Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lightness and Important Decisions

We have been seeking to buy a new home, and the associated challenges and inevitable anxiety feel weighty. It is a relatively important decision, and this prompted me to consider the role of lightness in such situations. For an introduction to the notion of lightness, see Lightness and Jazz; but for convenience I can remind you of the two overlapping components: ability to choose and absence of a sense of burden.

When we are involved In major decisions, maintaining a sense of lightness requires evaluation and management of consequences, commitment, and expectations.

If there are no consequences to a choice, then it neither limits our future options nor creates any reason to trouble our minds. In contrast, a genuine life-or-death decision justifiably consumes our focus and is difficult to treat lightly. Most situations fall somewhere between these extremes, and evaluating exactly where, with a clear head, is paramount.

We can start by considering worst-case scenarios. Note the plural, since usually in any decision there is the potential for more than one undesirable consequence. Each of these will have a different effect on future happiness as well as on the cost or availability of future options. Of course, there is always surrounding us a variety of unpleasant possible scenarios, including slow and painful death. The question relating to a decision, though, is not whether these are possible outcomes of the decision, but rather whether the decision increases (or reduces) the likelihood of such outcomes.

Upon examination, we will often see that the worst-case scenarios that are actually causally related to the decision are not so severe as they first appeared. If appropriate precautions are taken in, for example, buying a house, then the worst case is that one's objectives were not achieved in the move, and the effort of purchase and moving was wasted.

Note the mention of precautions. Though we might imagine lightness as completely carefree, a generally prudent approach can assist with maintaining lightness long-term in both its manifestations. If one does not have the home inspected by a professional, for example, all manner of problems can become apparent later, creating financial and other burdens. The ideas explored in my earlier post Disproportionate Consequences are relevant to reducing the risk or severity of worst-case scenarios.

We also need to assess the extent to which a decision commits us irrevocably to a path; or viewed in the obverse, to identify our bailout options. Clearly, this most affects the "freedom to choose" element of lightness. In the home purchase example, if things do not work out as planned, we do not have to live there forever. Unless we are financially overextended (prudence again) we do not have to live there indefinitely.

The implications of managing the level of commitment of a decision are more complex. Of course, we should avoid closing doors when it is not essential to the value of a path. ln the context of lightness, it would seem that any sort of commitment reduces our freedom to choose. This is perhaps the most difficult tradeoff, because most values other than lightness itself require some level of commitment to be realized. In love, for example, the depth of a relationship is strongly related to the commitment (this is one of the themes explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). My earlier post Goal, Direction, or Journey? explores a way to reduce the weight of one's intentions while still enabling achievement. But this does not always work.

Finally, awareness and management of our own expectations will strongly affect the other element of lightness, our sense of burden. Despite our efforts (particularly for the engineers among us), optimal outcomes are rare, and both expecting and seeking them frequently generates disappointment. A general acceptance of suboptimal outcomes helps with this - not just recognizing it in particular decisions but as a part of life. Aiming for optimality gives any decision much greater weight: we feel that the consequences of an error are greater than they are.

Realistic and preferably rapid acknowledgement of negative conditions is also important to maintaining lightness. Though it may dampen one's mood in the moment, the habit of recognizing circumstances for what they are reduces the impact of disappointment later. I sometimes refer to this as the "blackjack 15" condition. When you are dealt fifteen in blackjack, you are probably going to lose the hand. You can still make the best decisions available to you, but in all likelihood you have lost. By recognizing this immediately, you reduce the weight of the decision. Crucially, though, the habit to gain here is not to always expect failure and attain lightness through victimhood; it is simply to be aware of whether particular decisions are likely to make a difference.

In essence, managing expectations toward lightness means moderating enthusiasm prior to realization of values, and recognizing likely losses early.

In important decisions, those who are inclined toward assiduity can use these techniques to manage lightness in the moment, for they tend to be overly concerned with the future; while those who are naturally carefree would do well to use them to maintain their lightness longer term.

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