At the time of writing this, it is almost past the deadline for sending in my column. The dreaded writer’s block has struck.
I’ve been undecided about theme. The ideas that have occurred to me all seem fluffy. Until it crosses my mind that my editor Zara Murao had asked me as early as last week whether I might want to write a column on how to get the best advice out of people.
This was just the advice I needed at a time like this. It came from the right person; the editor of this section. This offers the perfect segue into my piece on advice too.
It turns out that the trigger for my editor’s advice was a line by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best-selling book The Black Swan (2007), Gigerenzer is quoted as saying: “Never ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your place. You would be surprised at the difference.”
“What should I do” is a question that invokes ideals. “What would you do in my place” prompts advice that is more tangible and achievable. It’s a question that encourages a shift from clinical outlook to humanistic empathy.
This isn’t just true of medicine. I’ve seen it play out in my career as a business journalist.
I have routinely heard the finest business analysts speak derisively about the idea of buying stocks in certain publicly listed companies, for instance. Ask a question framed along the lines of Gigerenzer’s advice, and their answers instantly take on a different tone.
A query such as, “If you were in my place, would you exit the company’s stock?” sparks lists of powerful reasons to stay invested.
As important as the questions we ask others, are the questions we ask ourselves.
In an interesting full-circle event, my colleague NS Ramnath spent time with Gigerenzer when the latter was in India a few years ago. They had a compelling conversation on the process of decision-making.
One of the fascinating pointers that emerged from Gigerenzer then was this: “There is a big difference between risk and uncertainty. You are dealing with risk when you know all the alternatives, outcomes and their probabilities. You are dealing with uncertainty when you don’t know all the alternatives, outcomes or their probabilities.”
We know this; when investing, planning a trip, accepting a new job. There are the risks we know of, and assess. And there is the chance of the x factor: a natural calamity, unexpected downturn. Whether these will occur, how and when they will, is uncertain. How, then, does one decide?
This is a theme Gigernezer has given much thought to. Early in his career, he had to decide whether to continue with music or plunge into academia. The former was more likely to make him famous and wealthy (he was an up-and-coming jazz musician), while with the latter would likely mean years spent working in obscurity. One way to arrive at a decision was to deploy moral algebra.
This pros-and-cons approach was used by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century polymath and founding father of the United States. In his autobiography, released in 1887, naturalist Charles Darwin wrote about his use of moral algebra. When he needed to decide whether or not to marry, Darwin says he made a list of the pros and cons. Among the pros, he listed “having a companion”, “having children”, and “having someone to take care of me when I’m old”. The cons included “losing my freedom”, “having to spend time with relatives”, and “having to give up my scientific work”. After assigning a numerical value to each, it turned out the pros won out. He married Emma Wedgwood, a decision neither appears to have regretted.
There is a catch. Gigerenzer says his research indicates that this formula does not work for most people, most of the time. Because few can accurately ascribe values to each pro and con in a way that accurately represents their hopes and fears. Without fixed, assigned values, the algebra falters.
Where does one turn then? Gigerenzer is among those who recommend listening to your “gut”. Why? Click here for more on the prehistoric origins and the science of intuition, and its role in the intangible cocktail of benefits that we call luck.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)