It is often said that there are no good or bad events, just events. Whether it is a good event or a bad one is decided by the emotion that we attach to it. Sure, some events are frustrating and some are saddening. But they are only so if you decide to let them get to you.
Nothing lets you stew in your negative emotion than the words you choose to describe a situation. The human brain can quickly attach emotions to words from spoken / written language. The words you use to phrase a situation can directly or invisibly affect your emotions. The words you choose can either empower you to take control or leave you writhing in pain, self-pity and helplessness.
Here’s how you can choose your words carefully and frame your situation accordingly.
Should I take Medicine or Engineering?
Should I marry Ambitious A or Docile D?
Should I take this ok job or wait for my dream job results to come back?
Should I quit my job to work on this brilliant Startup idea or work to getting the onsite Job and promotion?
These are not similar to decisions like – Pizza or Burger ? or Western or Ethnic? In this case, you can have pizza one day and burger the other or have a small pizza plus a burger. The effects of the decision don’t last long enough to sweat over it.
However, in the first set the effect of decisions may last a very long time. A decision on a car last upto 5 years, an house upto 25-30 years, a career lasts for several decades, decision on a spouse for a lifetime. But we often think through the purchase of a car more thoroughly than choice of a spouse. Give the big decisions its due respect and think through them well.
Process Vs Outcome
We often fall into the trap of analyzing our decisions once the outcome is known. Every body seems to know who the selectors should have picked or dropped in the team once the game is over. We all know who would win the elections, which stock would outperform after the fact. We many stock pundits and subscription services that write books about how they had picked the multi-bagger stock with simple and obvious logic and how much return it gave them. The choices are simple and obvious only in the hindsight.
In contemporary business scenario, WeWork which is one of the most loved workplace solutions in several countries including India had turned out to be a nightmare for its investors. While Instagram which probably is based on a simple idea and not much thought to revenue generation, has given its founders and investors whooping returns. We have all seen up and coming towns and cities, stay unchanged for years while others with similar dynamics have changed by leaps and bounds.
As a decision maker, one must acknowledge that once must take a optimal decision based on the facts available at the time of making a decision. A good decision may lead to a bad result and vice versa. I feel it would be appropriate to quote Bhagavat Geeta here (Chapter 2 Verse 47):
‘कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 47 ||
meaning : ”
You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.
Probability of Success
Probability of Success of a startup : 10%
Probability of not being fired in current Job : 95% (say)
Probability of a successful marriage: 60%
Probability of your kid being a pain in the ass: 99%
Every Event has certain probabilities. While in love we think, this is the most perfect relationship ever and nothing can go wrong. We think our startup idea is so genius that it is inevitable that you are the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. While we think we know are an exception to the stated norm, more often than we are the norm.
I often here startups that seek fund from venture capitalists(VC) criticize them saying, ‘Anyway 9 out of 10 startups they fund don’t work out, so why are they unwilling to take a chance on my brilliant idea and the brilliant me. ‘ Well, they choose all 10 which they think will become big success, but know that atleast 9 of they will fail. They don’t think let me pick these 9 projects for failure and this one for the big success.
So when we are betting on a 10% probability event, what should one do. In case of VC’s they hope to win really big in 1 project that would compensate for the 9 losses. Many rich people are aware of the 40% divorce rate. So they go for a pre-nuptial agreement that states out terms of separation. Such an agreement would have probably saved Jeff Bezos a huge fortune.
In our case, taking a health and life insurance are ways to limit downsides of a sudden health scare and/or its aftermath.
Enhancing the Upsides
A restaurant’s revenue is capped by the seating capacity. However a kitchen only restaurant is limited only by the area of delivery. A teacher’s revenue is capped by the teaching hours and an institute by its seating capacity. But an online on demand video reach has no limit. In most cases the end product is the same, but the distribution channel, reach and impact can have a major difference in the upside. So you may examine how it is possible for you to enhance the upside for your product or service to reach more people or create deeper impacts.
‘Greater the risk, higher is the reward’.
This is a saying known to most people, but understood by very few. Infact I would say this saying is misleading and incomplete.
‘Greater the risk, higher is the reward when you succeed.’ Here the risk is greater because your probability of success is lower and also the downside is more than in a traditional choice.
Accepting the Outcome
Low probability events occur all the time. You may be fired from a safe job, your company may go under or you may win a lottery – all seemingly less probable events. While you should not count on winning a lottery to retire, once an event with low probability occurs. The best is to accept the event and plan the next course of action. Not accepting the event is going to make no difference to reality. But it will make a huge difference in your ability to respond to the same.
In an uncertain world, probability is a great framework to enable us think through important decisions in our life. Think Deeply. Act Firmly. Live Well.
It doesn’t what we are born with. One may be born in a mansion or in a slum. One may be born with perfectly working body parts or with disabilities. One may be born with supportive parents or with ones who judge and discourage you every day in your life. In the end, you get to choose how you live and you get to choose how your life should be in the future. You also get to choose how to feel about the circumstances you are in. Your choices are perhaps the most important things you do in your life. They have put you where you are today.
In the book ‘Art of choosing’, Sheena Iyengar, an Indian-origin psychology major with impaired vision, walks us through the several aspects of recognising your choices and how different situations make you choose in different ways.
Geography affects choices
Sheena highlights an important influence of geography on your choices. Being a member of the Indian community in the United States, she is able to look at how both Anglo-Americans and Asian-Americans choose different things. People of western origin are more individualistic. They like their choices to be autonomous, while not necessarily complying with the choices of others in their community. They see themselves as independent units in the society.
Asians make choices that are seen as good and acceptable within their community. For them, feeling of belongingness while looking good and being accepted within their community matters more. They see themselves as parts of a closely knit group who look out for each other.
Sheena goes on to remind us that choice is a complex matter and can mean different things to different communities. Rather than question people’s choices and judge them for it, it is important to recognise that the motivation behind different choices is different for everyone based on nationality, religion, culture, gender and age.
What is perceived as freedom?
While getting to choose for ourselves is a type of freedom, it is not the only thing referred to as freedom by everyone. For example, in capitalistic countries, freedom starts where the authorities step back and allow the markets to play out. Availability of products and their prices are completely determined by the market. Market chooses what it likes and what should be removed. Market determines the price based on supply and demand. While individuals have the freedom to choose from a wide range of products and services, his/her choices increase with the amount of wealth he/she possesses. But that also means that as the demand for something goes up substantially, the rich will pay more to acquire them, thus leaving the poor in the lurch. Ultimately, the poor cannot afford much and will have few choices to make or none at all.
In contrast, socialistic countries have the government taking part in every economic decision, even owning products and services. They make sure that prices are affordable for everyone. They offer heavy subsidies and make up for the losses through heavy taxation. While this stifles rapid growth, innovation, individual brilliance and effort, it also makes sure that the basic needs are available to everyone.
Are you unique or just like everyone else?
People like more choices and love to exert control over what they get to choose just for the illusion that they are different from everyone else. But in reality, most people choose exactly what others have chosen. This is evident from industries such as fashion, where more popular designs are chosen more often. The more viral a design becomes, the more it is chosen by new buyers at the expense of the obscurely chosen ones.
E.g. if you are given a choice between black, brown and flourescent green jackets, you may discard the last one completely since it will usually be perceived as not combining well with your other clothes. While you believe that you have a choice and that you have picked one that suits your style, you have actually picked what many others already picked, i.e. ‘safe’ options like black or brown, while rejecting flourescent green, which would have made you truly unique. It’s just that one doesn’t usually wear jackets that are too differently coloured and you are afraid to stand out.
Priya, my wife, sums this up in a nice phrase called ‘odd, but not unique’. 3 and 5 are numbers that are odd, but not unique, whereas 1 is a number that is both odd and unique. You don’t want to be that ONE who is odd and unique. You’d rather be part of a group of 3 to 5 people that the majority sees as odd, but you still fit in with a group who are just like you and have common interests to share.
Choices may be impulsive
Making a conscious choice requires a lot of reflection and deliberate thought. But the brain likes to conserve energy. When possible, it uses a set of guidelines that look like rules of thumb, but are actually shortcuts applied by the brain based on available data, so that it can avoid the hard work of deliberate thought. These shortcuts are called heuristics. Despite meaning well, heuristics often get in your way of making informed or optimal choices.
E.g. we often flock to a restaurant that has more people than to one that has fewer. The heuristic behind this choice says that if there are more people in one restaurant, it must be better. It is a mental shortcut to avoid making a decision while you are already hungry. However it’s possible that you may enjoy the food better at the emptier restaurant.
It is easier to choose from three choices than from ten. Our mind can process the evaluation of lesser choices, but can get overwhelmed by abundance. But people still crave for more choice than less, because more gives the illusion of abundance.
In a supermarket, it is common to see 20 varieties of toothpaste and 40 varieties of dips, ketchups and side dishes. When overwhelmed, the mind stops evaluated the items for their merits and looks for ways to whittle down the number of choices, the most common being categorising and sorting by price and then picking the cheapest one.
Choice in a field requiring expertise
Some fields require training, practice and expertise to make the right choices. For the untrained, making such choices is hard. Their choice usually ends up sub-optimal. It is in the best interest of everyone to offer little or no choice to such people, but simply offer them a product or service with defaults. Choices should be kept open for experts though.
Laptops are fairly new to India. The computer economy a decade ago was driven by assembled computers, where people were often tasked with picking their choice of hardware, such as the hard disk, processor, RAM, etc. Since people had no expertise in the field, they used to pick options that were cheaper or more popular. In the end, they’d have a cheap, but a sluggish and outdated computer trying to run the latest operating system.
With laptops, the decision of the hardware combination is made by the manufacturer. People have been happily using laptops for more than a decade now and no one is going back to assembled computers anywhere. But assembled computers do exist for the experts who want a fine-grained choice and the ability to swap old parts for new ones every few months.
Choices such as pulling the plug on a comatose patient or institutionalising a juvenile son can be traumatically hard. In such cases, there are three things that can happen.
a. Those in authority make the decision, execute it and tell the affected person about it.
b. Those in authority present the choices to the person who’ll be affected and let them decide, without offering personal suggestions or biases.
c. Those in authority present the choices, state their own preference and then nudge the affected person to decide.
Study after study show that those caught in situation b were more traumatised after the event, because they felt the guilt of having directly influenced the difficult outcome. Those is situation ‘a’ were at peace since the decision was not theirs. Those in situation ‘c’ were at peace too despite having made the decision themselves. In this case, this was because they believed that they had done what was best as prescribed by an experience authority.
The red button syndrome
Some choices have adverse outcomes. It is better that people don’t know about those choices at all. However even the worst choices will find their way to people, whether we like it or not. One such choice is addictive smoking. In a utopian world, smoking as a choice shouldn’t exist. But we are stuck wit it.
The usual reaction is to ban those choices. But some personalities suffer from what we call the ‘red button syndrome’, which is the impulse to rebel, to break the rules and to go against any restrictions, either boldly or through creative ways. E.g. some people boldly smoke in public to make a rebellious statement, whereas some people take to alternatives such as vaping. The name ‘red button syndrome’ is so named because some personalities feel forced to press a red button which has a warning ‘Do not press’.
An outright ban will not work for such people, because they feel the need to exercise their choice even if the outcome is adverse. The enforcers need to get creative about it, such as heavily tax cigarettes so that the smokers need to think twice before lighting up.
Choice and decision are complex processes. To master them takes a lot of practice. So much that it is actually an art. That is why Sheena calls it the ‘Art of Choosing’.