Prudential algebra, the Benjamin Franklin way of plotting ‘pros and cons’?
Or the ancient Persian way of ‘deciding twice’: once when sober and once when drunk?
Or ‘decision science’ is where you get your juice from, as the New Yorker points out that it is Barack H. Obama’s decision method – a research field at the intersection of behavioral economics, psychology, and management?
Or do you prefer the Charles Darwin method of listing possibilities?
Or do you find yourself close to the ‘Gandhian method’, that stems from principles of morality, quality, civility, humanity, inclusivity, and collective good?
How do you decide? Do you have a method for it? If not why? Is there merit in having one? Are some of the things that I wish to explore with you, today. The art or as many call it the science of decision making is perhaps the most essential skill one needs to own, not just for sustenance but also for success. We make hundreds of choices each day; some more critical than the other, but decisions nonetheless. Every decision necessitates a definite consequence. If it happens to be a sound one, outcomes are balmy and if it goes south, things turn ugly. Therefore, it is crucial to pause to analyze the process that we might have for arriving at decision. At this stage, for argument’s sake, let’s admit that all of us have a method, it’s just that some of us recognize it and others do not, but trust me when I say no human mind is devoid of one.
While we’re at it, let’s bust the most common myth, the oldest surviving decision fallacy: Lack of knowledge/intellect causes poor decision making, undividedly.
This is believed to be the gospel by many but it is not entirely fact-based. I am not saying that information and intellect are not useful in making a selection but I am simply saying that it is not the ‘sole’ contributor in decision making. Knowledge deficit is not an issue as much as, behavior deficit is, let me give you a few examples:
Common facts are known to most if not all.
- Carb/sugar is poison.
- Wearing a seatbelt (even on the rows behind the driver) saves lives.
- Smoking kills.
- Not reading ‘good stuff’ makes us dumb.
Yet, these blunders are choices that billions of people make every day over the known ‘right choice’, and the science behind it, completely’; as I said, awareness is not always the issue, the behavior is. A person who makes the weighing scale arc beyond the healthy mark and those with a special medical condition, let’s say diabetic, hypertensive, cardiac issues – know that the voluptuous bite of burger, will set them back by a few weeks of hard work (assuming that they have been refraining) and yet when presented with one, they hog it, in 8 out of 10 incidents. And while at it they also order a bag of fries; some in guilt override even finish the job with ice cream (with disproportionate amounts of creme). Have you ever thought why some of us slide on the hideous slope? Behavioral psychologists explain, it is because of the combined effect of the below :
- Present Biase: Absitation, in this case, is hard work. Which even if observed is only going to materialize into tangible results in the future but letting go, being slothful, rewards here and NOW (the bite). So most people go for it.
- The emotional context of the pleasure centers: Social contract accounts for a lot of what we do, an enclosure full of reckless burger eaters, tricks your brain into believing that after all a burger can’t kill and then you intellectualize in your mind, while you have already queued up for the order, that, “I have been on salads for nearly 7 days, I have earned it”. So with a smile broader than usual, you order double cheese and whatever else it is that you enjoy consuming.
- Fear of losing out: We’re motivated more by fear of loss than possibilities of gain: not taking the bite looms larger than the possibility of being on the healthier side of body mass, in the long run. So at the moment, burger seems like an ok thing to do so you go for it.
Human beings are irrational subjects but in the most predictable ways, therefore, as long as you are able to tame the ‘cue, routine, reward’ cycle as the ace writer Charles Duhigg defines in his book the power of habit, which is to say that behavior accounts for more than information in decision making, you’ll be fine. But what is also true is that all circumstances that we face are not an outcome of routine, we often encounter unique situations, to which we have zero familiarity with. That begs that question, how should we approach decision making in those cases? A few examples of those scenarios are:
- COVID has dented the business substantially, should I, therefore, rationalize the cost structure of my organization now, or wait for the situation to unfold a little more?
- Which job offer should I take as both of them promise to pay nearly the same and are in the same city?
- Should I marry or not? What my ideal match will be?
- What should I learn next?
- Which investments make sense .. which is dud?
- Who to befriend and who to actively avoid?
- How polite is it too smooth?
You catch the drift, I hope?
Decision making is often an art of juggling between conflicting objectives and undiscovered options. You’ll never have all the information that you need, security will seldom be answered conclusively and yet you’d be required to exercise your choice and sometimes without much notice too. What do you do?
I think we have succeeded in doing a good job in setting the context right. We’ve defined the issue at hand well, we gotta now unravel the solution part of it. And before we get there I must in the benefit of full disclosure, admit that I have made many terrible choices, straight up unwise ones when measured against the common parlance and I also can’t even say with certainty that I have never repeated a judgment error, in my life. But I must also place in your knowledge that I have been intent on discovering the art of decision making for over 16 years, now. I have read a wide variety of philosophers and observed modern-day exemplary decision-makers to better my own process. I have also written about decision making (12 articles in the last 10 years, you can find them on the website)
So, when you learn what I have to say on the matter, take it for what it is worth, no less no more.
What you’ll register from here on is a condensed version of a discipline that I have created for myself, and so far it has served me well or so I think.
Step 1 – is to figure out what is it that matters the most to us? Or put differently, what makes us most appeased.
- Is it wealth?
- Does intellectual indulgence count above everything else?
- Do you crave for happiness in the conventional sense the most?
- Is morality and social justice, the mission of your life?
- Do you get motivated by societal positioning, which is about going a bit over the top in the display of possession?
- Are health and emotional well being most dear to you?
- Are you looking for love and a sense of belonging?
- Or you simply want the ZEN, like peace?
Or anything else?
Decisions are the vehicle on which we travel to the destination of our life goals, therefore it is vital to sort out what we really desire for first. It is crucial to not haste here: take your time, speak to your friends, family, and most importantly your mother: she knows what you want more than you do. After you’ve made up your mind on your life goal(s) and related priorities, give it some resting time. Let say 90 days or so, revisit the list again, and if then also it makes the same sense that it did when you originally created it, chances are that you’ve hit the GOLD. And if you feel like you need to change a few things, go right ahead: it is your life and there is no deadline for this activity. The goal is to know the thing that you deeply desire at a level much deeper than what is easily influenced by superficial worldly influences. After watching the BATMAN movie if you want to be one too, you know it can’t be your life’s GOAL, because there is JUST ONE BATMAN!
Also, at this stage you must know that :
“We judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their impact.”
Let’s scope our decision-making process to say that we’re blocking important and interesting decisions like the items listed below, from our endeavor
- What to watch on Netflix.
- Android Vs iOS.
- Youtube Vs TIKTOK.
- Kohli or Dhoni.
We’re trying to narrow our conversation on rather uninteresting aspects of life, those decisions which often mean more than one thing. Things that have an impact on our lives in the medium as well as the long term. The set of decisions that help us get through the familiar part of the day are important but they do not determine the quality of our lives. Who we are today and what we will be tomorrow are a function of the other kinds of decisions that we take; the ones that require cognitive investment: logical thinking, rationalization. Matters that require intentionality, are the ones that we are going to talk about in this article.
The decision is a statement of intent, in fact, the most potent one.
As significant as the intention is to a decision-maker is, it is also open to interpretation by others, who may or may not be impacted by it. Opinions are not the same as facts and therefore must be taken with a grain of salt. We should shape our system of decision making, by trying to be rational, comprehensive, progressive. Inclusive, moral, and most important of all ‘right’. A smart man once said ‘when facts change I change my mind’; when one of his discussions was called into question, by the press. From peace to war; every outcome at an atomic level is a decision.
It is comforting to know that no one ever walked on the planet without making poor choices. A bad decision is undesirable but not completely avoidable. It is humanly impossible to effectively insulate the decision-making process from error. No matter how bright you are you’d still make regrettable choices, it is ok, do not beat yourself over it. It is, however, crucial to have a system of making decisions, so that you get is right more often than you get it wrong.
Actions work best when they are themed to a carefully chosen principle. I personally believe in the three value systems that we will go over one by one. In my view, it provides beliefs needed to form a sound decision-making process. I credit the below philosophies for all the right decisions that I took in my life. And I attribute all the decision errors that I have made thus far to a shortage of discipline, intent, and sometimes even bleak desire to make them right.
- Stoicism: Stoic philosophy can’t be discussed without mentioning the stalwarts who propounded this line of thought, eloquently :
- Seneca (4 AD – 65 AD)
- Marcus Aurelius (121AD to 180 AD)
I have had the good fortune of reading writings of both of these heavyweights, in the university: It was not an extracurricular reading, philosophy was one of my subjects.
Other thinkers have also spoken and written about Stoic philosophy but I find these two thinkers most prolific. If you were to deep dive you’ll find that “Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy which was founded by Zeno of Citium, in Athens, in the early 3rd century BC” (Wiki will also tell you this)
So what does it really cover?
The virtue of action, tolerance, and self-control, it professes remaining calm under pressure and avoiding emotional extremes. Personal improvement is at the very core of this philosophy. It simply mentions that everything that happens in our life is a result of connected cause and effect. It says that we can only respond by adjusting our attitude towards the prevalent circumstances. This discipline is about accepting the worst possible scenario and actually living it a few days a year to know what it is like to face the worst fall. It advises against making anger the response but leans on the side of intellectual arguments. It propels, that it is going to be ok in the end. This principle is also dead against, empty hope, passion, and mindless motivation. It is about being objective and free from emotions to the extent possible.
- Buddhism: It is about confronting suffering by practicing compassion. Budhha seconds, blowing out the flames of desire, by living in moderation, ‘the middle way’. Four important aspects of this philosophy are :
- Suffering exists.
- Suffering is caused by desire
- We transcend suffering by managing our desires.
- If we change our outlook the changing circumstances won’t impact as badly.
Buddhism is about converting Ignorance into wisdom, Anger into compassion, greed into generosity. It teaches us to focus, to internalize the world around us, and to give. It tells us that peace is the ultimate goal that we must go after. I’m not detailing the origins of Sidhartha and how he became the enlightened Budhha because I assume most of you already know about it.
BR Ambedkar’s writing on Buddhism is worth reading
- Essentialism: Disciplined pursuit of less. Less is more! It does not mean that you should aim for less – you have every right to desire wealth, materialistic pleasures, or just about anything that you deem fit. This philosophy is about attaining those goals by removing the vital few from the trivial many. It talks about devoting all your time and resources only to the things that really matter. It does not advocate “I will do everything”. It teaches us to declutter our lives, being intentional about what we do, and not diving into every pool that we find in our way. The principles of minimalism are also covered in it. Do more with less, be productive, and not busy. It speaks about, not following the pattern, but finding one’s own path and then pursuing it with laser-sharp focus.
You should read Greg Mcknew to learn more about this philosophy.
When I try to converge these philosophies to find workable guidelines, I take the below out.
Tool Kit :
- Saying “NO” is ok. You do not have to say yes to every opportunity. Less is more!
- Delaying decisions is better than taking the wrong one.
- Pro and Cons is important for maintaining objectivity
- Emotional wellbeing is displayed by not letting sentimentalities cloud judgment
- Be aware of your biases and work actively to shield your decisions from them.
- Be compassionate and be willing to share the fruits with those who deserve it.
- Always be on the right side of the moral principle in doing so uphold the law of the land, too.
- Stand for what you believe in even if doing so is the hardest thing to do at the moment.
With that, I take your leave. I hope you found it useful.
Remember, you have to make your own framework, pick what is right for you, and then run with it.