“The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions,” wrote economist Milton Friedman, eloquently reminding us all of the importance of intelligent decision-making.
Given that our lives are really just strings of successive decisions that continue to alter the course that we’re on, don’t we owe it to ourselves to make the best ones available to us?
I’ve often heard that a good decision is just one that works out well. Yet while we can’t necessarily predict the future, this inability isn’t the source of most poor decisions. It’s in our unwillingness to see the present.
Informed Decisions are Better Decisions
“We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.” – Claude Shannon
The father of information theory, Claude Shannon, described information as the “resolution of uncertainty” and the “negative reciprocal value of probability.”
Which is really all there is to good decision-making. Gathering information to reduce uncertainty. And taking steps to improve the odds of success beyond that random probability.
Unfortunately, we’ve stopped valuing this behavior. We live in a time when quick decision-making is glorified, decisiveness synonymous with leadership. Our obsession with haste drives the stigma that everyone must have an opinion on every topic, regardless of the level of our knowledge on it.
When deliberation and changing your mind is the mark of the indecisive, it promotes lazy decision-making, rewarding preemptive thoughts and poorly formed ideas. As the great Victor Hugo wisely put it in Les Misérables,
“The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.”
All of which contributes to the poor decisions we see every day. And the conviction which people bring to continue defending their past behaviors, digging themselves further and further into poor practices.
The alternative is to consciously cultivate the practice of seeing more – to deepen, widen, and lengthen our perspectives. To trade efficiency for effectiveness. As Ed Catmull described in Creativity, Inc.,
“If you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.”
Deepen Your Perspectives
“By resisting the beginner’s mind, you make yourself more prone to repeat yourself than to create something new. The attempt to avoid failure, in other words, makes failure more likely.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
Simon Sinek popularized the mindset of understanding why we do the things we do and using that motivation to drive our business and our lives. As he wrote, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
This same logic applies to improving decision-making. Deepening our perspectives comes from challenging our blind spots and assumptions. It comes from asking ourselves, why do we believe the things that we do.
Do we truly understand the issue from a first-principles level or have we latched on to the most convenient piece of information?
Finance professor and skilled investor, Sanjay Bakshi, in an episode of the Knowledge Project, suggested starting all reasons and justifications with, “well, part of the reason is…”
When we embrace the idea that we don’t have all the answers, we push ourselves to keep digging until we fully understand an issue. We’re more likely to challenge our convictions and consider what we may not be seeing. As Ray Dalio wrote in Principles,
“Dealing with raw opinions will get you and everyone else confused; understanding where they come from will help you get to the truth.”
Widen Your Perspectives
“If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
The majority of arguments aren’t based on factual discussions, but on the perceptions of those facts. Yet despite repeated misunderstandings, we’re slow to realize that the perceptions and experiences of others are significantly different than our own.
And while our innate tendency is to ignore those perspectives that don’t align with our own views, these differences are an asset to making well-rounded decisions. When we can widen our perspectives by taking into account different views, we’re better able to address problems from multiple vantage points.
To build on this idea, many companies try to use devil’s advocates to voice a dissenting opinion. Yet UC Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth’s research has shown that assigning someone to fill this role doesn’t help to overcome confirmation bias. Though people may play the part, they still stick with their original views and discussions are superficial and contrived.
To be effective, the person filling the role needs to actually hold a dissenting view. For there to be authentic discussion, people need to hold authentic views, leading to real disagreements that stimulate better thinking and better decisions.
Abraham Lincoln famously selected political rivals for his cabinet positions, knowing they would challenge his views and bring strength through diversity. As Benjamin P. Thomas wrote in his biography,
“It was a mark of his sincere intentions that Lincoln wanted the advice of men as strong as himself or stronger. That he entertained no fear of being crushed or overridden by such men revealed either surpassing naivete or a tranquil confidence in his powers of leadership.”
Don’t just assign devil’s advocates. Go find them. Surround yourself with people who will challenge your views. Because tuning out opposing viewpoints will not make them go away. And while it may be uncomfortable, we’ll be stronger for it.
Lengthen Your Perspectives
“What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position – that driving the train is the way to shape their companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
Political scientist and Harvard professor, Dr. Edward Banfield studied economic mobility throughout this career. In his controversial book, The Unheavenly City, he attributes the critical factor in economic success to be “time perspective,” that willingness to consider the long-term benefits and the self-discipline to choose that over the short-term, immediate consequences.
When we lengthen our perspectives, we focus on the impact of our decisions over time, as opposed to merely the immediate consequences. Most poor decisions, whether financial, dietary, or any other category, all surround a tendency to satisfy near-term urges as opposed to long-term benefits. In Get Smart!: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field, Brian Tracy offers the following advice on improving our “time perspective,”
“Resolve today to develop long-time perspective. Become intensely future oriented. Think about the future most of the time. Consider the consequences of your decisions and actions. What is likely to happen? And then what could happen? And then what? Practice self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-control. Be willing to pay the price today in order to enjoy the rewards of a better future tomorrow.”
Which, granted, is easier said than done. It’s tough to imagine multiple outcomes and weigh the probabilities against each other. Which is why Gary Klein invented a tool to help gain this perspective.
It’s called the premortem. And it’s been heralded by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his groundbreaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in his insightful TED talk on thinking more clearly under stress.
The premise is simple: consider that you’re at a point in the future. You’ve made the decision that you’re about to make. The outcome was a complete disaster. What happened and why?
While it’s difficult to visualize multiple perspectives, it’s much easier to imagine a single event and come up with the detailed causes. Likewise, it forces us to abandon our tendency to overestimate positive events and underestimate failures and problems. As Kahneman wrote,
“The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Further, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.”
Better Decisions Mean a Better Life.
“Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.
Through everything, managing complex decisions requires courage. The courage to challenge our existing beliefs and assumptions. The courage to open ourselves up to opposing viewpoints. And the courage to forgo the immediate benefits and think long-term.
Above all, it takes the courage to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. And while it’s disorienting to admit, it’s much more rewarding to be informed than hold onto a fleeting belief that we have all the answers. Because more informed decisions are better decisions. And better decisions lead to a better life.