"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Transformational Decisions–Are There Really Such Things?

David Brooks (New York Times 8.25.15) suggests that transformational decisions – becoming a parent, changing careers, getting a divorce, should be more about “Whom do I admire?” rather than “What do I want?”. 

I’d say to really make these decisions well you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.

Most decisions, however, are made by backing into them – i.e. after years of dilatory debate and indecision circumstances change, old perspectives are not what they were, or family and genetic history kick in and we act from some deep-seated or hard-wired compulsion.  Others are made by pseudo-rationality – that is computing some facts but deliberately ignoring others; and still others are made for us. Economic windfalls or sudden failures; unexpected pregnancies or deaths in the family; the surprise accession of a friend to a position of power and influence.  In other words, we have far less real influence over decision-making than we hope or expect.

Double helix

Tolstoy in his Epilogues to War and Peace explains his theory of history.  Napoleon, he says, should neither be regarded as the battlefield genius of the Prussian campaigns nor the field marshal outwitted and outmatched by Kuznetzov at Borodino. His decisions were conditioned by historical events both large and small, by the collective will and intelligence of the armies which served under him, and even by unlucky twists of fate.  He may have lost Borodino, chuckles Tolstoy because he had a bad cold on the day of the battle and couldn’t think clearly.  He caught the cold because his valet had forgotten to bring his gum boots, the Emperor’s feet got cold and wet, and he fell ill.  The valet, an ordinarily responsible man, forget the boots because he was distracted by thoughts of his wayward wife who had just left him for another man.

Image result for images david's napoleon


This theory applies even in our much more mundane circumstances.  We only think that we make decisions.  Whether we do so through logic or by affect and subjective example, the choices – and their outcomes – are beyond our control.

Not only are decisions out of our control, but our decision-making, no matter how fictive changes over time.  Both rationality and emotional perspective change so dramatically over time that a decision made when one is twenty will always be substantively different from one made at sixty.

A good friend of mine, William Grant, had what his college counselor called ‘a service motive’.  He had worked with underprivileged children in New Haven, teaching an afterschool program for second- and third-graders; tutored junior high school students having trouble with math and reading, and worked as a summer counselor at a home for potentially delinquent boys referred by the juvenile courts of New York City.  Working in these programs allowed him to combine his natural love of children with his political commitment to social justice.

Bill’s hero and mentor was Mrs. Roberts, an imposing woman over six feet tall who ran the school with an unusual combination of intelligence, insight, discipline, compassion and love.  She understood the children, appreciated where they had come from, felt their emotional troubles, and accepted but never tolerated their rebellion and anger.  Mrs. Roberts was such a unique person that my friend was persuaded to follow in her footsteps. Despite a Summa Cum Laude degree in mathematics from Yale, an offer to work at the Alamogordo Laboratories for Advanced Physics, and a full scholarship to MIT, he did as David Brooks suggested.  He empathetically relied on others – in this case Mrs. Roberts – to help him make his decision.

Image result for images summa cum laude logo

As soon as he attended his first conference on Child Development and Social Progress, he knew that he would be making a big mistake.  His rationality took over and he followed the path that had been destined for him.

However, what happened to his ‘service motive’? Did it disappear with the decision to pursue a career in theoretical mathematics? Had it been only an adolescent distortion of his real, determined nature?

Bill’s story is much more nuanced. He did not immediately leave Mrs. Roberts, the boys of St. Anselm’s School, or his commitment to social justice behind, but progressively over time. It took him years in fact to realize how conditioned he was and for his ‘true’ nature to finally express itself.  He progressively became dissatisfied with the many social programs organized to improve social conditions in the inner cities.  He resented the indifference of local communities to the need for social integrations and their seemingly perpetual reliance on entitlements.  He became increasingly angry at progressive activists who seemed to ignore the importance of individual responsibility and adherence to commonly-accepted norms and values. He became a committed social conservative and over the ensuing years became equally committed to conservative economics and foreign policy.

In other words, he finally understood that decisions are pre-programmed; and eventually we become in tune with our conditioned perceptions.  He may have started off as a progressive-minded young man, but that was only because of the influence of the times, his peers, and influential political movements.  His real convictions – those based on a particular genetic sequence; willful, and ambitious parents; and a family history rich with the exploits of financiers and wealthy traders – were slow in being realized; but when they were, they were unshakeable.

Image result for images john d rockefeller


Mrs. Roberts eventually faded from memory.  When Bill did think of her it was fondly.  She was indeed a remarkable woman who displayed the characteristics common to good management.  Her uncanny ability to empathize while reserving enough distance to assure discipline and respect is the mark of a true leader.  She had conviction, principle, and good judgment.  In other words as an adult Bill thought of her quite differently than he did when he was twenty.  Then she was a progressive saint, a compassionate woman of justice and reform.  Later she was a brilliant manager.

When Bill retraced his trajectory, he was not surprised how it veered so radically from that of its original launch.  Only space probes keep to their orbits and ellipses.  He was destined to believe what he now believed. 

Image result for images space launch trajectory


He knew that none of his past decisions were ‘transformative’.  He was enough of a determinist to dismiss that idea; but more importantly he accepted the ineluctability of both human nature and one’s individual makeup. Decisions change in character because of the necessary evolution of self-realization.   Decisions can never be looked at as either good or bad, but only inevitable.

Bill’s views on current issues changed along with his maturity.  He would never have voted against abortion rights when he was twenty, but as his strong individualism emerged, so did his conceptions of life, God, and human responsibility.  His views on foreign policy reflected his realization that human nature would never change, that both individual and collective decisions are determined by the human will to protect, defend, expand, and dominate, and that history will always be repetitive and cyclical.  In fact the only value in such a determined and predictable world is the expression of individual will.

Bill concluded that not only were there no such things as transformative decisions or change; but that all decisions had no real import given their predictable and highly determined nature. Of course we all make decisions, and most of us think we are acting either rationally or subjectively; but both the decisions and their outcomes have no intrinsic value.

“I’m stress-free”, he joked to me over lunch one day. “The most underrated value of being a determinist.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.