Making Decisions Consciously

making choices

How much thought did you put into some of the key decisions you have made over the years?

Decisions such as where to live, where to work, what faith to follow, what foods to eat, or how much money to save for retirement.

My guess, based on a very unscientific method of just observing the behavior of my family and friends, is that many of us did not really give much thought to such choices.

We tend to just stay with what we know; the area where we were born, the religious preference of our parents, and the diet that we grew up with. We become quite comfortable with the familiar, and don’t venture very far from it. We simply select the default settings we were given at birth, and never think twice about it.

But what if we did give some serious thought to some of life’s major decisions?

Perhaps you might find that the Quaker set of values and beliefs are much more closely aligned with what you believe than your current faith.

Or that living in a small town 1,000  miles away, where you can walk to everything, is better suited to your lifestyle than suburbia.

Or that you were meant to be a teacher, and not spending your days working for a large insurance company.

You may also get lucky and find that you are living the life you would have imagined for yourself.

But why leave it to luck?

The internet makes it possible to learn as much as we want about life’s big decisions, and once we are armed with that knowledge, we need the courage to act on that knowledge.

I realize there are many variables that go into the decision making process. For example, your research may indicate that living in Key West is the best match for your lifestyle, but you have elderly parents who live in Boston, along with the rest of your family.

You may decide to stay in Boston, at least for awhile longer, but at least it was a conscious decision. Many other people may never do the work to find out that perhaps Boston is not where they were meant to be for their entire lives. They just do nothing, which is a decision, just not one that was made consciously.

A few months ago, Fred Wilson, venture capitalist and blogger extraordinaire, wrote a post about the notion of satisficing. Fred states that he is a fan of satisficing, defined at Wikipedia as:

… a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. This is contrasted with optimal decision making, an approach that specifically attempts to find the best alternative available.”

While it’s hard to argue with the success Fred has had (or with Herb Simon, Nobel Prize winner, who coined the term in 1956), I’m not sure I’d agree completely with the idea of not trying to find the best alternative available. It seems as if satisficing often simply means taking the easy way out, looking for a solution that is “good enough”, which could translate to mediocre.

I think a key part of the definition of optimal decision making is “attempts to find the best alternative available”. This does not mean you will actually find the optimal solution every time, but I believe when dealing with life’s big decisions, it’s certainly worth attempting to do so. For some minor decisions, such as choosing what color to paint your living room walls, satisficing may be the right approach.

It’s also worth noting that there are some semantics at play when looking at the differences between satisficing and optimizing; for more info on the differences/similarities, the Wikipedia article on satisficing is a good place to start, as well as this Wikipedia entry on The Paradox of Choice.

The bottom line for me is that living consciously and optimal decision making seem to go hand in hand, even though doing so could be difficult and time consuming.

But the result is (hopefully) a happier and more fulfilling life.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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