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Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us 2/2
7/ Penelope’s Problem (Marriage)
The secretary problem (Martin Gardner): how many people to interview so that to pick the best one? The answer is: interview the first 37% (taken at random), say no to all of them, but find the most suitable one and use this one as a benchmark for the next 63%. As soon as someone turns up better than this benchmark – hire him or her.
That was a tame problem; the wild problem of, say, who to marry doesn’t have the best answer.
The best car, the best tequila, the best flight– that’s not precise, but using some assistance from Google, TripAdvisor or WayAway it’s easy to get as close to the “best” as possible. There are (to my knowledge) no catalogues of would-be wives ranked and rated – at least in the Western countries. And no, Tinder doesn’t count.
The complexity of a choice is due to the many characteristics of humans: it’s possible to find a better example on any of the characteristics of your current partner. They are very likely to be spread around as many different people as there are traits. Moreover, some characteristics in both partners change over time (looks, weight, education, experience, health, etc.), so the timing of the comparison also matters.
The best spouse/career/city doesn’t exist. It’s a meaningless concept.
Satisficing [MK: it’s really funny that I learned about it in the MBA program] (satisfying + sufficing) is about making a decision with limited information – usually by defining the basic thresholds (not something too basic like being literate or knowing how to tie shoes) and committing to the option where all parameters are above these thresholds. It’s not a utility maximisation exercise, it’s more of a hygiene thing.
In marriage in particular the best is truly an enemy of the good enough. It’s neither practical nor possible to predict how every day of the future life together will look like. And you simply can’t anticipate what you’re going to enjoy.
Marrying someone who shares the same interests is wonderful. Tradition shouldn’t be thrown out of the window, either: the same social class / background is also a good predictor of long and healthy marriages.
8/ How to Get Over Yourself
How much time should we spend with the others vs being alone? That’s a wild question.
The answer requires the part of self-awareness stating that one is not the centre of the universe. Many of our actions are knee-jerk reactions to the triggers and being less serious about ourselves (or about our hurt ego) helps take a pause before responding with negativity.
We can’t help but think of ourselves more than others, this becoming the main character of the drama called “the story of my life”, broadcast 24/7 for a single viewer. The fact that everyone else is a support character begs the conclusion that we won’t spend much time on describing or understanding them as well as ourselves or the ones very close to us.
We relate to other people, but not on an equal footing (which explains why one usually can’t have a meaningful conversation with a celebrity).
This focus on one’s life as a performance of one actor, leading to competitiveness and existential loneliness.
Instead, focusing on oneself as a member of an ensemble, not a soloist, may work miracles for creating meaning. [MK: think of a Board meeting when every Director wants to hear him-/herself talk at the detriment of the outcome; sometimes not saying anything is better than being able to say something at all times.] Because of the parties’ self-centeredness, dialogs turn into two parallel monologues.
9/ Privilege Your Principles
I found $20 on the street and thought to myself: what would Jesus do? So, I went to a liquor store and turned the money into wine.
Knowing a few rules keeps me from memorising lots of facts.
Ethical dilemmas challenge our desire for short-term gratification at the expense of the longer-term vision and feelings. Returning a lost wallet to the owner (if no one saw you pick it up) is irrational, but doing good feels good, and it’s more important to many. (Also a utilitarian approach, with money replaced with pleasure.)
One can ignore the utilitarian aspect altogether and return the wallet no matter what because it’s the right thing to do. The tempting question is: at what price point would money prevail over honesty?
Economic point of view states that everyone has a price, i.e., a monetary amount sufficient for a person to violate their principles. The direct result of this thinking are KPI-linked pay structures, the monetary and non-monetary rewards and punishments by companies and their managers.
People are offended by the suggestion that they respond to incentives (a kind way of saying “money can buy their behaviour”). Then they may rationalise these behaviours in different ways (“my child was sick”, “no one would know”, “we only live once”). In the first case there will be conflicting identities of “I’m an honest person” and “I’m a parent who first and foremost must take care of my children”) – this may be painful as it leads to a cognitive dissonance. The realisation that one sold themselves too cheaply hurts for a long time.
In some decisions the essence of the person is on the line; in such cases self-aware people decide to maintain their sense of selves and refuse the reward. [MK: I also love the saying that “culture is what people do when no one’s looking”. It’s a similar concept.]
Privilege your principles. Your decisions define who you are. It’s above ethics, it’s about the sense of self. Principles are above costs and benefits.
Once the principles are established, it’s not mentally hard to follow them instead of making a painful decision every time a choice presents itself. Rules prevent us from fooling ourselves.
Principles help guide us towards who we want to become. Goodness is an acquired taste.
10/ Be Like Bill
Most humans are uncomfortable about uncertainty and actively avoid it.
Optionality is powerful. It’s the freedom to do something but not the obligation. Think of it as an ability to return the goods bought for a refund: this makes shopping so much less stressful! [MK: in other words, it’s an opportunity to either not take action or take a reversible action, like buying a refundable airline ticket.] Optionality costs more but is often worth it. Having more experiences to figure out what sticks is better than having less. Taking chances is more important than carefully planning [MK: at least, most of the time]. We delay decisions because we don’t want to make them, not because we’re looking for more information.
MK: at the same time, in value negotiations it’s important to build a list of options before making a decision. Postponing making a decision may be a good thing for better value discovery.
What works for them may not work for you. Get your own experience with the object of desire, don’t take people’s word for it.
Sunk costs are sunk. Many life choices don’t turn out the way they were expected to, and this is OK. What’s not OK is trusting someone known to have no integrity.
Grit and persistence are overrated. It’s OK to change course if the old one isn’t working out. But regret about something that’s been done or not done is regret, nonetheless. The fear of regret feeds procrastination. Creating options may be the right solution to cure regret. Some dreams are unrealistic and not worth wasting time on them.
11/ Live Like an Artist
Most people don’t have a predefined career (unless they’re born into a family dynastically specialising in a certain trade) when they start. Their life happens to them, and it’s OK.
It’s wrong to think about things not under our control as being under no control. There’s still structure and reason for the things we don’t control, so the right thing to do is rely (and hope – to a degree) that things will be less hectic than they look.
Startups, like art, follow the principle “you won’t know what you’re doing unless you start doing it”.
Many good things in life are random and haven’t been planned when they started. The best conversations are not planned and take the twists and turns of their own; they’re about discovery and not information exchange.
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