How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most
By Steven Johnson
244 pp. Riverhead Books. $28.
If you were working as an intelligence operative in 2010 and stumbled onto inconclusive evidence that Osama bin Laden might be hiding in a Pakistani suburb, you would suddenly be faced with a series of big, hard choices — each with serious drawbacks. What would you do?
It’s a question that gets at the heart of “Farsighted,” Steven Johnson’s riveting new book on how we make tough long-term decisions. The good news is that you probably won’t ever face a choice with bin Laden-level stakes. The bad news is that you’ve arrived at plenty of fork-in-the-road moments that forever alter the future. What school to pick, which job to take, where to live, whom to marry, when to have kids.
Spoiler alert, of sorts: Johnson thinks you’re woefully unprepared for all of these decisions.
You shouldn’t be. In the past two decades, popular knowledge about the science of decision-making has exploded. Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economists and psychologists have taught us that we’re prone to “Misbehaving” (Richard Thaler) and don’t do enough “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Daniel Kahneman). But as Johnson astutely points out, these books are mostly about the choices we make in the “Blink” (Malcolm Gladwell) of an eye as we muddle through our daily lives. There’s surprisingly little guidance about how to approach the grand moments that shape our futures.
As a deep thinker and gifted storyteller, Johnson is the right author to tackle the topic. He’s at his best when analyzing impossibly complex decisions. Some have the benefit of hindsight, like the bin Laden raid. Others are technological dilemmas confronting us now: How to decide what artificial intelligence we unleash into the world? Should we be transmitting signals into outer space in search of extraterrestrial life? (Are you mad? If intelligent life is out there, Johnson’s analysis persuaded me the only safe stance is galactic introversion: Take the call, but please don’t make the call.)
What are the habits of people who excel at long-term thinking? One of Johnson’s thought-provoking points is that they read novels, which are ideal exercises in mental time travel and empathy. I think he’s right. That said, I’ve also found value in other evidence-based techniques for catapulting our brains into the future, like coming face-to-face with an image of ourselves digitally aged to make us look 30 years older. And I finished this book curious about whether looking farther into the past is another way to paint a richer portrait of the future.
After reading “Farsighted,” am I more aware of all the difficulties of making long-term decisions? Definitely. Do I feel better equipped to make those decisions? I’m not sure. This is an idea book. You won’t find the easy formulas that dominate the self-help genre or the 2×2 matrices common to business books. Johnson left me more convinced than ever of the psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.
Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business, the author of “Give and Take,” “Originals” and “Option B” with Sheryl Sandberg, and the host of the TED podcast “WorkLife.”