LIFE GIVES US CHOICES, and we make decisions.
Some choices are easy like “Should I get vanilla or chocolate ice cream?” Most of our decisions are like this, and the consequences aren’t life-changing. Most books on decision-making describe these kinds of intuitive, gut-reaction decisions. But not all decisions are of this type.
Some are farsighted choices as Steven Johnson calls them in Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. These are the big decisions—life choices—like should I move to Denver? Should I take that job? Should I move home? Should I buy that car? Should I buy the house? Should I get married?
How do we make the right choice in these kinds of decisions? The answers are rarely a clear yes or no. These are complex problems with multiple variables.
We are all familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s two-column method. Most of us just tally the number of items on each list and go with the longer list. But Franklin recommended an important final step in this process. He advised that you conduct a kind of “Prudential Algebra” to each entry to give them relative weight because not all reasons are of equal value. It makes good sense, but as we know, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
What we need is “a routine or a practice—a specific set of steps for confronting the problem, exploring its unique properties, weighing the options.” A deliberate and measured approach that allows you to think about a problem from multiple perspectives.
Johnson puts forth a three-step method “designed specifically to overcome the unique challenges of a hard choice.” All decisions have a context, perspectives, and possible consequences. This method helps to address each of them.
The method begins with building a full-spectrum map of all of the variables and the potential paths available to us. Then we make predictions about where all those different paths might lead us, given the variable at play. Finally, we decide on a path by weighing the variable outcomes against our overarching objectives.
Given our disposition towards scientific methods, we would like this to be scientific to remove the human weaknesses that challenge our decision-making. But as Tolstoy’s Prince Andrew counseled in War and Peace, “What theory and science is possible about a matter the conditions and circumstances of which are unknown and cannot be defined, especially when the strength of the acting forces cannot be ascertained?” The Prince continued, “What science can there be in a matter in which, as in all practical matters, nothing can be defined and everything depends on innumerable conditions, the significance of which is determined at a particular moment which arrives no one knows when?”
We all use mental maps whether we know it or not. The trick is to be intentional about it. “What the map should ultimately reveal is a set of potential paths, given the variables at play in the overall system. Figuring out which path to take requires other tools.” In the mapping step, you are looking to expand the context of your decision to include all possible decision paths.
The art of making farsighted decisions “with as much wisdom as possible lies not in forcing that map to match some existing template, but instead in developing the kind of keen vision required to see the situation as it truly is. And the best way to develop that vision is to get different pairs of eyes on the problem.” It requires a bit of humility as well. You are more likely to be right to the degree that you recognize that you may be wrong. We must embrace the likely possibility that we are wrong to get it right. Often what stands in our way of getting it right is our certainty that we are right. The lesson: explore other alternatives.
When we make a farsighted decision, we are predicting what will happen as a result of our decision. But that’s not easy. One of the problems we run into is assuming that things will continue as they always have—the fallacy of extrapolation. Things changes and we don’t know what we don’t know. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling once noted that one thing a person cannot do “is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” To make good decisions, we need to make those kinds of imaginative leaps.
Johnson prescribes simulations to do just that. Engaging in scenario planning or gaming is not to make accurate predictions, but “the very act of trying to imagine alternatives to the conventional view helps you perceive your options more clearly.” Pierre Wack wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “No single ‘right’ projection can be deduced from past behavior. The better approach, I believe, is to accept uncertainty, try to understand it, and make it part of our reasoning.”
It is a kind of storytelling. We create stories around our decisions all the time—“when we do this, this is what it will be like.” And that’s good. The problem arises when we fail to construct multiple stories around our choices. “That doesn’t always give you a definite path, but it does prepare you for many ways the future might unexpectedly veer from its current trajectory.”
With the decision mapped, the options identified, and the scenarios panned, it’s time to decide.
Making a decision is the final step. How do we decide? What’s best for me or what’s best for the greater good or some other cost-benefit analysis. If we’ve done the first two steps well and given ourselves an appropriate amount to process, often the decision becomes clear. “But sometimes the answer is murkier, and you have to make the tough call between a few remaining options, each of which promises a different mix of pain and pleasure to the individuals affected by the choice.”
Almost every strategy described in this book ultimately pursues the same objective: helping you see the current situation from new perspectives, to push against the limits of bounded rationality, to make a list of things that would never occur to you. They’re designed to get you outside your default assumptions, not to give you a fixed answer.
While Johnson presents many strategies and ideas of real value, the magic of Farsighted is the examples he weaves throughout to make the ideas and principles come alive.
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Of Related Interest:
Where is the Wisdom We Have Lost in Knowledge?
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