Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Decision Factors

A friend's daughter is choosing a college. She has her heart set on a prestigious one whose very high tuition will keep her in debt for years to come. It has lots of factors she thinks she wants. I sat down to email a terse thought or two, but it kept expanding, until I realized my thoughts applied way beyond college selection, so I thought I'd share it here.


I'm an inveterate strategizer. I've spent a good chunk of my life striving to make super-smart decisions to achieve super-best results, even though ample experience shows that actual results are usually completely untethered from the factors I'd weighed. If you vacation in Maui and catch the flu, Maui will have seemed like a grim wasteland. If you vacation in Gary, Indiana and fall in love, Gary will have seemed like paradise. Weighed factors rarely impact actual outcome. Yet I never seem to learn!

Great photographers swear that you can take great photos with a shitty camera (Ansel Adams worked with equipment vastly inferior to my iPhone's camera). I can assure you that some of the greatest food in the world is made from ho-hum ingredients. And I like my television a lot, even though whenever it rains, the humidity makes its screen go black, and I need to stand behind it, waving a hair dryer through its rear ventilation grill for three or four minutes to dry it out. I don't mind! Feeling a certain affection for my TV, I don't begrudge this maintenance (washing your dog is a pain, but it doesn't make you like the dog any less). Of course, if I'd known this would be my fate prior to purchase, I wouldn't have imagined buying this model! Yet it's fine. Life is experienced in intimate immediacy, not in specs, forecasts, and over-arching imaginings. The best stuff with the best characteristics is not always best in retrospect, yet our callow foresight rarely learns from the accrued wisdom of our hindsight.

We've all learned that seeming crap can be fully lovable. We've all learned that we never fall in love for good reasons. Why does a toddler favor a certain teddy bear? Why does a golden retriever bring home a certain stick? They're not weighty decisions; the answer is: "Just because". Our deepest touchstones are mysteriously capricious. We endlessly re-experience the power of serendipity, yet there's a puzzling amnesia. When I replace this TV, I'll undoubtedly spend hours in research, trying to score just the right one, avoiding, at all costs, dreaded non-optimality.

The fabric and feeling of your college experience will be determined by the sum of myriad unimaginably trivial and unpredictable minor factors and derailments you can't possibly anticipate. The circle of friends you wind up with. One great professor who gets you excited about a topic you never knew you cared about. A line in a book of poetry. An insight that occurs while you walk home one day. Loneliness. Depressingly awful scrambled eggs. Romantic heartbreak. Your outcome, in hindsight, will consist of the sum total of all such things, none of which has the slightest thing to do with any factors you might pre-weigh, or with any of the big-picture images you've mentally conjured. They're cartoon images, and we don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.

You can attend your last-choice school and emerge a brilliant scholar, gainfully employed, deeply curious about the world and full of insight, head over heels in love with a true soul mate, and enjoying a circle of friends you'll retain for life. Or you may attend the Sorbonne, and emerge miserable, lonely and intellectually numb. You can't engineer either result via consideration of Factors. "Optimality" is nothing but a head-fake.

Do the research, and fool yourself into believing you're deciding smartly, but understand (and feel comforted!) that there's no right or wrong choice. Rich opportunity awaits at every juncture of every decision tree. Any choice, no matter how bright or disappointing, can yield a jackpot or a dud. In the end, it's not about the choice, it's the chooser. It's you, playing the cards you're dealt - both good hands and bad - with delight and exuberance. If you focus on the rich immediacy, rather than the cartoonish big picture - if you blow-dry your unimaginably high-maintenance TV with the same affection as shampooing your puppy - you literally can't go wrong.

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