I would like to start this essay by first explaining the concept of uncertainty principle. In February 1927, an aspiring German physicist named Heisenberg, who was desperately trying to get a job as a professor wrote an interesting letter to his senior Wolfgang Pauli. In this letter, Heisenberg came up with a thought experiment that illustrated that you could never actually know the momentum of a particle and its position with absolute precision. In other words, according to this principle, systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities that measurements will produce certain results. The act of measurement itself affects the system, causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only one of the possible values immediately after the measurement(the Copenhagen interpretation).
The reason I bring up uncertainty principle in an essay about decision making, is to show that the exact same intuition that can be used to understand the uncertainty principle can also be used to understand the nature of the effect our decisions have. Any decision we take, in essence branches our world in a tree-like structure of uncertain consequences. And we would never know which consequence would be true until we actually make the move and see the results.
The same concept holds true for decision making as well. The truth is, we can never make completely informed decisions because it is impossible to accurately gauge the cause and effect of the decisions we make. It is also impossible to understand the type of problems we would face if we take one decision instead of another. Essentially, the best thing we can do is assign some sort of qualitative probabilities of an event or an outcome. Just like a subatomic particle does not have a well defined position or momentum, our lives do not have a well defined future.
This seemingly obvious statement often has very counter-intuitive implications. Take job search for example: Sam is a guy who takes life decisions very seriously, and he decides to do a lot of research before he takes up his first job. So Sam, does a lot of research, thinks a lot about what he wants in life, asks his peers and processes a ton of advises before he decides that he wants to take up job X, instead of the other options he had. But one year into his job, he realizes that his assumptions about what he wanted was wrong, his skill sets are probably not a perfect match for the job and most of the people who helped him did not have the same motivations and their driving factors were different. So in essence, even though Sam made all the right moves, the results were far from optimal.
Conversely, for the exact same reason some decisions that are taken without much thought often turn out to be good decisions. This is perhaps one of the single biggest reason why “smart people” often do not perform so well under uncertainty, mainly because strong ability to reason is completely useless under situations where you only have partial information and you are not even sure whether all the ‘variables’ are accounted for. As a matter of fact, you might not even be aware what all the variables are!
So which decisions are good and which decisions are bad? Is it even possible to take good decisions given the ‘uncertainty principle’? Are we completely helpless when we are face to face in a duel with this behemoth called Chance. Poets and classical writers would probably make us believe so, and CEOs would probably try hard to convince themselves the opposite.
I think I like Jinnah’s approach to this. He once said that: “I do not believe in taking the right decision, I take a decision and make it right.” Maybe that is the only way to move forward in this uncertain and complicated world. And hopefully with experience we will get better at taking good decisions. I personally find it rather fascinating that somehow each and every decision we make shapes our lives in irrevocable ways and yet, most people are far from perfect when it comes to taking good decisions. :)
Well, it makes sense to end the article on a ligher note: