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The golden rule to never make a wrong call once again

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Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

If you have chosen to read this article, it is possible that your life is at a crossroads, and you do not know which direction is best to take.
After all, who has never been through a similar situation? We all know that feeling very well, perhaps even better than we’d like to admit.

Making decisions, in fact, is something extremely far from being pleasant.

We may find ourselves racking our brains for days, or sometimes even longer, trying to figure out the best option. We plan every possible scenario and seek comparison, advice, or just comfort from those close to us. All of this is done in an attempt to arrive at a conclusion that may not even be the best one.

And it’s not over yet! Once you’ve mapped out the way forward, it may not necessarily be easy to traverse; on the contrary, it might be so daunting that you find yourself looking for an alternative right away. Otherwise, you might start down that path but abandon it before completing it.

The process, potentially, could go on forever. Sometimes, that’s just how it happens.

For all these reasons, if I had started this article with a sentence like “Inspite the appearences, making a decision is not a big deal” the risk of being sent to hell would have been high. Hoping that this won’t happen, I will take the next few lines to explicate the concept better.

Let us assume, for a moment, that all the emotions associated with making decisions do not exist. That bare, brutal cluster of neural connections that make up our rationality is all there is now. The heart, for a moment, sits on the bench.

The GOFER process

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Photo by Marcus Lewis on Unsplash
Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

The GOFER process is a model of decision-making formulated in 1980 by psychologist Leon Mann1. The best way to talk about it, and see why it is important, is to consider the subsequent mental experiment.

Now, imagine two people walking on the sidewalk of a passable street. The first of the two is getting married a month from now, but he is not convinced of his choice. The second, at this moment, has no particular thoughts on her mind. She has just left work, and is enjoying the remaining hours of the day. She thinks about the song she just heard on the radio before parking.

At one point, they both drive past a pizza parlor. The former, understandably absorbed in his thoughts, does not even notice it. The second, instead, does. Her mood, already good, is pleasantly affected. She slows his pace, beginning to foretaste the effect of his favorite pizza on his taste buds. He thinks about the last time he ate it, and decides enough time has passed. Finally, he goes in and buys a piece.

These might seem like two stories with opposite outcomes, and, from a certain point of view, they are. One buys pizza, the other does not. However, beyond the different output, it is equally important to make another kind of point: at the moment, exactly the same things are happening in both of their brains.

Why accepting and refusing are based on the same mental process

The GOFER process divides the whole decision-making process into 5 stages, hence the acronym GOFER (each letter corresponds to a stage in the process).

In the former example, the only thing that changes is the question. “Should I get married?” is different from “Should I buy pizza or not?”. Apart from this, the way of answering the question is the same. Let’s examine each step:

1) Goal clarification

Every decision starts from here.
Social context influences behavior. In Bulgaria, moving your head from top to bottom means no; from right to left, yes2. So if I am in Bulgaria and my goal is to be understood, I simply cannot ignore this rule.
In the proposed example, the goal is the same: both protagonists want to improve their state of well-being. Even if it sounds weird, there are more commonalities than differences between the two, and their goal is similar. In different ways, they want the very same thing: to make the decision that positively changes their lives, increasing the reasons for satisfaction and mitigating the negativity.

2) Options generation

In Italy, just 14.9 percent of workers have access to smart-working3. This means that unless I wish to be fired, I will have to physically travel to the workplace. Depending on where I live, I will have more or fewer options available to me. Living in a big city, for example, increases the choices available to me: subways, streetcars, car sharing, are means not available to those who live in the countryside.
It is interesting how our two friends have the same number of options available to them: two. I get married or I don’t get married. I buy pizza or I don’t buy pizza. Sometimes, when faced with an emotionally taxing decision, we feel that we have many more options than those actually available. But think about it: what would they be? It’s true, there are elements of complexity that make deciding to get married more complicated than buying a pizza. But they do not reside in the number of possibilities.

I get married or I don’t get married. I buy pizza or I don’t buy pizza.

3) Facts finding

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

After pinpointing the options, I’ll have to foresee their outcomes. To make a prediction, I have to rely on the data available to me.

  • I have to be at work by 9 a.m.
  • It is 8:30 a.m.
  • The subway ride takes 20 minutes
  • The car, at this hour, at least 40

Based on the data, I will derive the information that if I want to arrive on time (goal), and I have a choice between car and subway (options), then I must take the subway (information).
At this point, Groom and Pizzagirl are both looking for as much information as possible. The latter is naturally at an advantage: his decision is more trivial, and not as much information is needed. However, although they need different amounts of information, the process applies to both. Small spoiler: as you may have already guessed, it also applies to the last two points. So, without repeating myself again, once and for all: the sequence of actions enacted by their brains is the same.

4) consideration of Effects

Quite simply, Based on the information available to me, sticking to the GOFER process, I will weigh the pros and cons of the decision.

5) Review and implementation

This is it: I have exhausted all the evaluations4. At this point, I know for sure what the best decision is. If it is still not clear to me, then I am left with only one element to evaluate the best option: take one and see if it works.

Doing nothing is still considered a decision.

What makes the game more complicated

Making decisions is simple: we had left this sentence hanging.
Now, I am ready to admit that I truly believe it: I think it is absolutely effective, at least for 99% of cases.

The point is that we are so used to making decisions that, most of the time, we do it unconsciously. This is a good thing: it saves time. I don’t have to think, every time I walk into a dark room, what the hell is going to happen by pushing that button on the wall. If I’m hungry, I don’t need to analyze whether to go to the bathroom or the kitchen, and so on.

But then, if deciding is such an immediate process, and the mental process is always the same, why is it so darn difficult sometimes? Why is choosing to get married not as simple as buying a pizza?
There are at least four elements that explain it:

1) Experience

Even if we don’t take it into account, even the stupidest decisions cost us great effort. Or, at least, they did the first time. Who could guarantee that, if I had put my feet on the ground, I would haven’t fallen? It felt so good, crawling on all fours!
As the brain generates associations, time by time they become automatic. That’s why, in my morning routine, I don’t need to think “I’ll get up from the chair once I finish breakfast” before moving on to the next step (mind you: from the chair, not the bed…).

This applies to even the most complex processes: personally, if I had to feel every day like the first one I started a blog, I don’t know if I would have the strength to continue. I would have to start over every morning from the WordPress tutorials, choose whether to make the site bilingual or only in English, how many times a week to publish, how many paragraphs to insert for each article…24 hours would not be enough.
The more times we decide to do something, the more obvious that decision becomes.
In the example, I did not choose marriage at random: you (theoretically) get married only once in a lifetime. So, if close to the wedding you start to feel nervous, don’t worry too much: the next few times, it will seem like a piece of cake!

2) Complexity

The fact that the steps in the decision-making process are the same does not mean that they are always equally easy. For example, the options might be more than two. In an ice cream shop, haven’t you ever happened to choose the last flavor at random, because meanwhile the others, already in the cone, were melting?
This phenomenon has been studied: it is called the paradox of choice5, and it states that when faced with the same problem, the more options we have, the less good we are at choosing.

Another possibility is that there is a lot of information to gather. If you’re making an onerous purchase, such as changing smartphones, you will decide based on certain features (unless you choose it at random, or make x hours que to buy a particular brand). Maybe you care about photo quality more than memory, or processor performance rather than usability: however, these are all things you don’t know yet, which translates into time needed to make the decision.

Finally, it may be arduous to weigh the pros and cons. This often happens in relationships. It’s one thing to make decisions just for ourselves; it’s another when our decisions involve other people.

3) Emotions

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Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

So far, we have kept the emotional side out of the equation, but, as you may already be experienced, this is not always the case. Some decisions carry a greater emotional burden than others. These are the ones that generally come to mind when you think about the very concept of making decisions.
If I were to ask you, “What is the last decision you made?” you would have to draw from your memory. And memory, by definition, is emotional. So, instinctively, it is easier to think of an emotionally impactful decision. Therefore, many would say “Reject a company’s proposal to stay where I am,” or “Turn the tables and start over”, but almost no one would say “Reading the article”.

Emotions play a key role in decision-making, and it deserves to be covered much more thoroughly than this blurb.
Wanting to stick to the rational decision-making model, we might say this: often, it is not so much making certain choices that scares us, but the meaning we attach to them.
“How do I [insert anything]?”. Typical incipit of someone who is getting bogged down in a difficult decision. “How do I tell my parents that I want to change colleges?” “How do I break up after so many years?” “How do I declare myself to the person I like?”.

I am not saying that we should make decisions using reason alone, or that the associated emotions should not be considered in the cost/benefit calculation. If anything, I mean the opposite: I want to emphasize how these questions are perfectly understandable, even though, from a purely logical point of view, the answer is obvious.
It is not the “how” to do the thing itself; on the contrary, it is how to bear the emotional price. Communicating the decision to leave college to your parents is simple. Having to endure anger, or worse yet, inflict disappointment, is not at all. To leave a person, you just need to talk to him or her honestly. To be afraid of how he or she might react, of loneliness after years of relationship, is another matter.

The meaning we attach to our actions is what gives them the emotional charge. When it gets too far, it can act as a “censor of solutions”, so that, simply, we are unable to see them. I know it is brutal, but some people live their lives without ever really knowing themselves. They are so afraid of making a particular decision that they dismiss it out of hand, even better if they don’t consider it. The question is, what if it was the right one?

4) Certainty of outcome

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”

Rudyard Kipling

Decisions can be made in three different situations:

  • Certainty: I can associate a cause with a consequence (If I decide to heat water, it will boil at 100 degrees)
  • Risk: I cannot associate a consequence with a cause with certainty, but I know the probabilities for which different consequences will occur to a given cause (Heads or Tails. I don’t know what will come out, but I know that both have a 50/50 chance)
  • Uncertainty: I have no idea what will happen (Pandemics, climate changes, wars, economic crises, spread a climate of uncertainty: no one knows how long they will last, what effects they will have, or how they will evolve. They are unpredictable and uncontrollable events)6

Uncertainty is, in my personal judgment, the most powerful driver of choice of all.

This is the point where the game becomes inexorably complicated.
I have analyzed everything, considered even the most painful paths, weighted pros and cons impeccably, but no one assures me that this leads to a certain conclusion. Not everything in life can be predicted.
all the best things can’t be controlled or bartered. They show up when they say they will, assuming they do, and with equal unpredictability, they go. You, as an individual, can do nothing but prepare to welcome them, by generating favorable conditions for their arrival, not rejecting them when they arise, and greeting them with dignity when they leave.
I can quit my job and start my own business, but that will not guarantee its success. I can anticipate the anxiety, the fear of judgment, the fatigue, the beginner’s sense of bewilderment, all the negative scenarios. That’s not necessarily enough.
That is the real test. Separate the process from the result. The journey from the destination.
Only by agreeing to act without being able to control the outcomes does one become truly free to discover what they truly want. Or, to put it in more technical terms, we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the best decision.

Certainly, easier said than done. But think about it: what is the real alternative?

So, how do I make the best decision?

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

No one can tell you the absolute right decision; however, it is possible to see what elements to consider in your case.
Let’s examine it in three points:

1) Who are you?

If I wanted to be an NBA center, I would be in difficulty from the height of my 1.78. Vice versa, if an NBA center wanted to be a jockey, it would be the horse to be in trouble.
In life, there is not only what we would like to do or live. We also have to come to terms with who we are; that is, with the possibilities that our genetics have given us.
The fact is that it is easy to do this with objective parameters. Height is the best example, both because it is 100% pre-determined and because it is visible. That is not why it is easy to accept. On the contrary, short stature is often a harbinger of other psychological problems7. However, even though it may take years and years, one resigns oneself to being unable to do anything about it, and starts accepting for who they are.

For mixed traits, both genetic and environmental, it is even worse.
When faced with a problem, we are instinctively inclined (some more than others) to evaluate the possible solutions. To do so, as we’ve seen for the GOFER process, we need to start with the causes. In the case of solely genetic traits, the problem is easily solved. I don’t like my freckles. What chance, short of flaying myself alive and gluing on a new skin? None. Well, I guess I’ll keep them.
For characteristics of uncertain derivation, the answer may not be so simple. Often, shy people tend to see this characteristic of theirs as an enemy to be defeated. They deal with it by thinking of strategies, “I’m going to go out tonight and talk to at least one stranger,” “I want to say hello to that person I haven’t talked to in a long time,” “I want to hold the gaze of at least 10 people”, with the result of being even less spontaneous, and the risk of going to reinforce the loop that keeps them trapped in this state.
In reality, shyness has genetic roots too8. The problem with it, it’s not so much about being shy, it’s that we can’t avoid experiencing it as a problem. Some people naturally take more pleasure in socializing than others. And that doesn’t mean they don’t have problems too, no matter how good they may be at keeping them hidden.
However, there is no such thing as the “shyness gene.”
This, makes it difficult to admit that, perhaps, one simply enjoys socializing a little less than others, for who knows what reason.
Or to do it too often.
Or always in the same way.
The point is that what I wrote about shyness is a general concept. Very often, we make decisions based on our idealized selves, not on who we really are. And these decisions, punctually, end up disappointing us. Because they were not right for us.

2) What are you?

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me”
Batman Begins

Identity is not built with intentions, but with actions. I can consider myself a person with the value of honesty, and lie 15 times a day9.
Actions come from the decisions you have made. Next time you have to make an important decision, try asking yourself, “What have been the other important decisions I made in my life?”
A different focus can highlight different truths. Seeing your decisions not as individual entities, but as a set of thoughts formulated by the same person, namely you, can help you find a common thread that connects them.
Wondering whether or not to end a relationship, just one, generates considerations. But if it’s the fifth relationship you want to end, and the reason is always the same, then the perspective changes.
You may find that you are attracted to the same kind of person, and find truths about yourself that will lead you to make more conscious decisions in the future. Which, if you had only been in one relationship, perhaps would have jumped out at you more hardly.
Review important decisions in your life. What were the options available to you? Why did you choose that one? What did you originally expect, and how did things turn out? You will be surprised by the evidence of what you had not thought of.

3) What you would like to become – how to never make a wrong call again

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how
Friedrich Nietzsche.

Being a blogger hasn’t been always my dream. When I was younger, I would have picked swimmer world champion (since we are talking balanced judgment, considering genetic predispositions and talent, making thoughtful decisions and whatever). When I realized that this wasn’t going to happen, I decided that I would still have found my way. And it would have been unique.
My ideal job had two characteristics. The first, was that it had to be something new. I didn’t feel at all like going down roads already taken, following paths laid out by others. I wanted to invent the job. The outcome is what an HR person would call an eclectic background: biotechnologist, neurobiologist, salesman, scientific trainer, marketer, just to name the main steps.
The second characteristic was independence. I didn’t want to be in someone’s employ; the idea of espousing a cause I wasn’t 100 percent convinced of horrified me. I didn’t want to be mastered; I wanted to be free.
Basically, for a long time, I didn’t know exactly what to do with my life. All the experiences I had, the subjects I studied, the jobs I went through, had something interesting about them, but I felt like they were never purposeful. If I had wanted to be a doctor, I would have had a smooth road: from 18 to 65, I would have had to do nothing but follow a very clear, crowded, and already-written track.

However, I never gave up my values. And that, over the years, has led me to where I am today. That doesn’t mean it’s the perfect job; it’s not like I wake up every morning with an overwhelming desire to type 3,000 words on the computer. But I also don’t think there is such a job. Every activity is beautiful for a certain amount of time, which nature has arranged. By exceeding that time, and repeating that excess day after day, anything becomes boring. My work allows me to do something I believe in, in my way, and to be free. Moreover, it is not the dreamy answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. It has clear merits and flaws, and it teaches me daily something that I wouldn’t learn from spending hours in the office. That’s why I like it so much.

Why am I telling you this?

Earlier, we found ourselves talking about separating the process from the outcome, and of the crux of the matter. Any major decision – love relationships, work, family, investments, health – will affect the years ahead in a significant way.
You cannot predict everything. However fine your analysis may be, come a certain point there will always be the unexpected, a change of scenery that challenges the value of everything you have done up to that point. To think otherwise is to feel invincible, a dangerous and, above all, not lasting illusion.

If you want to be sure you are making the right decision, ask yourself this:

“If I failed a year from now, would it still be worth it, or would I rue the day I started?”

If the answer is no, then the outcome is what you want. You don’t really desire to be a world champion swimmer; you are just eager to feel that way.
This is the discriminator: you cannot decide the outcome of your actions, but you can decide the value you can place on them. This is where most miss getting on the train. Not because of their lack of ability, nor because their fear is greater than that of others. In this we are all the same: we all desire success, and none face the related sacrifices. The difference lies solely in simply doing it anyway.

Ask yourself, “Am I willing to live this way, even if the expected result, in the end, will have cost me so much effort that it will barely seem like a reimbursement for expenses?” If you can answer truthfully, then you cannot lose. In this way, you will simply never make a wrong decision again.

Final recommendation

Mind you: the key is to answer truthfully, not affirmatively. There are plenty of reasons why saying no sometimes requires more courage than saying yes. For example, you may realize that it is not yet the right time to take that path.

Giving up an option is not a problem itself: the problem, if anything, is when that giving up leads you to feel bad about yourself. In cases like this, it can be helpful to do the opposite process: after all, are you really that bad with your current “self”? Instead of an upheaval, maybe a few small changes are enough.

So, both of you have to decide whether you are marrying the right person and to buy pizza, remember: problems will be there anyway.
But you, what would you like to become?

Footnotes

  1. The GOFER method in Decision Making, Wikipedia ↩︎
  2. https://www.thoughtco.com/nodding-yes-and-no-in-bulgaria-1501211 ↩︎
  3. https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/lo-smart-working-non-e-decollato-solo-149percento-occupati-lavora-remoto-AEdIPAtC ↩︎
  4. Some further models, like this one theorized by Drs. Guo, provides another step after acting, which is feedback collection, but I didn’t consider it here because it is not relevant to this article’s purpose ↩︎
  5. “The Paradox Of Choise, Why More Is Less”, Berry Schwartz ↩︎
  6. “Risk, Uncertainty and Decision-Making in Property”, Peter Byrne ↩︎
  7. Gordon et al, “Psychosocial aspects of constitutional short stature: social competence, behavior problems, self-esteem, and family functioning↩︎
  8. The Big FIve personality traits, Wiki ↩︎
  9. Rainews study ↩︎

1 thought on “The golden rule to never make a wrong call once again”

  1. I’m finding this an extremely interesting read. I still have more to read…
    This will help me in making those tough decisions !

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