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When making decisions, sail — don’t launch

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Every quarter around finals time, I question the point of it all. What am I doing here? What am I working towards? Am I overly concerned with the letters on my transcript? I imagine an alternate life in which I travel the world, finding meaning in places where I can see the stars and in the stories of strangers I encounter. 

The romantic image I paint for myself is partly an overcorrection to the stress of finals. But at its core is a persistent worry that does not dissipate with my last exam: Am I spending the limited time I have — at Stanford and on Earth — in the best way possible? 

Answering this question feels impossible, urgent and scary.

Impossible, because we can only connect the dots looking backwards, as Steve Jobs told Stanford students in his 2005 commencement speech. Choices can be better or worse informed, but rarely are they prescient. Too much depends on others, on chance, on the interactions of infinite moving pieces. 

How do we know which class will change our life? What student organization will create a lifelong friend? What study abroad program will lead us on the most meaningful adventures? Rarely do we know exactly what we want, or how to get it even if we do. 

Urgent, because there’s little time and we can only do so much. This feels most tangible to me when I walk through Green Library’s stacks. As I touch the spine of the occasional volume, I start to think of how many books I could read if that’s all I did. Only a tiny fraction, I tell myself, and that’s if I did nothing else. And as time passes, that fraction decreases. 

Perhaps I can be strategic, read reviews and make a plan. But how long should I spend choosing, and how long should I spend reading? Time spent optimizing our schedule could instead be used on the things we want to optimize. We want to make smart choices but do so in as little time as possible. 

Scary, because it’s not just the summer internship itself, the extracurriculars we embrace or the major we pursue. Each decision contains the possibilities foregone — the entire person we may have become had we chosen the alternative. 

The poet Sylvia Plath describes this feeling through the metaphor of a fig tree in her novel “The Bell Jar.”

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story,” she begins, and “from the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.”

A family life, poetry, academia, editing, travel, sports and more are all lives she can envision reaching. But she can’t have it all: Only one of the paths is ultimately available. 

We can imagine two extremes. The first is paralysis — when our fear of making the wrong choice, or not making the best one, leads to no decision at all. In the television comedy “The Good Place,” philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye spent all his time mulling over the impacts of his choices. He missed out on much of his life because of it. Plath, too, offers a cautionary tale of indecision’s dangers: “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” 

On the other end is reckless impulsivity. No reflection. No hesitation. Just action. In this scenario, we risk living by default: making the decision that’s right in front of us without pausing to consider what else might be available.

What’s the happy medium between paralysis and impulsivity? There isn’t a clear answer. But we can think about decision-making in a way that points us toward a safer middle ground. 

The same thing that makes choices scary — unpredictability — also relieves some of the burden they impose. Our future doesn’t have an algorithm. Excel may let us visualize the tradeoff between taking different classes, but no version I’ve found can forecast what each path might bring. This becomes increasingly true as the time frame grows. Long-term ramifications are less apparent than immediate implications.

Uncertainty doesn’t mean all options have equal merit. We can, and should, ascertain information that will affect our decision. Courts of law use the concept of negligence — defined as “a failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances” — to distinguish between mistakes made because of things we can’t know, and harm that occurs because we didn’t pay attention. We should hold our choices to a similar standard.

Information that is accessible, however, isn’t always information that’s relevant. Once we consider what we can know, the next question is what do we need to know. Research on heuristic decision-making suggests that, at a certain point, decisions become worse when people consider more information. Making quicker choices won’t just save us time and decrease mental strain: The outcome might be better because of it. 

After we calibrate for uncertainty and collect pertinent information, the only way to discern if a decision is right is to sail into its expanse.

Sail, don’t launch. Choices — at least the big ones — are not projectiles whistling through the air whose trajectories are set at the moment of release. Rather, they are our best guess for the path we should follow. Good sailors will chart an initial course but adapt to conditions as necessary. Good decision-makers do the same.

Nor must we traverse the ocean of the future alone. Our friends, families and mentors can offer insight from their own travels — or, at the very least, commiserate as we peer into the horizon’s mist.   

Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.