Philosophy of Decision making

While making decisions, have you ever thought, “I am at the cross road”, “I am not sure which direction to take”, “I am not sure if I should take the road less travelled or the safe road” or “I am in a dilemma”

I think all of these are ways of thinking about decision making in a two dimensional way. It massively limits our thinking. It assumes that there is a concrete destination. Also, this destination is at a very specific location. And depending on the destination I want to reach , I have to choose a road X over Y. Even again it assumes that once on road X, I have no opportunity to toggle road Y.

I think we spend too much energy on these limiting metaphors or analogies of ‘crossroads’ and ‘paths’. We deliberate on pros and cons. We visualize what road would be most treacherous vs. smooth. This thinking is the root to analysis paralysis, confusion and fear in taking life decisions. Search for perfect job or a passion is so myopic. This is such a limiting way to approach any decision.

I want to propose a new metaphor for decision making. When taking a decision, you are not driving a car. You are actually piloting a spaceship. Exactly like the one in the movie Interstellar. There are many more dimensions to your piloting like your decision mindset, your intentions, your efforts etc. This is especially pragmatic way of approaching if your destination are intangibles like fulfilment and satisfactions.

How are you piloting your spaceship?

Let me quote few ideas and then build on them further. In his book ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you’ professor Carl Newport argues with solid organizational research that Working Right trumps Right work when finding job satisfaction. This is akin to the idea of Karma in Bhagvad Gita which says that a deliberate Karma is an outcome in itself! It may seem a meaningless oxymoron. However a deep reflection proves it is a paradox. When the goal is satisfaction and fulfilment ( not tangibles like money or car neither superficial feelings like happiness or pleasure) the right action is an immediate reward. Both the books argue that it doesn’t matter on what road you drive your car, what matters more is Why and How do you take actions — drive your spaceship. The road is just incidental.

So, what are the parameters for driving well i.e. taking right actions?

  1. Bite sized projects — It all starts with being ruthlessly action oriented. Carl says that instead of waiting on crossroads, take ‘bite size’ projects in the direction of your liking. Look for immediate feedback. This will guide you immensely over any deliberation or thinking. This is letting your actions guide you rather than thinking.

Let’s say you are contemplating doing a Phd vs. starting your business. Instead of spending hours thinking what will give you more money, fulfilment etc. Trying to read and think about pros and cons. Trying to write a business plan or a research proposal. Take up a project to build a MVP and test it in market or write summaries of existing research in your area and find out gaps in them. A bite sized project can be anything from 2 to 4 weeks. This action will tell you far more about your path than cognitive process. Make a concrete reversible bet. The results are completely outside your circle of influence. The only thing you control are your actions. This is where bite sized projects are very helpful. When it comes to fulfilment and satisfaction there is no destination. Journey is the fun. Journey is the duty. Journey is the Karma.

2 ) Intentions

Pick up any spiritual book and it will say that any action first takes shape in your mind. The art of war says it, The Buddha say that, The Gita and even Gandhiji say it in one way or the other.

The way you approach your actions in your mind are called your Intentions.

Intentions count a lot. A journey taken with desires, greed, fear and worry will always be focused on opportunity cost. A journey taken out of curiosity, adventure, joy , well being of others will always build you.

A journey from ‘noble’ intentions will positively feed into your identity. You realize that you are not separate from your journey. Your current beliefs, ideas, strengths everything is because of the journey you have taken in past till now. The journey you choose forward is because of all these identities. My Journeys and my identities both are same. Two sides of same coin. Such person doesn’t waste an iota of energy wondering what would have happened if I would not have done engineering, would have accepted that offer, married that another person. Such questions are moot. Absolutely no point in pragmatism as well as philosophy. ( If you find this difficult to comprehend may I suggest a class in philosophical logic! )

The most important decision you can make is selecting the Intention with which you want to approach your actions. What actions are not as important as the Why and How you want to do these actions.

Again the trick is not to force Intentions. The more we focus on right Intentions, loving what we do, the less we end up loving it. No point forcing right intentions. Feelings and Intentions are part deterministic — by visualization etc. but also part random — an outcome of your thoughts and actions. You can’t just fake yourself all the time. If you are consumed by unhealthy Intentions it is time to accept it, focus on healing yourself and postpone decisions.

So what are my intentions when I act out of anger, irritation and worry, fear and greed? Well they are quite simple. If the Intention is to get towards something or run away from something they are not healthy as it keeps me in an autopilot mode. I am just reacting to my circumstances. If the Intention is to purely contribute, to do your bit or to learn, it is healthy.

Unhealthy Intentions also have the propensity to freeze you. You might feel you are taking your time or deliberating to decide on your narrow 2d direction however what you are doing is only getting more attached to your desires or running away from your fears.

These mental Intentions will manifest as physical action. And even long before that they are taking your spaceship away from fulfilment. By reveling in such Intentions to benefit, secure your future self you are running away from fulfilment.

The only thing one can do is remove unhealthy Intentions. That is also only possible by observing and accepting them. Healthy intentions come to surface on their own once unhealthy once are cleaned. A vipassana follower clearly understands this!

3) Attitude of excellence

Growth is proven to be giving more fulfilment and satisfaction than absolute results. If you approach your journey with the mindset that you will constantly improve your performance, you focus on constantly writing better literature review or improving your product. You always grow. The speed doesn’t matter. Even a step of growth is fulfilling. Mind well, you are not focusing on outcome here. You are focusing on improving your actions. Constantly, daily.

You can borrow from the research of sports Psychology to constantly improve. There is a term Deliberate Practice. If you approach all your actions with this mindset, no matter your outcome or road you are bound to immediately generate fulfilment and satisfaction for yourself

Definitely it is a constant work and choice. Every choice takes you either towards fulfilment center or away. Your internal antenna is constantly tuned towards it or away from it. In this way, action is it’s own reward. There is absolutely nothing like destination. There is nothing like outcomes and results when it comes to experiencing fulfilment.

Desire for direction and mission are futile in such scenarios. You do the work you have at hand with the best Why and How. By doing this you are constantly creating meaning and fulfilment for yourself.

Imagining such a spaceship over a car in a multidimensional space, opens up so many horizons. Frees you from the linearity of decision making. It is also very liberating. What action you take is just a small part for your fulfilment experience. And a part that has limited correlation with your experience. How you do what you do is the magnetic key!

The blogs are my musings on various subjects - from art, science, culture to philosophy, psychology and personal finance