Monday, June 6, 2016

Understanding the Choices we Make

Apparently, making a choice is only the first (and easy step) when it comes to informed and independent decision making.

Oracle: Candy?
Neo: You already know if I'm going to take it?
Oracle: [I] wouldn't be much of an Oracle if I didn't.
Neo: But if you already know, how can I make a choice?
Oracle: Because you didn't come here to make the choice, you've already made it. You're here to try to understand why you made it.

The Matrix trilogy (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions) is one of those movies you keep watching every once in a while, and every new time, you better understand or learn something new.
It is for this reason that it permanently resides on my hard drive.

The central theme in The Matrix is human consciousness in the age of Artificial Intelligence.
The scene above is from Matrix Reloaded.

Later on in the dialogue, the Oracle says the following:

We can never see past the choices we don't understand.

I often think above these words, which makes manifest the enduring truth in the above statement - that making a choice is only the first step in decision making.

Informed Choices

Proper decision making is usually associated with free will and knowledge or understanding. Only then can one make informed choices.

As for free will, it is largely an illusion. Concerted psychological and philosophical research has so far showed exactly that. For a better understanding, listen to Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussing Free Will on In Our Time, on BBC Radio 4.

Does Having Many Choices Help?

Many will argue that having more options to choose from makes decision making somewhat easier. Well, that is sadly not the case. Too many choices actually result in something called choice paralysis.

Choice paralysis was well tackled by Barry Schwartz in his TED Talk in 2007.

This paradox of choice, however, has also been disputed.

So how can decision making be made easier?

Well, Sheena Iyengar has addressed this in two TED Talks. One is on how to make choosing easier in 2011, which was a follow up to her 2010 talk on The Art of Choosing.

All in all, how to decide is not exactly an easy task. Making choices can, and does result in decision fatigue. The Umbel blog outlines 7 steps that can help you in deciding how to decide:
  • clearly define measurable goals
  • recognize that your brain has tendencies and biases
  • set a date or time to make your final decision
  • seek expert advice; find out what others are doing to achieve similar goals
  • identify alternative methods of achieving your goal
  • check your gut
  • satisfice yourself.
In case you're wondering, this is what satisfice means:

1. (intransitive) to act in such a way as to satisfy the minimum requirements for achieving a particular result
2. (transitive) ( obsolete) to satisfy
Understanding Our Choices

Having made a (hopefully right) choice, the more important aspect of decision making then comes into play - understanding that choice.

Let's delve into this with an example that will illustrate how making choices without bothering to understand them can be dangerous.

Imagine a young man or woman who upon graduation, gets a well-paying job in a prestigious company. He proceeds to live in a leafy suburb in Nairobi.
He then fully succumbs to the bright lights, big city way of life - drugs, drinking, fast women and fancy cars... all in an effort to live on the fastlane.

Soon enough, this reckless living catches up with our friend - debt, poor health, mental anguish and alienation from his fair-weather friends. He has indeed made all these choices, nothing has been done under duress. But he could never see past the choices he did not understand.

That, in essence, is how we all miss out on the inevitable consequences of our choices and the acts that are predicated on such choices.
It all boils down to making an effort, if only to understand the choices that we routinely make.

* * *

The fact that we may not be in a position to fully exercise independent free will should not be an excuse to making not only the right choices, but choices that we understand.

In lieu of this, we become quick to judge and slow to learn.  We run ahead, but go too slow.
But everything's not lost, and there is hope. If only we take a different road.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The New Man in Charge

Hey there, it's been a while. A long while. But not to worry, this is a comeback post.

The Procrastinator's Brain

I've purposely picked the headline in honor of where the Walkabout really began - LOST. It turns out, LOST did not end in the TV finale. Check out The New Man in Charge, just in case you missed out.
But seriously, the reason we shall continue to have regular posts on The Walkabout is because there is indeed a "new man in charge".

That said, I have decided to get back to regular blogging. The reasons are many, but I'll highlight only 2.

1. Procrastination is the real reason I haven't been blogging.

I admit that for a long time, I thought I was a rational decision maker. In case you're wondering, such decision making involves:

a multi-step process for making choices between alternatives. The process of rational decision making favors logic, objectivity, and analysis over subjectivity and insight.

Turns out, I also have this instant gratification monkey that comes in the form of seemingly worthwhile distractions and urgent stuff. In many cases, and despite writing about how we mistake the urgent for the important, I end up not doing stuff. Especially writing.

I could go on and on about procrastination, but we all know what it is. And for a blog where there is no pressure to meet deadlines, the risk is ending up as a spectator of my own life in writing, with many blog posts in draft, unfinished books and lots of content that gets retained in my head.

Writer's Block is not the reason I do not write as much as I would like to. It is procrastination.
To be clear, this post is not really about how I have been procrastinating, but how procrastination adversely affects many other people in many areas of life. Thankfully, it is a problem that can be overcome.

The problem of procrastination was very well summarized by Tim Urban in his TED Talk.

Here are all the epic posts about Procrastination from

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate.

The Procrastination Matrix.

How to Beat Procrastination.

2. The TIME 100 Reminder

In this year's TIME 100, one thing struck me and actually got me breathless. This statement:

"I think of it as, 'What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?"

You see, there is a danger in knowingly letting time pass while not doing the things one knows need to be done. It is essentially being irresponsible and negligent. The end result is regret, like a certain man Carolyn Arends sang about in Seize The Day.

I know a man who's been doing some thinking,
He's as bitter and cold as the whiskey he's drinking,
He's talking about fear, about chances not taken,
If you listen to him you can hear his heart, breaking...

That is not a place I'd want to end up.

All in all, what I write on The Walkabout has meaning, makes a difference and adds value. It should be in the world.
But it remains something that is not in the world until I actually write it.

And since what stands in the way of regular blogging is the instant gratification monkey, a new man needs to be in charge inside my brain. That man cannot be a panic monster, which, as shown above, takes a backseat in cases where deadlines (such as on a personal blog) are not in place.

My rational decision maker therefore has to be in control. This is the new man in charge.

* * *

The Walkabout has been unrelenting in saying, "Hey you, I want you, Pete." And like Jewel, kept reminding me, "You were meant for me, Pete."
Well, I am back just as Arnie promised in Terminator.

I can now only hope that things will run smoothly like I never left in the first place.


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