Good Decisions

I was sitting in my good friend Dan’s office having our usual Friday after hour’s “meeting” when he leaned back in his leather chair with his hands behind his head and said in his slow southern drawl “Benny… If I could give my kids one thing… you know what it would be?”
Dan was from Birmingham Alabama and had made a really good living and life for him and his family as an attorney. A REALLY good one! In some sense I suppose we were unlikely friends; the well-educated attorney and the, well… marine contractor, but a mutual racquet-ball friend of ours decided to introduce us because on the court we were both “Kamikazes” who spent most of our time sliding on our bellys and crashing into walls, innocent by-standers and our hapless opponents with no regard for anyone’s health or well-being. Tom put a hand on each of our shoulders and said “Ben, this is Dan. Why don’t you two go smash into each other instead of me for a change!” So we did… every Sunday for the next three years.
Since we were both having some of the typical challenges associated with raising sons and since I was always ready to derail a perfectly serious conversation with a smart alec remark, I slouched into the comfy clients chair and took a shot at Dan’s profound question regarding the ideal gift for his teenage boys. “I don’t know… One way plane tickets?” He didn’t bat an eye, but his gaze went from the ceiling straight to me. “The ability to make good decisions!” I can’t remember if we discussed it any further, but that simple statement has stuck with me ever since.
A few years later I was visiting another friend of mine when he proceeded to get into an argument with his son over his college plans. As the conversation got more and more heated I decided to try to do what any good supportive friend would do… get the heck out of there! “Wow… look at the time! I’d better go… uhhhh… water my… driveway?” My friend wouldn’t let me. “NO! Listen to this! I want him to be able to choose whatever college he wants, but since I’m the one paying for it, I should be able to set some ground rules.” (His son and I both rolled our eyes… but for different reasons) “I told him that I would contribute the same amount of money no matter what college he chooses… but in turn, he has to give Florida State (yeah, he was an awful huge fan) a good look!” His son wasn’t amused. “Yeah? Well I told YOU that I’m NOT going to go to Florida State!” His father stepped forward and they were now nose to nose. “You’re not listening!” yelled his dad. “I’m not saying that you have to go there, I’m just saying that you have to give it serious consideration! Just visit the school, listen to what they have to offer and then, if you still don’t like it… you can go someplace else.” The angry young man stuck his arms straight out at his sides. “You’re the one that won’t listen! Why should I waste the time even looking at a school that I’m not going to pick? Right Mr. Nelson?” (OH… PERFECT! Now they’re both looking at ME!!)) I held my hands in front of me and said “Hey, I don’t want to get into…“ but then I thought about what Dan had said years ago… and I started over. “OK look… the WAY we make decisions can be just as important as the decision itself. Your dad just wants to be sure you have every opportunity to gather and weigh all the information fairly so that you can make this important decision based on REAL facts… not on what you think you know or what your friends have been telling you.” Then I looked at my friend. “But after he’s done that, YOU have to understand that, as much as you may want to, you can’t give someone the ability to make good decisions, you can only give them the opportunity…” (then I grabbed the young man by his shoulders and said to him slowly ) “…AND THE MONEY!”

When a Cloud is simply a Cloud

Most everyone has at one time or the other, taken the opportunity to lay on their back in the grass, gaze up at the clouds and pick out the hidden shapes and patterns. Okay, it’s been a while for me too, but my point is that this type of pattern recognition comes naturally to us. We are capable of sorting through vast amounts of information and coming up with extremely complex conclusions or solutions and sometimes… we’re even right! Yet, this talent often leads us astray, because one of the tools that make it possible is our imagination.

This juggling act between our cognitive skills and our imagination is at the heart of every good decision, and every bad one. Unfortunately, an active imagination can make it easy to mentally go the extra mile and create an unnecessarily complex theory when, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is generally the right one and is sitting there patiently, waiting to be discovered. Accepting this basic tenant of logic (see Occam’s Razor) is more often than not extremely difficult for most of us to accept, because of the third side of our thought process, our emotions.

When we have an emotional investment in an issue, and we usually do, whether it’s a political philosophy, a long held prejudice, or attachment to a particular College Football team, the unconscious temptation to construct a conclusion that perfectly matches our preconceived notions can be too much to resist. The resulting conspiracy theory or bogus explanation of how something has occurred, or can be solved, can lead us to a chain of erroneous conclusions and bad decisions.

We don’t seem to have any trouble recognizing this very human trait in others, just in ourselves. It is difficult to accept that we sometimes select information that fits our favored conclusion and if we make decisions as a community based on this formula, the problem is often magnified and can have continued negative unintended consequences. It is the prize that keeps on giving. Fear, mistrust, rumor and false information can snowball and cause a community to react to circumstances that simply do not exist, problems that aren’t there, and cause them to make decisions that ironically fulfill their worst fears.

By applying a little healthy skepticism regarding our own decision making process, checking our preconceived notions at the door, giving someone else the consideration that we would want, or simply walking in the other persons shoes, we can be confident that our decisions are more likely to be fair, rational and just. I know it’s a scary world out there and not everything is always as it seems… but most of the time, a cloud is simply a cloud.