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Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.
We make hundreds of them every day. Most are relatively fleeting and inconsequential. What difference does it really make whether you poach some eggs or opt for a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast?
Some people seem to struggle with even the most simple decisions. From the movie You’ve Got Mail you may recall the Tom Hanks line: “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions to buy one cup of coffee.”
At a time when a pandemic is raging around the globe, it’s more important than ever to make good decisions. But the explosion of data and the relentless 24-hour news cycle have left many in a constant state of anxiety. There’s often a fear that the correct choice (shelter-in-place or not, face mask or not) is available but might be missed.
In what seems to be a growing number of ways, people are outsourcing their decisions. Part of the issue is the need to overcome our love affair with technology. Have you ever followed your GPS device as it led you turn-by-turn to a deserted parking lot? Then you know what I’m talking about.
And then there’s an increasing reliance on so-called (and often self-proclaimed) “experts.” That, too, can lead us other kinds of deserted parking lots. Or worse.
Vikram Mansharamani has a lot to say about this. He’s the author of Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence.
Vikram holds a PhD and two master’s degrees from MIT, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Yale. In addition to lecturing at Harvard, he advises corporate CEOs on how to navigate uncertainty in today’s dynamic and global business and regulatory environment. So he’s had plenty of opportunity to study the value of restoring self-reliant thinking.
Rodger Dean Duncan: For people who want to be more self-reliant in their decision-making, asking good questions is a critical skill. What have you found to be a good way to develop that skill?
Vikram Mansharamani: That’s a good question. Perhaps I should ask you that question! Actually, what I have found most useful in learning to ask good questions is to ask lots of questions about topics I know little about. To develop the skill of asking good questions you have to practice! The more you ask, the more you improve.
Imagine playing a guessing game in which I think about something and you have up to 10 questions to figure it out. You’ll likely start very broad before getting more specific. Eventually, you’ll focus on anomalies between your tentative guess and my answers. Playing games like this can help.
Duncan: Most every perspective is biased and incomplete. You advocate triangulation—connecting the dots between multiple viewpoints to produce a more informed perspective. Give us an example of how that works.
Mansharamani: We don’t need to look very far to find a great example. Think about the Covid-19 outbreak. An epidemiologist is going to have a very different perspective than that of an economist. Likewise, a psychologist may focus on mental health rather than public health. Throw an election into the mix and you’ll quickly realize there are political perspectives that emerge as well. None of these is complete, so what we need to do is to connect the dots and think for ourselves.
Joseph Nye, former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, suggests that if you want to know where people stand on an issue, you should look at where they sit. State Department official? Diplomacy. Treasury Department executive? Sanctions. Pentagon leader? Military action.
Duncan: At a time when our world is abuzz with competing perspectives on every imaginable issue, what do you see as the dangers of outsourcing to “experts” and technology?
Mansharamani: The big danger is we’re giving up our autonomy. We’re letting experts and technologies decide where we should focus and what we should care about.
Imagine having dropped your keys in a dark parking lot, when along comes a flashlight-wielding expert. She chooses where to look for your keys, using her historical knowledge to immediately begin looking near the payment machine and near the entrance stairwell. Wouldn’t you want to guide her towards the area where you think you dropped your keys? It’s okay to let experts shine the light, but we should retain control. Blindly outsourcing our thinking is the equivalent of simply letting the flashlight follow the expert’s approach, without an appreciation for your own unique circumstances.
Duncan: As growing numbers of people seem intent on becoming specialists, you say the world needs more generalists. Can you elaborate?
Mansharamani: The problem with specialists is that they, by definition, live in silos. And that’s great for developing depth of expertise and moving knowledge forward. But what if we’re facing an uncertain situation? Well, if everyone’s an expert, we’d need to understand the problem before we could choose the right person to turn to.
In uncertain, ambiguous, poorly-defined situations, breadth of perspective is much more important than depth of knowledge. In dynamic, uncertain domains, generalists are better suited to understanding the types of problems they are facing.
An overused analogy may prove useful here. A specialist is like a man with a hammer. He will likely default to seeing narrow but long fasteners as nails. A generalist is like a woman who is carrying a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench. She will consider whether the flat top is round or hexagonal and investigate if the surface is flat or has a slit. She may even evaluate if the end is pointy or if the shaft is threaded.
Duncan: Algorithms seem to bring a lot of targeted content to our attention. With this kind of influence going on, how can people take more control over their own thinking?
Mansharamani: Yes, it’s very disturbing to see how much of our attention and focus is outsourced to algorithms. We live in filters and bubbles within echo chambers.
My best advice to help people retake control of their thinking is to proactively read broadly. What do I mean by that? I mean read physical newspapers and magazines. Flip through each page. If you’re digitally consuming content, don’t begin with searches. Go to content that is curated from both sources you are sympathetic to as well as sources you find distasteful. The key is to obtain a diversity of thought. Then you can choose what to think.
As Peter Drucker noted, “a decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw.” You need to obtain different views before you can think for yourself.
Duncan: For people who want to rely more on their own common sense, you suggest that they “keep experts on tap, not on top.” What does that look like in actual practice, and what’s a good way to assess advice from a so-called expert?
Mansharamani: Our relationship with experts is becoming one of the most challenging and vexing issues of our time. Far too often, we are prone to completely dismiss experts as disconnected from reality or we blindly defer to their advice.
We need to understand the constraints that are inherent in each expert’s guidance. What do they know and not know? You’d never ask your mechanic for advice on your financial portfolio, so don’t look to an economist for advice on public health. One way to assess advice is to ask why the expert believes what he or she recommends.
Another useful tool is to suggest the alternative of doing nothing (or the opposite of their recommendation). “What if I do nothing?” is a question I often ask when evaluating expert recommendations.
Duncan: What lessons can we take from the Covid-19 pandemic about learned dependence and blind obedience?
Mansharamani: One of the key lessons I’ve taken from the pandemic is that many of us are afraid of making decisions that come with risk. We hate uncertainty and desperately want to have someone (presumably an expert) tell us what to do. It’s like we’ve lost our autonomy. It’s scary. This makes it all the more important for us to restore what I’m calling common sense, namely the ability to think for ourselves and make decisions even in the face of uncertainty.
Part of the problem here is that we have a poor framework for evaluating our decisions. We tend to evaluate our decisions based on outcomes. But that makes no sense. There is often randomness and luck involved.
There are plenty of great decisions that result in bad outcomes and horrible decisions that end well. But over time, good decisions should result in good outcomes. We need to restore our autonomy.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.