Some people rely on evidence, instead of personal experience, to make big, important decisions. But guest contributor Mark Ford, does otherwise. He thinks gut instincts – not facts and figures – can help you make tough decisions easy. And here’s how he does it.
Rely on this to make smarter decisions – it’s not what you think
By Mark Ford
Several years ago, a professor of philosophy introduced me to an idea I have used to clarify my thinking and make the right business decisions time and again.
We were having lunch, and the conversation turned to Nietzsche, the German philosopher and poet. What Nietzsche had to say about “information” intrigued me. According to the professor, he predicted that, with the advent of information technology in the 21st century, secondary knowledge (what we learn from studies, books, newspaper accounts, etc.) would eventually replace experience as the basis of judgment.
I had never given much thought to the distinction between primary and secondary knowledge. Many of the opinions I held—on topics ranging from global warming to national politics—were based on what I had read, not experienced firsthand.
Since then, I have paid closer attention to the origins of my ideas and the ideas of others. And I am convinced that Nietzsche was right. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that his prediction has already come true.
And this presents both a danger and an opportunity.
What’s Wrong With the Way People Think Today
These days, most people, most of the time, would rather act on the basis of theoretical knowledge (Nietzsche called it “wissen”) than on what they know from personal experience (Nietzsche called this “erfahrung”).
Let me give you an example…
I know from experience that when I invest in a business that I know little or nothing about, I lose money. Yet, I can talk myself into making such an investment if I see a business plan that has outstanding numbers, superb credentials, and solid testimonials. I put aside the knowledge that is in my bones in favor of the facts and figures in my head.
There is so much information to deal with. Every day, we get more. And often it confirms our own experiences.
But sometimes, the facts contradict our experience.
When secondary information contradicts our personal experience, we have trained ourselves to ignore our experience. “I must have incomplete knowledge of this,” we tell ourselves. “My experience is obviously not typical.”
Instead of using our experience to judge the validity of facts and figures (which can be rigged to “say” pretty much anything), we judge the validity of our own experience by them.
It’s really remarkable. We know how easy it is to manufacture information. And we also know that some people will do almost anything to get what they want. Yet many of us never make the connection between the corruptibility of man and the corruptibility of facts.
And when I think about bad decisions I’ve made in business, it is most often a case of my having favored facts over experience.
What You Can Do to Make Smart Decisions Most of the Time
I’m not saying you should ignore secondary knowledge. Sometimes, you just have to make decisions without the benefit of experience. But when it comes to making important personal or financial decisions—the kind that can cost you plenty if you’re wrong—trust your bones.
Here’s something you can do the next time you are overwhelmed by the thought of making an important decision.
Take a piece of paper and fold it in half vertically. On one side, write down everything you know from experience. On the other side, write down the facts and figures you’ve been told. Then do this: Tear the page in half (vertically) and toss all those facts and figures in the garbage. You’ll then have everything you need to know to make the right decision.
Will you ever miss out on a great opportunity? Possibly. But my experience tells me you’ll go broke a hundred times before you succeed at something you have no experience in.