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All choices are right and then they all become wrong: a mental model for decision making

October 4, 2020

We make lots of decisions, every week, every day, every minute. Often, we live in fear that the decision we make will be the wrong decision. Here, I offer an alternate perspective.

All choices are the right choice for some period of time. This means that no decision is ever completely wrong; humans do not make choices that are not positive to them in some way, for some length of time. It also means that all right paths will eventually run out of their lifespan and no longer be the right path.

First, let’s standardize our language: what’s the definition of a choice or decision?

A choice or decision is the selected set of actions intended to meet the needs of a situation or to solve a problem; often there are several seemingly distinct options to choose from — yes or no, select 1 of 3 partners for this project — but in reality, there are an infinite number of options at each decision point.

For example, in business, a product can be positioned in the market in a way that does not immediately earn the company a lot of money. But they likely learn a bit from it, meaning that it wasn’t a wrong choice because it informed their next choice, a new positioning, which did earn them lots of money. A happy ending, right? Not quite. That positioning, that choice, was correct for their goals (yay money!) but eventually, inevitably, that product and that positioning will no longer earn the same kind of money or achieve the same level of growth as before. The right choice’s lifespan has ended, and it’s time to make the next choice. Is it a new product with the same positioning? Adjusting their target market? Engaging in a new partnership? Much of that depends on the factors that influenced the decline in the first place.

Factors of Decline or Sustainment 

Time

The bell curve of adoptions, product lifecycles, and likely your own personal experience can validate that, over time, humans grow less interested, invested, or motivated about a given topic/object/idea the longer they are exposed to it. We are shiny-object chasers. As time goes on, we feel less compelled by things that once captured our attention.

Macro factors

Major economic prosperity or decline, legal allowances or restrictions, technological advances or deprecations, healthcare guidelines & scientific studies, and social & political movements are just a few of the factors that can have wide-sweeping impacts on the decline of a right decision. With each of these events, some ideas have less appeal while others gain popularity. If the previous right idea was on the lessening side, it is no longer the best choice. However, if it is aligned with these shifts in the macro culture, it can be reaffirming to the choice and sustain its lifespan further.

Micro factors 

Seasonal changes, a new influencer on the scene, a short-term partnership can also impact the decline or sustaining of the choice.

New information from Humans

Humans react subjectively to everything; our preferences and behaviors cannot be fully predicted. Surveys and focus groups and retroactive analysis of how humans accept or reject new ideas or even existing ideas can vastly influence the lifespan of a decision. Humans can lie or mislead other humans. The unveiling of the truth is often a catalyst for a lifespan change. On a less malevolent note, humans are also constantly changing, growing, evolving. We discover new information about and within ourselves all the time. This revelation of new knowledge can lead to the shortening or lengthen of a choice’s lifespan as the right choice.

This point about the new information about humans begs the question: does this idea apply to relationships, romantic and otherwise? Yes, it does. A person chooses to engage in a relationship with another person; each of the factors above will impact the lifespan of the decision to stay in that relationship. Time, macro factors, and micro factors can each play their part in reinforcing that decision or in deteriorating it. Especially, however, the new information derived and discovered by the humans in the relationship will be the key impactor to this decision’s lifespan.

How does this mental model immediately apply to my life?

  1. Remove the pressure of making the wrong decision; your decision will be both right and wrong for different lengths of time.
  2. Evaluate the projected lifespan of your decision; I will choose to eat cake as my snack and I recognize it will be the right decision for the time that I am eating it and enjoying it, and the wrong decision once I start to feel the sugar crash. Tomorrow, I choose to eat a vegetable as a snack, and that is the right decision while it fills me up and supports my nutrition, and the wrong decision once I am hungry again. Time for another decision.
  3. Proactively look for signs of decline, signs that the decision’s lifespan is nearly over. Use the information derived from that decision to make a new one.
  4. When making a decision, define what you hope the lifespan to be. Some situations call for decisions with known short lives – such as the snack example above but others — such as entering into a partnership or marriage with the intent of staying together as long as you can — require a different level of decision-making. Apply effort accordingly.

Said another way…

This perspective should change the way we approach decision making. We don’t have to be fixated on making the right decision or avoiding the wrong decision. Maybe it’s adding “well that right decision’s lifespan was quick” as part of the vocabulary to normalize that all right choices end, some just quicker than others. And then, it can aid us in articulating and making explicit the parameters of a decision. In work settings, when we’re outlining options to solve a problem and making a recommendation, one factor that is included should be either the desired length of a right choice (“Who should be a long-term partner?” vs “What is our holiday campaign?”) or the proposed/projected length of the recommendations lifespan (“Given factors x, y, and z, we believe Solution A will endure for this length and Solution B will endure for that length.”) or both.

How this helps is with an explicit and forced recognition of both the asker and the advisor that the solution or choice will eventually need to be revisited, and to evaluate at what point that makes the most sense. Perhaps this could even prompt the proactive revisit of a particular decision.

It limits the scope of the exact problem to solve. It proactively looks to list out the factors of decline or sustainment.

Said another way, it forces everyone to acknowledge that this idea, choice, decision will not last forever — there is no silver bullet. It removes the illusion of certainty by calling out from the beginning that this solution will have a shelf life and cannot and should not go on forever. 

The trap, the inaccuracy, the illusion that we, as decision-makers often fall for is believing that a single option will be the solution forever; while this can give us a feeling of comfort and security, it can also cause great strife and anxiety about choosing the “right” option and avoiding the “wrong” one. 

The message I want to drive home more than anything is that there is no shame in something that was once “right” now being “wrong” because everything in life follows that path. There is nothing that starts right and continues to be right without changes and evolution and choosing that same thing again and again once it starts to taper off. Relationships, jobs, products ideas, businesses. 

Other Perspectives

There is a hint of non-attachment here. This concept gives us the freedom to let go from clinging to “right” in order to avoid “wrong”.

This is a slightly different take on normalizing failure. By asserting that essentially everything we do will eventually fail to meet the needs of the situation or fail to solve the problem we’re facing, it makes it okay. Again, sometimes this failure happens quickly and sometimes it’s after a long run of succeeding.

In today’s world, this also applies to jobs and even careers. It could become standard practice in job interviews for the interviewer to share the projected lifespan of this role or at least the lifespan of that person in that role before they move onto something else (ideally, a promotion or a new project). The interviewee could express the same idea of how long they see themselves in that particular role.

Conclusion

In conclusion, everything is the right decision until something changes. That change could be as immediate as a second passing and seeing the reaction of our choice or it could persist for years. Apply this mental model the next time you need to make a decision and see if it shifts your paradigm.


Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments or send me a DM on Instagram!

J

Explore more categories:  Professional Life

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