Life is a series choices.* Get out of bed or hit the snooze button. Frosted Flakes or oatmeal. Break up or try to make it work. Grad school or get a job. Rent or buy. Fight or flight. Give up or keep trying. There is always a choice.
“Every person has free choice. Your choice determines the consequences. Nobody ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.”
Alfred A. Montapert
*Note to reader: Let’s put aside the Free Will v. Determinism debate for now, which leaves the mind wanting and is a broader view than I wish to discuss – what goes on in your mind. When studying economics in college, we discussed what shifted demand curves up or down, like the price of complements and substitutes or changes in income, but the most interesting was consumer preference. Preference is the type of concept that is difficult to quantify, control, and especially anticipate what will affect change. This caused preference to be pushed down the hierarchy of importance and was usually glossed over as if it were an addendum to the list. It was treated like its own little magic box that devours input and transforms it into meaningful data.
However, outside of my Econ 101 Final, choice and preference play more of a leading role (insert Marketing executives’ justifications for billion dollar campaigns). For all its effects on the market, to better understand oneself, and, most obviously, for the simple fact that it is a consequence of life, choice is worth careful consideration and analysis. This is my Why.
The unexamined life is not worth living — Socrates
This analysis should work in two directions. “Why” is backward-looking to find your motivations and causes in order to determine whether you are making the decision for the right reasons. “So what” is forward-looking and focused on outcomes, showing you the positive or negative consequences of your decision.
The flood of choices we face every day presents us with opportunities to change our lives and enhance the world around us. Choice also allows us to pick our breakfast. Clearly some decisions have a bigger impact than others, but training yourself to approach choice with the right vigor will help develop the habit for when those big choices come along. While this article is not really directed at decisions like Apple vs Windows or what kind of pen to use (it’s a Pilot G-2 by the way), even technical and measurable decisions will improve.
Life choices are not split into nice little dichotomies like the opening paragraph seems to suggest. It is not “A vs B” but “A vs B vs C vs X^n.” We have to sift through the noise to find what actually matters. But the noise isn’t all the options, which present their own set of problems. The noise is all the Why’s. Pastoralist influences from your childhood, religious teachings that you believe, legal limitations, philosophies, and basic human desires are all warring in your psyche to control your choices.
These are not all bad and they all can serve a beneficial purpose, but you must decide what roles they are to have and to what extent they dictate your decisions. The point you should take away is that you need to be aware of what is happening in your automatic System 1 (see Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) and change what you are unhappy with finding.
There are two central benefits to recognizing and following your Why. The first is being happy (or at least less angry) with making a bad choice. The second is you will find more decisions end up being the right ones. That sinking feeling of buyer’s remorse becomes more and more elusive as you analyze choice beforehand. You understand your priorities better and thus are more accepting of negative outcomes when things don’t go your way. There is less of the “what was I thinking” attitude because (yup, you guessed it) you know what you were thinking, or, at least, that you were thinking at all. Our perceptions of outcomes are separated into three tiers: Tier 1 = “nailed it,” Tier 2 = “not quite sure, let’s see how it works out,” Tier 3 = “oh no, what have I done.” When you develop a habit of looking to your Why, the outcomes will start moving up through the tiers. You will start trusting yourself more, which leads to higher self-confidence, which feeds back into trusting yourself and making more right decisions.
The goal of So What isn’t to predict the future, but encourage you to anticipate more possible outcomes. If your So What doesn’t satisfy your Why, then you need to consider more alternatives in hopes of finding a more comprehensive solution. The opportunity costs of these unconsidered options are too valuable to forego. So What also helps you to anticipate the next decision. You learn to see yourself and your surroundings two or three steps ahead rather than facing decisions with the immediacy of required action, which allows more deliberation for the whole process.
Aside from the decision calculus of Why & So What, questioning the impact or importance of statements and actions is helpful in other situations. When having a conversation or making an argument, ask yourself whether your point makes a difference, what impact does it actually have. When you can’t find an answer to even satisfy yourself, it’s time to change your position or strategy. This will force you to recognize where the true value is and help cut away unnecessary information.
My So What. Hopefully I helped you changed the way your approach difficult moments in life. People are important to me, and I like helping those around me on their way. If not, maybe it will help the next reader. If nobody, I will still find satisfaction in my effort. Yoda was wrong (I can’t believe I just said that) — trying, trying, trying, and trying again gets you closer to doing. ‘Do not’ gets you nowhere. In this Infinite Game we are playing, trying seems to always be a good choice.