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kottke.org posts about Farsighted

How to Make a Big Decision

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2018

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Steven Johnson’s new book comes out today. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most details the relatively little-known science of making choices using the personal stories of great decision-makers to illustrate this “growing multidisciplinary field of research”. Johnson calls the book “an argument for diversity, deliberation, and long-term thinking in the choices we make, both public and private”. The NY Times published a quick but meaty excerpt of the book over the weekend.

Once you have your alternatives, how are you supposed to assess them? One approach, known as scenario planning, developed by a handful of management consultants in the 1970s, involves imagining three different future environments for each alternative: Concoct one story where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.

Storytelling is something we instinctively do anytime we are contemplating a big decision. If you’re thinking of leaving the city and moving to the suburbs, you tell a story of family hikes through the trails behind your house, and better public schools, and a garden that you can tend in your backyard. The difference with formal scenario planning is twofold: First, we rarely take the time to do a deep analysis of all the forces that shape that story; and second, we rarely bother to construct multiple stories. How does the story unfold if your children don’t like their new classmates, or if one part of the family loves the new lifestyle but the other is homesick for the old friends and vitality of city life?

The psychologist Gary Klein has developed a variation on this technique. He calls it a “premortem.” As the name suggests, the approach is a twist on the medical procedure of post-mortem analysis. In a post-mortem, the subject is dead, and the coroner’s job is to figure out the cause of death. In a premortem, the sequence is reversed: “Our exercise,” Dr. Klein explains, “is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out. And it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed.”

This is where my anxiety and tendency to overthink things really comes in handy1…when considering big decisions, I am constantly premorteming.

  1. If you’re interested in how you can begin to see “undesirable” behaviors like anxiety in a new light, I recommend reading The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2018

Steven Johnson, the author of the recent Wonderland and a whole gaggle of other books in the kottke.org wheelhouse,1 is coming out with a new book in September called Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most.

Plenty of books offer useful advice on how to get better at making quick-thinking, intuitive choices. But what about more consequential decisions, the ones that affect our lives for years, or centuries, to come? Our most powerful stories revolve around these kinds of decisions: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war.

Full of the beautifully crafted storytelling and novel insights that Steven Johnson’s fans know to expect, Farsighted draws lessons from cognitive science, social psychology, military strategy, environmental planning, and great works of literature. Everyone thinks we are living in an age of short attention spans, but we’ve actually learned a lot about making long-term decisions over the past few decades. Johnson makes a compelling case for a smarter and more deliberative decision-making approach. He argues that we choose better when we break out of the myopia of single-scale thinking and develop methods for considering all the factors involved.

In a post on his website, Johnson explains where the idea for the book came from and some specific stories that can be found in its pages.

Some of the threads bring back characters from my earlier works: The Invention Of Air’s Joseph Priestley and Ben Franklin make an important cameo in the opening pages, and the book examines two key turning points in the life of Charles Darwin, building on the Darwin stories woven through Good Ideas. But there are also stories drawn from critical decisions in urban planning — New York’s decision to bury Collect Pond in the early 1800s, and to build the High Line in the early 2000s — alongside stories of hard choices drawn from military history, most notably the decision process that led to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in 2011. There are insights drawn from cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and sociology. But it is also in many ways a book about the importance of storytelling. There’s as much Middlemarch in the book as there is modern neuroscience.

Pre-ordered, obviously.

  1. Every so often, I am asked why I don’t write a book, “you know, like kottke.org but in book form”. There are many answers to that, but one of the biggest is that Steven Johnson writes the books that I would write in the way I would want to write them, except he does it way better than I would. I’m aware this is perhaps a dumb reason, but it’s infinitely easier and more enjoyable for me to just read his books that to bother working on my own.