Why Decisions are Like One-Night Stands, or Lesson 2

In my posting on Lessons from a CIA manager, Lesson 2 was:  “Remember, your decisions are going to have much less staying power than you’re expecting them to have. Decisions are not committed relationships; they are more like one-night stands.” As perhaps this analogy is not eminently or even imminently clear, it deserves some elucidation.

(Writing the word elucidation above, fine Norman English word if there ever was one, reminded me of the distinction between Anglo-Saxon English and Norman English, of which I learned while I lived in London in the early 90s. When William the Conqueror and the other Normans (i.e. French) invaded England in the 11th century, they brought their Latinate language with them. It promptly began to mix it up with the more Germanic/Norse language of the locals, which is one of the reasons why English is such a rich language, with many more synonyms than most others. We have Anglo-Saxon words, such as start, and Norman/Latinate words such as commence. And because the Normans were the conquerors and the Anglo-Saxons the losers, society began to associate or, to use the A/S word, link Norman English with the better, higher class of people. And to this day, many of us slip into Norman English, i.e. use long, fancy words, when we want to impress with our intelligence, or A/S word smarts. But, I digress…)

Much is made of decision-making. And as my responsibilities grew over the years, I began to appreciate the importance of making decisions promptly. I believe that nothing gums up an organization more than interminably-delayed decisions. Even bad decisions are to be preferred over no decisions because, unless they are nihilistically-awful, any decision at least keeps people moving in an organization, which is always preferable to being stopped dead in one’s tracks. It is simply a matter of physics: it is easier to be agile and quick if you’re already in motion. It requires less energy than getting going from a dead start. This is Lesson 18.

It is important, however, to think of decisions as temporal, even fleeting things. Too many individuals and the media these days think of decisions as these EXTREMELY IMPORTANT EVENTS that will have a permance that merits people like WOLF BLITZER talking about them in BASSO OSTINATO tones. Just flash back to the interminable coverage of the Afghanistan decision made by President Obama late last year. The world we live in today has become so fluid and complex that I actually have come to believe it is counterproductive to think of decisions as having much permanence at all. They need to be made but, even more important, they need to be constantly reconsidered. Hence, the analogy: are decisions one-night stands or are they committed relationships? Well, actually most are probably neither–they fall somewhere in between. But the dynamics of our era continues to shorten their lifespans.

I wrote on this issue about year ago in a piece that was published in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s professional journal. In the piece I was mostly discussing the learnings intelligence officers could draw from the economic crisis, but I also touched upon the delusion that our decisions are or should be permanent or longlasting. The folowing chart was included in the piece.

Decisions are clear because the world is:
straightforward enough to understand
in this world we need intelligence


Decisions are fluid because the world is:
not predictable
outside the control of humans
too complex for rules
in this world we need sense-making

Editorial note: Given that I am unlikely to stop myself from including the occasional, bordering-on-long tangent in my postings, I will delineate them with green text, so the reader can just jump right over them.

One response to “Why Decisions are Like One-Night Stands, or Lesson 2

  1. I love this idea. As someone who regularly questions my own decisions and rethinks my stance on issues, I find it bizarre that people can hold so strongly to some ideas and never question them as their world view and life situation change. I have always seen this ability to change one’s mind about an issue as a sign of intelligence and thoughtfulness – not weakness, or waffling.” I guess it depends on the nature of the idea in question and how deeply rooted it is in one’s identity or core beliefs.

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