Wednesday, January 27, 2010

1, 2, 3... Infinity

I've been noticing that there seem to be only four numbers that people use when trying to make decisions: 1, 2, 3 and ∞. Remarkably, all four tend to lead to bad decisions or no decisions (although no decision is an oxymoron).

One is for Victims
Most often, we seem to use the number one when making decisions. We'll use phrases such as, "There's nothing else I can do" or "I simply had no other choice" or "Things like this just happen" or "People like me just..." or "You tell me what the alternative is!"

Now, when we use the number one in making decisions, we tell ourselves that it's really zero, that we're not making a decision, that the decision is out of our control, that it's been made for us. We're victims.

However, this never really is the case. When we use the number one, it simply means that we don't like what we see behind door number two or door number three. Rather than simply saying that we don't like the choices we've been presented, we say that we have no choice.

So, one (or none) is a lie. We always have at least two options.

Too Much of Two
The more sophisticated among us who know that whether or not we admit it, whether or not we acknowledge our options, we're always making decisions. We know that whether or not we like it, there's always at least one alternative. So, we adopt two as our favorite number.

Whereas the one-ers would say, "I can't just quit my job!", the two-types would acknowledge that they can always quit, but that they don't necessarily like the consequences of doing so. Two is a great step forward.

There are many decisions that practically come down to A or B. Should I stay or should I go? Should I be with Tommy or should I be with Jane? Should I take that drink or not? Should I steal the money or not?

However, as appealing as two is (I mean, it's twice as good as one), two is an artificial construct we use to avoid hurting ourselves by thinking too much; in the real world of decisions, two doesn't exist.

Getting to Two
There are several ways we get to two.

One is to ignore micro-decisions along the way. The alcoholic two-type sitting at the bar in front of a glass of vodka contemplating what to do next, is only there because he's denied or avoided all the decisions along the way that could have kept him out of the bar in the first place.

A second is to clump and contrast. We take a great variety of alternatives and begin to group them. We group 16 options into 8 groups of 2, then 8 groups of 2 into 4 groups of 4, and then 4 groups of 4 into 2 groups of 8. Once we have two clumps, in order to keep any of our clumpies from escaping and confusing us, we turn up the contrast moving from high definition color to shades of gray to black and white. Rather than 5 or 6 political candidates representing a spectrum of perspectives and plans, we end up with liberals and conservatives. We get to traditional and modern, radical and orthodox, smart and stupid, good and bad... We clump and we contrast.

A third way that we get to two is the ultimatum, being told that you absolutely have to choose between A and B, or else. (Those of you paying attention will note that I just slipped in a third option.) Many of us fall for ultimatums, especially when they come in the form of passionate appeal or threat. Rather than simply asking, "What's up with the ultimatum?", we fall for it and begin debating the merits of A and B.

The Horns of a Trilemma
Although rarely used, three is a great advancement in decision making technology. You'll often hear three emerge after a long debate among two-types or as a clever response to an ultimatum. It will often take the form, "Hey, why couldn't we just do..."

Indeed, three is a great number and whereas two is 100% bigger than one, three is just 50% bigger than two. Unfortunately three gets no respect. It's kind of the relief pitcher replacing two only after two is completely exhausted and the game is all but lost. However, when applied properly, three can stop an ultimatum dead in its tracks. You know, "or what?"

Still, in the end, three is no less artificial than one or two. It's just a vast improvement.

Infinitely Better
I'm not sure how decision making has evolved to this, but as you move beyond three, numbers show up less and less frequently. You'll see the occasional four, the rare five and... well, they all but disappear until you get to infinity (∞).

Although infinitely many options is actually the only thing we ever really have, we seem incapable of grokking infinity. Just the thought of infinitely many choices gets some people completely catatonic. Unfortunately, rather than taking a deep breath and clumping and contrasting our way to say a million choices or a thousand choices or a hundred or even ten choices, we seem to respond to infinity with one.

Granted, there are some practical implications to processing infinitely many options, but nonetheless it can be really useful to at least remember that you always have infinitely many options available to you when feeling like your down to one (synonymous with none) or facing an ultimatum or on the horns of a trilemma.

Grokking Infinity
The nice thing about infinity is that you don't have to understand it to use it. If you find infinity a bit overwhelming, then I recommend thinking about infinity like salt or pepper or garlic (mmm... garlic); use it to add a little flavor to your decisions. When you feel like you have only one option just sprinkle a little infinity on it and see how it morphs.

If you feel stuck in a job that you don't like and that you can't leave, then just add a little infinity and voila, you'll start to see how many ways there are to stay in a job and make it better.

If you're being pressed to decide between your friendship with Mary and your friendship with Susie, add a little infinity and you'll quickly get to, "What's all this got to do with me? Go work it out!"

A little infinity goes a long way.

Infinitely yours,

1 comment:

  1. luv how i,m drawn to reflect, savor, the possible lesson/message of the "MATRIX" bw


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