How to make better decisions more often

Tom Wolfe writes in Bonfire of the Vanities that “decisive men made great decisions not because they were smarter than other people, necessarily, but because they made more decisions, and by the law of averages, some of them would be great.”

Lots of people take this approach. Make a lot of decisions, and statistically some will always be great.

What this approach doesn’t account for is the ability to improve at the decision-making process over time.

If someone in their twenties and someone in their fifties is making a decision, then, all else being equal, the person in their fifties is more likely to make the correct decision because they have an additional thirty years of decision-making experience.

The best way to get better at making decisions is to make more of them.

When you do this, five things will happen:

  1. At first, your percentage of wrong decisions will be just as high as if you had made fewer decisions.
  2. But—and this is why this is hard—your real number of wrong decisions will be higher than had you made fewer decisions. You’ll be tempted to stop. But don’t.
  3. Fortunately, over time, it will be balanced out by your number of right decisions.
  4. Over even more time, your percentage of wrong decisions will begin to shrink.
  5. Over even more time, the cumulative effect of your right decisions will begin to make up for the high initial cost of wrong decisions from #1.

It’s a high cost up front, but the payout over the long term makes it a good investment.

Peter Drucker takes this one step further. He says that “effective people do not make a great many decisions. They concentrate on the important ones.”

Or: you’ll eventually reach a point where you’ll not only be great at making decisions, but you’ll be able to perceive what decisions are even worth considering in the first place.

Here’s how great decision-makers operate:

They try to think through what is strategic and generic, rather than “solve problems.” They try to make the few important decisions on the highest level of conceptual understanding. They try to find the constants in a situation. They are, therefore, not overly impressed by speed in decision-making. Rather, they consider virtuosity in manipulating a great many variables a symptom of sloppy thinking. They want to know what the decision is all about and what the underlying realities are that it has to satisfy. They want impact rather than technique; they want to be sound rather than clever.

The practice of decision-making starts before you need to decide.

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