What makes a good decision? When I ask people that question, I often get answers like:
“When the outcome is successful.”
Why is it that we, as a society, romanticize outcomes? Only things and people that succeed are celebrated. Just look at all the articles and books that idolize successful people. And to a degree, that’s obvious.
But it’s also misleading. We tend to overlook cases that did not come with a successful outcome. And when we do look at failure, we are often quick to explain why things failed.
In hindsight, we can all look at mistakes and say that it was imminent. But if preventing mistakes is that easy, why are we still make decisions that we regret?
Take the case of the Titanic. Looking back, we all know that the luxury liner that traveled from Southampton to New York made many costly mistakes.
For example, the Titanic carried only 16 lifeboats. But there were more than 1500 people on the ship. Sadly, those lifeboats were only enough for about 500 people.
“What about the other 1000 people when shit goes wrong?” is something that someone surely said, right? We just don’t know! We weren’t there.
How about another interesting fact? The Titanic was never tested! The full crew never went for a test run on the sea. They just loaded up the passengers and immediately set sail towards New York.
“Shouldn’t we try this thing out before we bring passengers on board?” someone surely said. I guess not.
But here’s the thing. No one wanted the Titanic disaster to happen. And no one predicted it…Until after the fact.
A few decades before all those innocent people died, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said:
“Everything seems stupid when it fails.”
Bad Decisions and Good Decisions
It’s easy to look at success and attribute it to good decision making. But here’s the thing—that statement is also true the other way around.
Failure is not always explained by bad decision making. However, that’s what most historians do. But like Dostoevsky said, in hindsight failure is always obvious.
The people who were responsible for the Titanic probably thought they were making the right decisions at the time. After the fact, they probably regretted many things.
But I don’t think good or bad decisions have anything to do with the outcome. Peter Bevelin, the author of Seeking Wisdom, puts it well:
“Good decisions can lead to bad outcomes and vice versa.”
The truth is: You can’t predict the future. Sometimes even bad decisions can lead to good outcomes.
So that’s why I think it’s pointless when people pretend they can teach you how to make “better” decisions. There’s no such thing. Any person who’s failed a lot in life will tell you that.
Mental Models: Focus On The Process, Not The Outcome
The way you understand the world is called a mental model. It’s your thinking process.
But when we make decisions, we often skip thinking about the process and immediately jump to a discussion about potential outcomes.
We ask, “What will happen if we make this decision?”
That’s an incomprehensive mental model because you’re not questioning your decision-making process. You’re only looking at the outcome.
But have you done everything to verify your decision-making process? Have you considered the different mental models that exist?
- Why do we want to make that decision?
- What are common cognitive biases associated with this decision?
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- What is the context?
- Is a decision really needed?
Too often, we skip the process and jump right to deciding. Maybe that’s due to a lack of time, resources, or knowledge— it doesn’t matter.
Whatever your reason is, it’s never an excuse to skip the decision-making process altogether. Because that’s the only way to become a bad decision maker— regardless of the outcome.
So instead of focusing on how successful your choices are, focus on how comprehensive your decision-making process is. I recommend reading the following 3 books that focus on that topic:
- Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin—Discusses the mental models of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett.
- Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb—Helps with understanding random events that influence outcomes.
- Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein—Explains how our decisions are influenced by different factors.
We can never predict the future. But we can make decisions we don’t regret.
By simply focusing on the process, we can always say we did the right thing. And that’s the only sure way to avoid regret—no matter what the outcome is.
“What’s the right thing?”
It’s clear we should never regret making mistakes. Every mistake is a lesson after all. However, there’s another type of regret that literally kills people. It’s the regret of inaction.
I’ve seen this up close with my grandmother. At the end of her life, she drowned in her own sorrow. And that sorrow was solely made up from regret about the things she never did.
Look, no matter what you do, we all suffer in life. But there’s a difference in suffering, as Jim Rohn once said:
“We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret or disappointment.”
Achieving your goals. Improving yourself and your relationships. Writing a book. Building a business. It’s painful. It takes a lot of time, energy, and sacrifice to achieve things that are worthwhile in life.
But you know what’s also painful? The regret of inaction, disappointment, and laziness.
Which type of suffering hurts more? It’s up to you to decide.