Better decisions: 1. expand your options

The choices we make determine who we become. If that is so, don’t you wish you could make better decisions? This blog is the first in a series or posts on “making better decisions”. 

Why am I interested in making better decisions?

Most of our recent human history we have lived in hunter-gatherer societies (from 200,000 up to about 10,000 years ago). Our environment consisted of (1) limited resources and (2) danger lurking around each corner. People with an aversion for loss and a tendency for fear had a natural advantage in this environment. Evolution equipped us with behavioral tendencies such as gluttony and greed (“Eat as much as you can, we may not catch anything the next few days”); stereotyping (“Does he belong to our tribe or not?”) and a desire to fit into social groups (Imagine being an outcast in the middle of the jungle). Our environment today is very different: we have abundant resources and very limited danger.

Because of the shift in environment, some of the behavioral tendencies we have developed do not serve us  today. I believe that we can make better decisions by observing our own behavioral tendencies and to weed out the tendencies that don’t work in our favor.

The form of the series. 

In a number of posts, I will share ways that I try to improve my decisions. This post is the first.

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Tip #1: Expand considered options

“Good morning sir, what will it be for you today? We have tasty fried eggs, our french toast is often praised, and we have coffee, tea or orange juice to drink.”

Just another morning in a typical Midwestern diner – just another choice to make. We make choices every day, ranging from the trivial (“what will I eat for lunch?”) to the important (“what will I pursue in my life?”).

To choose, you need options – at the very least you need the option to do or not to do. In a restaurant, your list of considered options may be limited to the menu handed to you by the waiter. Our choice from the list of considered options is influenced by resources (how much money can I spend?); senses (do I feel like omelet, fresh fruit or french toast?) and beliefs (is it healthy to eat meat?).

In the restaurant, you may perceive that your choices are limited to the items on the menu. This idea is false: you could decide to go to the coffee shop next door; you could decide to pick up a loaf of bread in the grocery store; or you could choose to eat free lunch at the office and save money for your holidays. I have resisted the temptation to buy chocolate milk in many of the gas stations on my bicycle trip by thinking of the other things I could spend my money on.

Creativity is essential in expanding your options. Are you a recent graduate looking for a job? Do not limit your choice by the choices of past graduates and peers. Expand your options by brainstorming (1) the work done by people you follow online or your personal heroes and (2) by listing all types of work you have previously enjoyed – from design to organizing to writing.

Whenever I feel “stuck” in a next professional step, creating a list of “things I’d love to do” allows me to look beyond the limited number of paths walked by so many before (consulting, investment banking, big engineering firm).

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