Grappling with uncertainty

A while ago, I read about a decision making technique that advised broad thinking, emotional detachment and caution about making over-confident assumptions.

The advice came from Chip and Dan Heath in their 2013 book: Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

The broad premise of the book is to highlight common faults in our thinking and share a process that is designed to counteract this. The four faults are:

  1. Our focus is too narrow – we are guilty of the most obvious and visible options and miss information that is not within our immediate view.
  2. We fall into confirmation bias. We develop a quick belief about something and then seek out information that confirms that belief.
  3. We get caught in short-term emotion. We are too emotionally connected to the decision and struggle with being appropriately detached.
  4. We are guilty of overconfidence. We assume that we know more than we actually do know and jump to conclusions, thinking we can accurately predict the future.

To challenge these faults, the book recommends four steps:

  1. Widen your options
  2. Reality-test your assumptions
  3. Be objective – step back before deciding
  4. Prepare to be wrong

I’ve struggled to make decisions – big and small – all my life. Ironically, I’ve pretty much made a career of helping other people make decisions: coaching, mentoring, signposting and ‘facilitating’ teachers and creative professionals and artists. I’ve got a whole bag of planning and decision making tricks up my sleeve, it’s just that I never apply them successfully to myself.

Someone once told me that it’s better to decide and move on rather than put off making a decision. Why flounder in the oxygen-starved shallows of uncertainty when we could swim deep and taste the experience? Or ‘suck it and see’, as the saying goes – and spit it out/change direction later if it doesn’t work out.

But any big decision really worth making will be life-changing, and necessarily involves an element of risk. And whilst I have had some adventures in my life, they’ve been pretty spontaneous or based on running away from commitment (mainly to being grown up and making decisions). So is it safe to say I’m not a risk-taker? See, I’m not even sure about that.

Sometimes people are cowed from taking the bull by the horns (no pun intended) because they a) fear failure; and b) fear what others will think of them when they fail.

I’m fascinated by the concept that we can control our own state of mind, and patterns of thinking, simply through ‘self-talk’. Please choose one of the following thoughts:

  • I am comfortable and confident about who I am and don’t worry about how others perceive me. It’s OK for me to fail.
  • I’m reasonably OK with myself…I sometimes question my integrity and how others perceive me, but failure makes me feel ashamed.
  • I doubt myself and I’m paranoid about what others think of me all the time. Failure is not an option.

I do wonder how many of us stop ourselves in our tracks because of lack of confidence. Such a travesty that this could be the only barrier to fulfilling our potential.

Is this what stands in the way of making decisions? Or is it really just NOT KNOWING?

Rasselas in Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson doesn’t lack confidence. He’s just genuinely and infinitely dissatisfied and searching. It’s easy to blame this existential angst on human consciousness, which makes us constantly wonder about the point of being alive. But there are so many people who drag themselves out of this philosophical rut and do something constructive. Nature doesn’t make us all indecisive and feeling incomplete. So are some of us simply genetically predisposed to procrastination? At least Rasselas got out there, experimented with life, and moved on when the disillusionment set in.

Perhaps those of us who dither could take a leaf out of George Cockcroft’s book, The Dice Man (published under the pen name Luke Rhinehart) and make life decisions based on the casting of dice.

As for me…I think I’ve done enough blogging about uncertainty and decision making. So I’m never going to do it again. Ever. There. Decision made.

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