Decisions, Decisions

On what separates good decision-making from bad

If you asked a 4-year-old what you should have for dinner on any given day, you’d be eating a lot of chocolate cake.

In one important way, the 4-year-old is not wrong: chocolate cake is delicious. The problem is that there’s more to dinner than that. For one thing, variety is worth something. Secondly, you know, early grave and all that.

Turns out the 4-year-old sucks at making decisions. Probably best to get your dietary advice elsewhere.

It’s interesting to consider, though: how, specifically, does the 4-year-old suck at making decisions? And what makes someone good at it?

What we think of as a ‘bad decision’ typically involves some degree of myopia or shortsightedness: overemphasis on one dimension of the decision to be made, while (consciously or unconsciously) overlooking a whole bunch of other things. In the 4-year-old’s case, it’s not that eating cake is bad in every way, it’s just that there’s a bunch of important shit that got left out of the calculation.

Think of the teenager who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd: his bad decisions involve placing too much emphasis on cheap thrills and immediate social belonging, and too little on safety, the future, etc. Think of you in the back of some poor Uber driver’s car at 2:30AM, belting Backstreet’s Back into the McDonald’s drive-thru microphone: tomorrow will be a day of reckoning.

Making good decisions, on the other hand, will get you places. In organizations, hierarchy is designed (or at least meant) to allocate decision-making authority in proportion to people’s ability to use it well. Having the right skills and knowledge is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to be able to apply those things wisely.

Here’s the secret sauce: unlike the narrow- or short-sightedness of bad decisions, the crux of good decision-making lies in being able to process a variety of information or points of view. To make good decisions is to be able to synthesize, not just select from, a bunch of considerations.

If you want to be someone who makes good decisions in this world, then, you need the ability to identify and take into account all the relevant information, variables and vantage points, crunch the numbers (so to speak) and output decisions that produce good outcomes more often than not.

Here’s what good decision-making is not: picking one point of view and loudly defending it. Most times when someone’s arguing vigorously in favour of one dimension of a problem, they’re overlooking a bunch of other important considerations, ala the 4-year-old’s dinner menu.

By the way, political polarization and corporate infighting have this sort of zero-sum mentality in common, where every debate is framed in false dichotomies: this/that, good/bad, mine/yours. Show me an environment where everyone is dying on one hill or another and I’ll show you a place where nobody’s making good decisions. Best-case scenario there’s a grownup in the room that can extract the relevant parts of each reductive worldview and synthesize them into a workable course of action.

Being or becoming that grownup is more art than science of course, but the first step is recognizing this nuanced quality of good decision-making. If you find yourself being pulled into the muck of a narrow, one-sided take on a difficult issue, pull back and consider what you might be overlooking. And if that sounds like a recipe for splitting the difference -- i.e. trying to make everyone happy -- it’s not. Truth be told, it’s more likely that good decisions make no one particularly happy, at least not among the my-way-or-the-highway crowd.

So, to the 4-year-old: sorry, kid. I know the chicken and broccoli isn’t quite as exciting as chocolate cake, but you’ll thank me later.