Decision Making

The case of false choices, and how they lead to wrong decisions.

Should you optimise for speed or quality, while making decisions? Wrong question!

This kind of black and white thinking usually leads to wrong decisions.

“It’s either this, or war.”

When a politician says something like this, people go crazy. “War?! OMG! if those are our only choices everyone better get onboard with whatever this is, pronto!”

In the above quote, “this” is usually a proxy to get anything accepted, no matter how absurd, as long as it is less extreme than war.

When one option is jumping off a cliff, and the other option is jumping off a hillock, the latter might sound better in comparison, but it’s a false choice. One would get you killed, and the other would get you seriously injured, if not killed. You should choose none.

Now let’s take another far less puissant example. Should entrepreneurs set concrete plans, or just be ready to adapt?

Another one: should you optimise for speed, or optimise for quality?

The above options are false choices as well, but unlike before, the answer is positive. You should do both.

Should you optimise for growth? Should you optimise for retention? Or should you optimise for profitability? You should do all.

Should you have a small number of intimate friends, or a large number of looser ties? Both.

”If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
— Hillel the Elder

This is a beautiful saying by the Jewish sage Hillel. A good interpretation of the quote is that you must love yourself, and yet you ought not to live just for your benefit. You should help others, too. Reject choosing between self-love and love of others. Do both.

Cases where you have to do both are positive false choices. Both the options are good, and you should do both. Cases where you should pick none are negative false choices. None of the options are of any good.

Negative false choices are usually easier to deal with than positive ones. You simply reject both the ideas. Positive ones however are a bit tricky to deal with. How? Let me use a famous quote by writer E.B White to explain this.

“I wake up in the morning unsure of whether I want to savour the world or save the world,” White said, “This makes it hard to plan the day.”
— E.B. White

It’s obvious by now that the correct answer to the above dilemma, on a macro level, is: do both. But in practice, at the micro level of an individual decision, you have to pick one or the other. The trick is to find the right balance in the micro so that you are doing both at the macro, thus making it hard to plan the day.

There is no one strategy to solve this. It’s an art, and you learn it only through deliberate practice. But as long as you are trying to achieve both, you are most likely on the right path.

One framework to find balance (i.e. do both) is by doing one so that it achieves the other purpose as well. If instead of saving or savouring, you try to savour while saving (and vice-versa), you might just start to look at things from a different perspective.

While choosing between speed and quality, if you try to optimise your decisions for quality but with speed, you would have to be creative and put some extra effort, but you won’t be falling susceptible to the dilemma of false choice. You would eventually find a good balance between them as well. This framework isn’t full proof, but it works well in a lot of decision making scenarios.

In one of Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s interviews, he talks about his time at RISD. A class assignment was given by a teacher where all students were asked to paint their self portraits. Students had spent as much as 8 hours making beautiful portraits of themselves. In the exhibition that followed, they expressed that they weren’t very happy with their final outcomes even after putting so much of effort. If only they had some more time to perfect their work. But for the next week’s assignment, to their surprise, they were asked to do 200 self portraits. Students were flabbergasted.

There was not enough time for this, and this task was seemingly impossible to do. To paint 200 portraits, the students couldn’t take the same approach they took while painting only one. The approach had to be a completely different one. As Chesky mentions, the point of this lesson was to make the students understand that “with creativity you can always find a way.”

Similarly, to omit false choices and “do both” you have to be creative, and your approach would have to be a different one.

Hi, I’m Abhishek.

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