Category Archives: Decisions

Irrational Confidence

During the recent, epic NBA Playoffs, popular sportswriter Bill Simmons marveled at the trope of the irrational confidence shot. Simmons has previously observed this phenomenon, which states that when a team is on a roll, in high-pressure situations, a mediocre player on that team tends to take numerous risky, low-percentage shots, many of which miraculously go in. Simmons singled out Jason Terry of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks for irrational confidence; after the Mavericks won the title, in no small part due to Terry sinking several threes he had absolutely no business taking, Simmons named him the captain of the Irrational Confidence All-Stars.

Sports metaphors are tired and easy, so please forgive me, but in this early stage of adulthood, I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Jason Terrys (Terries?).

Now, I don’t mean that my peers are mediocre; on the contrary, they’re mostly extraordinary. What I mean is that they’re pursuing goals that, by sheer numbers, seemingly have a low success rate. I have to confess, I tend to think of myself in this regard: with so many others trying to do what I’m trying to do, isn’t there a very small chance that I’ll actually be the one to break through? Isn’t this confidence in success irrational?

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, over 50% of whom are under 30 years old. Of that 3.5 Billion+, 1.16 Billion are between the ages of 20-29. If you throw in a modest estimate of the number between 18-20, you can pretty safely assume that there are about 1.2 Billion young adults on Earth, most of whom we can presume are looking for work. In the U.S. alone, there are over 40 million young adults in this age group. Even if only 1% of the American population between 20-29 is pursuing the field you’re pursuing, there are about 430,000 people trying to get the same jobs as you are.

As a result, oftentimes when I’m in the midst of preparing for the future, and trying to take the right steps to get where I want to, I just get overwhelmed by these odds. And in the face of them, I marvel at the confidence with which many peers are striding ever-forward. How do the odds not make many more people feel that they might be deluded in their confidence? How does anyone honestly believe, that out of all the people in the world competing with them, that it’ll be s/he who’s one of the lucky few to succeed?

I guess the answer is that it’s because there’s no other realistic choice. When I was out of a job in the worst months of the recession, these sorts of odds didn’t really make me resigned to the fact that chances were low I’d get something desirable, nor did they make me want to take literally any job I could find (although I did spend time working in a bar, in a parking lot, and at a convention, and my job-search gradually and considerably widened with time). Rather than make my career path more utilitarian, thinking about the odds was and is paralyzing.

There’s this old New Yorker cartoon, in which a doctor is trying to comfort a distraught patient by saying, “Look at it this way: Why not you?” It’s pretty morbid humor, and a scary thought.  Because the fact is, many more people do get sick than stay healthy. Many people do compromise or fail to achieve their goals. And many more of Jason Terry’s three’s do miss than go in. But the fact is, some people die peacefully in their sleep or simply of old age. A lucky few people do end up with the life they want. And as for Jason Terry, his 3-point field goal percentage rose from 36% in the regular season to 44% in the playoffs. When the time came, irrational as it may have been, he raised his confidence, and he raised his game. Why not you?

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No Compromise

Imagine you’re with a group of friends trying to decide where to eat dinner. Through the meandering debate, two camps emerge: One wants Alfonso’s, a four-star Italian restaurant. The other wants Lou’s, a diner with tasty if unspectacular burgers and sandwiches. (Full disclosure: I’m a Lou’s guy.) The Alfonso’s camp thinks that if they are going to eat out, they should eat well. The Lou’s camp, meanwhile, wants to eat cheaply; if they are going to eat out, they don’t want to spend too much.

Clearly these camps are looking for different things, yet if all wish to eat together, an agreement must be reached. A compromise. Finally, someone suggests The Noodle Haus, an above-average Thai place that costs more than Lou’s but not as much as Alfonso’s. Your friends agree: it’s a choice they can live with, and that’s where they eat.

While on the surface, this seems like a good compromise, it doesn’t really give anybody what they want. Half the friends spend more money than they wish to, while the other half eats a meal that is not as good as they want it to be.

In middle school history, I was taught that this was the essence of compromise: Each side gives something up so they can come to an agreement and make a decision. According to my middle school teachers, compromise was not only the best way to resolve disagreements; it was also the lifeblood of American democracy.

But compromise is not the only way. In college, I took a great course called “The Psychology of Negotiation,” where for part of the quarter, we discussed how and why compromises were suboptimal. The essential reason is this: By seeking compromise, both sides are conceding that they cannot get what they want.

That said, if I’m interpreting my notes and memory correctly, compromise can be the best lens through which to negotiate if the parties have the same priorities and opposing viewpoints. Take the dinner example. If the motivation of the Alfonso’s group was to spend a lot of money, and the motivation of the Lou’s group was to spend a little money, to make a decision, they would have to compromise, and “meet in the middle” of one variable, cost.

However, when the groups have different motivations and priorities, more often than not, their motivations are not diametrically opposed. The Alfonso’s friends want to eat well, and the Lou’s friends want to eat cheaply. Why not look for a place to eat that offers both? In Chicago, at least, there are plenty of options. Alternatively, the Alfonso’s friends could offer to pay for part of the Lou’s friends’ meals. After all, the Lou’s friends aren’t against eating Alfonso’s food, they just don’t want to spend the money. So they could say, alright, we’ll put in $12 each at Alfonso’s, if you all can split the rest of what our meals cost. The Lou’s friends pay what they want, and the Alfonso’s friends eat what they want, and everyone ends up full and happy.

Social niceties aside, it’s easy to see how this solution trumps the Noodle Haus compromise. One gives both sides exactly what they want, the other leaves them merely content. But once my class alerted me to alternatives, I started seeing Noodle Haus compromises everywhere: among friends making social decisions, among co-workers dividing tasks, among politicians arguing the issues of the day.

One of the key lessons I took away from “The Psychology of Negotiation” was this: Of course it’s foolish for actors in a disagreement or a negotiation to expect to always get exactly what they want. But if they focus on where each party’s priorities and motivations lie, a more optimal solution is possible for all sides. Sometimes, when they step back and think creatively about the deal they want to strike, it’s possible to turn a choice of “either/or” into an outcome of “both and.” And sometimes, it’s best to refuse compromise.

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You Gotta Move

Like most Americans, I consume far more than I produce.

This is especially true when it comes to reading and writing. My addiction to reading–especially to reading news–is staggering; it made me miss deadlines in college and makes me procrastinate at work.  I’m convinced that reading has pushed my life back years. I’m convinced that, over the last two years, if I devoted the amount of time I’ve spent reading the publications at the left of this page to being productive, I might be making news or writing it myself, instead of knowing, for instance, that links golf is harder than regular golf. (By the way, even if, like me, you know pretty much nothing about golf, that article is wonderful…probably because it’s by John McPhee).

Like all consumption, reading is easy. It is usually relaxing and even fun. Writing, on the other hand, is work. It takes time, thought, effort, and action. While technically, I currently write for a living, I write grant proposals; in the future, I hope to write more interesting things.  In order to do so, I will need to write when I otherwise would choose to read.  I will need to produce when I otherwise would choose to consume.  I will need to work when I might otherwise prefer to relax.

Writing will ultimately be more satisfying than reading, just as productivity is always ultimately more satisfying than consumption.

Thus, The Grind.

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