You have thousands of decisions still to be made in your lifetime. Some small, some large. The scariest ones are the big ones. Their implications are vast, and cascade over into every aspect of your life.
And yet, you haven’t been taught how to make big decisions well. Not in a systematic fashion. Not in school, not at work, not at home. You’re sometimes told to “just go with your gut.” In other words, using system 1 (from Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”) for decisions that really should be refined with a system 2 lens – a slower, methodical thinking process.
If you want to learn a framework that can help you and your team (whether it’s your family, friends, or your squad at work) grapple with long-term decision making that incorporates many variables and possibilities, this book is INCREDIBLY useful. It provides you with a 3-step process, along with various tips & tricks at each step. The examples and stories Johnson draws his inspiration from are varied and vivid: from the decision-making process used to capture Osama Bin Laden, to the author’s personal process to decide whether to move to California, and the system Darwin used to decide to get married.
Very few authors are able to distill key insights from different disciplines and tie them together with supporting stories coherently in a narrative that is informative, entertaining, and persuasive. After listening to Steven Johnson‘s “Wonderland” podcast, I knew that he was one of the best in the world at doing it. And if you decide to read Farsighted and improve your ability to make decisions by adopting “full-spectrum thinking”, you’ll see what I mean.
Below is my high-level preview of what you can expect to learn in this book.
The primary framework outlined by Johnson consists of 3 steps: Map, Predict, Decide.
The “menu” of choices you think you have, might not be complete.
This is when you’re trying to get an idea of what the territory looks like by building a metaphorical map of the decision. This includes writing down the variables that you’re facing, the people that can help you, what the end goal is, and the possible outcomes. A major tool you have your disposal in this step of the process is divergence. In other words, you need to build a (formal or informal) team to help you make your decision and get various opinions. Johnson cites plenty of evidence to show that intellectually diverse teams make better decisions than homogenous ones.
It’s also important at this stage to consider that the “menu” of choices you think you have, might not be complete. Take long walks and talk to your squad about hidden choices that you hadn’t considered.
Think about what those possible disasters are, and how your decisions may lead you there.
This is when you look at the (updated) menu of choices you have at your disposal, and attempt to predict where each one may lead you. A powerful mental modeling exercise Johnson shares here is the “premortem”, which you’re likely familiar with if you’ve read Kahnemann already. The idea is to imagine that your choice(s) will lead to a disaster. Think about what those possible disasters are, and how your decisions may lead you there. That way, you can cover some of your blind spots and prepare. A useful way to do this is to build a “red team”, where you find people to oppose you at every step of the way and tell you the downsides of every choice you’re considering – so that you can see the full spectrum of possibilities involved in the possible paths your decision can take you.
Another major mental model Johnson dives into here is the idea of building simulations, in whatever way you can. Simulate your decisions before actually committing to any of them. This can be done vicariously, and can even be fictional – which is the value of novels. By seeing how others make decisions and grapple with the complexity of life, we become more prepared to make our own. A more grounded example of a simulation would be the following: if you’re interested in a certain career path, go job shadow your role model for a day. Then you can consider if it’s something that you see yourself doing in the future.
You have to get comfortable making decisions with somewhat incomplete information and roll with the punches.
Finally, you have to decide. This is when you look at the map you’ve built, the predictions, where things might go wrong along the way, and commit to a course of action. At this point, your gut-thinking is way better than it was before the whole process, because it’s taking a lot more information into account, and has simulated many possibilities. It’s not a myopic, system 1 decision anymore because you’ve supplemented it with a deliberate thinking process.
He also shares a few techniques that can help here like value-modeling and cost-benefit analysis. It’s important to note that if a decision is time-limited, you have to get comfortable making decisions with somewhat incomplete information and roll with the punches.
As you mature, advance in your career, and build your families, the stakes get bigger and bigger when it comes to the consequences of the decisions you make. And as society evolves, and technology advances, the same applies at a macro scale…with stakes rising exponentially. In order to maximize the probability of favorable outcomes, we need to learn to think more systematically.
If learning the art and science of farsighted decision-making is something that appeals to you, hit “Add to Cart.” It could be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make – one that makes all of your subsequent decisions easier and better.