May 25, 2007

Making decisions

Someone recently asked me: "What makes you make a decision when you are riding a mountain bike?" He asked me to imagine that I was on a mountain bike and I came to an intersection of many paths. Which path would I take? Why would I choose the path? What would be my decision-making process?

It took me a while to come up with an answer. In the end, it pretty much boils down to where I want to go on my bike.

I have done this many times in my car. When I travel in a new city, I often do not have a map of the city. In the evening, when I need to find some place to eat, I usually just hop in the car and start driving. Most of the time I don't have a clue where I'm going. I just want to eat.

I don't usually have a specific restaurant in mind. Sometimes I do, most of the time I don't. I will look around at the restaurants that are available to me and, depending on my level of hunger, I will stop at the first decent one or I will drive around until I find one that makes my mouth water. The more indecisive I am about where I want to eat, the more time I will be driving around.

In my car I make decisions based on many clues:

  • My surroundings: I take a look around and go in the direction that seems most promising. "Most promising" usually means "where there seems to be the most commercial buildings," or "where most of the cars are going." If commercial buildings seem to thin out, I will keep driving in the same direction for a given time. Once that time is up, if things haven't improved (i.e. I don't see more commercial buildings), I find a way to turn around.
  • My geographical position: this is the clue I use when trying to get back to where I was. I usually have a pretty good idea where I want to go. While I'm driving, I turn at intersections that seem to bring me closer to that location. Sometimes, though, I realize that my decision takes me in the wrong direction. When I realize this, I try to turn around as soon as possible or if I can't, I keep taking turns until I eventually end up in an area that I recognize.
  • Ask directions: when I'm really lost, I stop and ask someone for directions. When I do so, the first question I usually ask, "Are you from this area?" or "Do you know this area well?"

These approaches mimic a lot of the decision-making I do in real life. Before making a decision, I (sometimes) try to figure out where I am, but I especially want to know where I'm going. If I don't know where I'm going, as it sometimes happens, it takes me a long time to make a decision.

Once I've made a decision, I check to see if it brings me in the direction that I really need to go. If it does I keep pushing along. If it doesn't, I stop and try to figure out what corrective actions I need to take in order to go in the right direction, as I perceive it.

When I'm lost, and I don't know where to go, I ask for directions. I have learned to ask directions of people who are either where I want to be, or who have been where I want to go. To me, there is nothing worse than asking advice from people who have no idea what they are talking about, but feel they should tell you what to do anyway.

Whether navigating in a car with no map, or whether navigating through life, the key part of decision-making is knowing where you want to end your journey. Well, that's what it's been like for me. This doesn't mean that it needs to be like this for everyone.

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