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Personal essays

Reason - Essay from Newsletter 65

Making decisions


I shared an apartment with a guy who advocated the Benjamin Franklin approach when he had a decision to make.

He had learned it in his sales classes and would always tell the same story about how old Ben, when he had an important decision to make, would draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper and list the points in favor on one side of the line and the points against on the other side.

“Daniel,” you ask, “should the line be horizontal or vertical?”

It doesn’t matter.

“Should I number my points?”

It doesn’t matter.

Just list them.

I don’t find the actual lists as important as the process.

A coin

I went to college with a woman who would flip a coin whenever she had to make a decision whether it was difficult or easy.

The next time you have a decision to make, go ahead and flip a coin. Heads you do the thing, tails you don’t.

Now here’s the important part.

Pay attention to how you feel about the result of the coin flip.

If you are disappointed or find yourself saying, “let’s make it two out of three” then you know your decision was the opposite of what the coin toss recommended.

If you shrug and say, “ok”, then either you’re happy with the outcome or you don’t really care either way.

In any case, you know what to do about your decision.


We may think of ourselves as being logical. We look at the evidence and then make a decision.

Research says that this isn’t true.

Most of us make a decision and then look for arguments to back it up.

We know in our gut what we want to do even if we aren’t able to articulate it.

It’s the flaw in the Ben Franklin approach if we were just to count the number of points in favor and the number of points against.

With the Ben Franklin approach we often identify ten reasons on one side of the ledger and one on the other side - but that one matters a lot to us. When we write these reasons down and review them we find ourselves coming back to that one reason over and over.

There are one hundred reasons to go into business with that person, but you just don’t trust them.

Sometimes those reasons are just your inner voice keeping you from doing what you need to do and sometimes those reasons are a warning you should listen to.

You need to get to know yourself better so you can identify which is which.

Often I look at the lists and realize they come down to “just cause I want to” or “I don’t feel like it.”

An example

I was confronted with this last week.

I wrote in the newsletter that I was having difficulty going back into social situations even though I was safely vaccinated months ago.

Soon after, a friend texted to ask me about joining him and some other friends at a conference in a couple of months.

I’m still in the mindset of being careful and masking up and meeting outdoors and I just couldn’t bring myself to say “yes”.

My brother said, “trust the science.”

Of course he’s right - it’s what got me to start masking and being cautious in the first place.


And there were one hundred “but”s. But the main one was that I’d made my decision and was finding reasons to support it.

The reasons were good ones and they supported my decision but they wouldn’t have led me to make that decision.


This is an aside for programmers. You can safely skip to the next section.

One of the first community proposals for the Swift programming language was that we eliminate the ++ as a postfix or prefix operator.

The proposal went through review and was accepted.

Quite a bit later, someone found a use case that was a good example of where we might need the ++ operator.

The reply to their proposal was a good example of what I encounter all the time in decision making. They were told that their example might have been a compelling reason not to have eliminated ++ but it wasn’t a sufficient reason to bring it back.

The bike

I’ve been looking into eBikes for a while.

One of the curses of doing what I do is that I have a lot of friends who are programmers who live on one of the coasts or in Europe and they tend to have cooler toys than I do.

I mostly don’t care - but my Twitter feed is filled with their pictures and comments.

So I have been looking into eBikes for a while.

Many of my friends have one or more and use them all the time.

“You’ll bike more,” they say.

So challenge one was to bike at all.

I took my bike out of the basement and cleaned it up. It must be close to thirty years old. My mother bought bikes for Kim and me before we had kids. It’s probably been nearly ten years since I rode it last.

Before I bought an eBike, I decided, I should make sure I was going to ride a bike.

The reaction from my eBiking friends was surprisingly uniform. “Oh no,” they said, “you’ll be more likely to bike with an eBike.”

But I was determined and so I’ve been riding my bike fairly regularly this summer.

I mostly meet friends for coffee within two to three miles of my house, but I’m moving again.

I probably don’t need an eBike.

And then

This weekend a friend showed up with an eBike and a - what do we call them now - analog bike and we went for a short ride for me to try them out.

To my disappointment, I loved it.

All of the reasons in the ledger for me not getting a bike are still valid but suddenly the arguments on the plus side seem a little more valid.

The same arguments are on both sides of Ben’s line - they just feel different now that my gut has changed.

(If you know me you know that I still have months of obsessing over this decision before I make it one way or another.)

Appealing to a higher standard

When I was in graduate school the math department met to consider hiring someone who was available.

One member of the department raised an issue that the department should first answer the question of whether they should hire another person with this specialty.

The meeting devolved and the person wasn’t hired.

The department member raising the question said, “my answer would have been ‘yes’, but I thought we should address it.”

It’s the Manchin and Sinema objection to ending or modifying the fillibuster in order to preserve democratic norms.

Those norms are gone. You are holding on to something that is allowing for everything you value to disappear.

There was a comic in Mad Magazine that showed people sailing and one crew member shouting to another crew member to join them to help balance the boat.

The lone crew member didn’t want to because everyone on the other side was being sprayed and they didn’t want to get wet.

So, of course, the boat capsized and everyone got wet.

View from the outside

It’s interesting because when we look at someone else making a decision we can clearly see the flaw in their logic.

We think they should be held to consistency and logic - they often have a gut feel that is overriding any of the logical arguments we or even they have made in the past.

To take an extreme and obvious example, Mitch McConnell argued that we couldn’t consider Barack Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court because there was an election coming up. Four years later this same argument was rejected even closer to an election because it was McConnell’s own party that was about to lose power. Now McConnell is saying that we wouldn’t consider any Supreme Court nominees from Biden two years before the next election.

It can drive democrats nuts to see this and argue the logic.

The decision was made to not consider the nomination of Merrick Garland and then the reasons were provided.

The decision was made to consider Amy Coney Barrett and then the reasons were provided.

The decisions are remarkably consistent - we only want to appoint people suggested by our side.

The reasons aren’t the point.

And so

And so we fool ourselves into thinking we are reasoning more often than we actually are.

If we are able, we catch ourselves and we try to do better.

We shouldn’t ignore that feeling in our gut - there is often experience there as well.

But we need to acknowledge what goes into the decisions we make.

We need to think more.

We need to feel more.

We need to act accordingly.

If not, our boat will capsize and we’ll all get wet.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 65. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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