Don’t mistake your questions for your choices

Decision Making

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make in decision-making is to confuse your questions about the future with your choices. For example, I was asked, suppose you love music, and like medicine, but you are concerned about pursuing a career in music because it is so difficult. How do you decide between a career in music or medicine?

My immediate response to that question is: you don’t face that choice directly.

The choice of career is an example of a complex decision that is made over a period of months or even years. You have too many questions about the future to make a decision per se. If you just try to ask yourself “which should I do?” you could easily find yourself stymied by the answer “I don’t know.”

Indeed, the first step of my Eyes-Wide-Open decision process is to identify the choice you actually face. The choice you actually face is a choice between 2-3 options that you know enough about that you can act on now, as opposed to some vague desires regarding the future with many unknowns.

You may think of your decision in terms of a complex choice involving the future. But this decision needs to be made over time by reducing it to a series of simple binary choices–judgment calls–that you can answer with confidence right now.

A judgment call is the answer to a yes-or-no question, such as, “Should I go to this college?” or “Is this a better option than that?” Any simple judgment of whether something is true/false, good/bad, right/wrong, or important/unimportant is a judgment call. You could rewrite any such judgment call in the form of a “yes or no” question.

When you have a lot of gaps in your knowledge, instead of a “yes” or “no” answer from your subconscious, you will hear “I don’t know.” You also might hear “I don’t know” if you haven’t warmed up your own knowledge of the facts and values relevant to the question. Worse, if you haven’t warmed up that information, you have no idea whether your judgment call is correct. It will be based on ideas you’re presently aware of, not those that have been forgotten.

(This psychological fact gives rise to the #1 rule of logic: Hold context. If you have made a good faith effort to become aware of all relevant information, you are justified in assuming your judgment call is valid.)

The art of decision making includes figuring out which judgment call you can make now. You will need to reduce complex decisions into simple judgment calls because you simply can’t hold all of the complex issues in mind at once, and/or you don’t know enough to make a final decision.

In these cases, you need to step back and think at the “meta-level.” You need to think about the situation you are in, what choice you can make now, and how your choice will help you make the complex decision in the future.

The choice you face now is specific to your circumstances.

Suppose the person who loves music first, then medicine strongly, is 18 years old. The decision he faces is his decision of where to go to college and what to study. What he decides to do depends in part on where he is accepted. If he is accepted to top notch music programs, he faces a very different choice than if he is rejected by all the top music schools. His rejection by those schools is extremely important information about his prospects for making a living as a musician.

Suppose he gets into a good university with a top-notch music program, and decides to keep his options open by studying music and taking all of the necessary pre-med courses. He will have a different decision to make when it comes time to apply to medical school.

If he gets into medical school, he will have yet a different choice. If he is not accepted into medical school and he is not outstanding as a musician, he faces yet a different choice.

For any of these decisions, he will make a choice which incorporates what he sees as his prospects in both areas, including such values as how much he wants to be a world-class musician, how much work it would take to be a doctor or a musician, whether he enjoys that kind of work, whether he believes he can keep both options open, and how much material comfort matters to him. That’s why he needs a decision process that helps him hold the full context.

None of these is a decision just between medicine and music. Each one is a decision, at a given time, to take a specific action, which has consequences for his entire life. In fact, all choices have consequences for one’s entire life, but it is clearest in major choices such as the choice of career.

The choice you face is between options you can act on now. If you are not accepted to medical school, you do not face a choice of whether to go or not.

When the future unfolds in a surprising way, you may need to do some high level exploration just to see what new choices you face. You might be able to name a dozen possible actions after you get that rejection slip. You could take additional classes so you can re-apply next year to different schools, enroll in nursing school, change your focus to podiatry or optometry or some other specialty that doesn’t require medical school, etc.

Before you could choose between so many disparate options, you might need to make simpler judgment calls, such as, should I…

  • attempt to get into medical school next year?
  • change to some other medical specialty for now and revisit medical school later?
  • drop the goal of getting into medical school?
  • leave medicine altogether?

The test of whether you have sufficiently simplified a complex decision is that your questions are answerable and your choices are actionable. You know what to do now, given the judgment call you just made.

Action is crucial to decision-making. As you take steps in the present to pursue music and/or medicine, you develop specific interests, you discover what work is involved, you find out what the risks and opportunities are for you, personally, given your intelligence, aptitude, and work ethic.

Complex decisions such as choice of career are made over time, by identifying the choice you actually face at each moment, and choosing the next steps based on everything you’ve learned plus everything you can predict. They are choices between real-life options in the present, not floating questions about the future.


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