likely to say “No” or to avoid taking another chance. If we were out in the wild foraging for food, those would be good instincts. They aren’t so hot in our modern, complicated lives. Most of the time our next decision has very little to do with the previous one or to what just happened to us. But we act as though everything is related, and sometimes make very bad decisions as a result.
The only way to overcome this is to be aware of it. If you catch yourself becoming angry, stop and think about it. Anger and depression are not good environments for making wise choices. If you’re really happy, that’s a little better, but can also prove costly. This isn’t easy. We are servants of our emotions, and they are useful when we need to make a quick decision, but they get in the way of careful choices. Stop for a moment between tasks. Break the chain of false cause and effect.
Don’t Be So Sure
We tend to discount or ignore information that contradicts what we already believe to be true. This is known as “confirmation bias” and is one of the reasons for the permanent gap between liberal and conservative politicians, people of different religions, and so on. Successful people are able to put aside what they “know” to be true when new information tells them something else. We aren’t very good at this, so somehow we have to break the pattern.
Jonah Lehrer writes, “The only way to counteract the bias for certainty is to encourage some inner dissonance.” Be open to new ideas, especially when your first reaction is to ignore them. You may realize that your preconceptions were incomplete or just plain wrong. Shake up your certainty and listen before you leap.
A Hero’s Choice
“You chose… wisely.” – Guardian of the Grail, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
We make tough decisions all the time never knowing whether we are making the right choice. But we can use experience to help us decide on each new decision. In my case, I know that Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, and Shannara would not exist if I had chosen the “safe” path of working at “regular” programming jobs. Perhaps I would have made the jump years later and created some different games. But at some point, we have to take that leap of faith to realize our potential.
A Hero does not sit back and play it safe. Like Indiana Jones, a Hero takes worthwhile risks for big results. He uses his knowledge and wisdom to help decide – What kind of man first used the Grail? – but in the end, he makes the decision and lives (or dies) with the results. If the gamble fails, the Hero learns from the failure, but never quits. He just chooses more carefully and correctly the next time.
Don’t be afraid of making a difficult decision; fortunately, very few of yours will result in a horrible and painful death. Choices give you the chance to change your destiny. Make the most of your choices to make a positive difference in the world.