What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

A student asked:

What’s the best decision you’ve ever made? And what’s the riskiest?

Interestingly, the best and riskiest decision I made were one and the same: the decision not to pursue Computer Engineering (something which I already knew back then I could do well in), but instead I chose to take the plunge into Philosophy in Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). It was quite risky and scary because I was always a science stream student, and writing essays were not my forte. In fact, I did very badly for every humanities-related subject I ever did back in school.

I switched from Computer Engineering to Philosophy because of my time in National Service, and because of the freelance work I did. I found that I really hated sitting in front of a computer writing code for hours to solve other people’s (or other business’s) problems. It felt very meaningless and boring to me.

I thought to myself that if university was going to be my last chance to study something, I should do something meaningful, and have my last shot at doing something I really like doing. Was I afraid of switching to FASS and doing badly? Yes, I was very afraid. And though I had people assuring me it would be ok, I was not given any guide of any sort. Nor did I have a plan or clue on how to survive or do well. But I took the plunge because I knew I didn’t want to do Computing anymore. So it was by far the riskiest decision I ever made.

Why was it the best? Because I enjoyed doing everything I did for the four years of my undergraduate days. It was tiring and I struggled a lot (even went hospital thrice in one year), but it was so worth it. I grew so much and my thinking matured so greatly in those four years.

A good example of all these can be seen in my writings, especially in the Q&A that I have written in response to your queries about a variety of matters. My ability to think clearly, and process issues in their complex nuances without oversimplification, and to present and reason my thoughts with you here in a systematic manner – these are the fruits of my education in Philosophy.

I am painfully aware of how I used to write before I studied Philosophy, and it would look very much like those obnoxious entries/comments you’d find on online platforms like NUSWhispers, where I’d pontificate based on my own feelings rather than clarifying it with reason and empirical support. I used to be that kind of person.

Philosophy changed me, and made me a much better person who could actually reason systematically about complex issues. So I’m very glad for that.

2014 Year-End Review (Part 2) – Don’t Stop Writing!

In Part 2 of my Year-End Review, I’d like to talk about the most important lesson that I learnt throughout the course of this year.

Some of you may know that I stopped blogging some time in the middle of 2013. That was the time when my previous blog grew very popular.

It attracted attention from certain groups of highly undesirable people. Several people (including acquaintances) reached out to me in the name of “developing” friendships (yeah, right…). They’d invite me out for lunch/dinner/tea or something so that we can “catch up,” when in reality, all they wanted was to benefit from the potential publicity that I could give. I don’t mind it if we did these kinds of things on a professional level (don’t mix personal matters with business). But it really disgusts me that people would deny it, and say that they are genuinely doing it for the sake of friendship. How do these people live with themselves? Are they content with such superficial friendships? Have they no shame in the way they conduct themselves?

It was the way these people did it, and the number of such people doing it that really overwhelmed me with great disgust. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally/emotionally prepared to handle so many disgusting and selfish people in such a short span of time.

Maybe… But the experience was so bad that one day I decided that I would stop blogging.

That was, by far, the worst decision of my life.

As I wrote this last sentence, I stopped typing for a while and thought deeply if I was exaggerating this claim. Looking back at every “bad” decision I made or regretted, I still would rank this as the single worst decision of my life ever. At least every other decision produced many learning insights.

When I stopped writing, I realised I lost a big part of myself. I seemed to have lost a deep connection of myself as the self-as-immersed-in-the-world. I realised that as soon as I stopped writing, I failed to give structure to my thoughts. They are scattered all over, disconnected one from the other.

Writing is very much like a meditative process for me. As I write, I focus on the idea developing word for word, and see it appear before my eyes on the screen. And every minute or so, I go back and review what has been written, and ponder deeply on it again and again. Does this make sense? Is it coherent? Could there have been a better way of expressing it?

This process of writing, forces me to meditate on the issue that I wish to discuss. It connects my deepest self – mind and heart – to the words on the screen. It links the thoughts in my head with the issues around me. Writing helps me to draw the connections between the scattered ideas in my mind, and when the dots are all connected, I gain insights into the matter.

This process cannot be replicated from speaking out loud, or simply from thinking to myself. A word, once uttered, is lost in the air. A thought, once entertained, fades away. I don’t have the words – critical feedback – appearing before my very eyes so that I can judge and evaluate each sentence, each word, in the context of its entirety.

What a big difference it makes to the way we think!

Not writing for months. That really affected me a lot. It got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, and so I decided to start a new blog – this blog – under a new name. A fresh start, so to speak. Unfortunately, as I had not been blogging when I transitioned from student to employee, I never developed a routine habit from the start for my writing activity. It has been difficult trying to write now that I’m working.

But I’m glad that I have those moments, every now and then, to retreat from life and work, to this little user interface on my screen, where I can pen my thoughts. These rare moments allow me to get in touch with myself and have a deeper understanding of moments and issues around me (and even of myself).

This idea of the importance in writing was further emphasized when a professor one day mentioned that the only way to develop one’s mind is to read a lot, discuss a lot, and most importantly, to write a lot. That resonated so deeply in me. I’ve been reading and discussing, but have been feeling a deep lack within for quite a while. Indeed, read, discuss and write. That is critical to one’s growth.

So yes, the big lesson of 2014 (at least for myself) is this: Don’t stop writing. Pick up your pen, or your keyboard, and write. Let the words flow, let your ideas develop. Don’t worry about perfection for perfection is an abstract ideal with no concrete parameters that will enable you to see that you have arrived at your destination. Just write, and write intimately so that you can hear yourself, and be deeply in touch with yourself.

Don’t stop writing!

The “Irrationality” of Decision Making

Here’s something interesting about making decisions – at the heart of the decisions we make, there’s some level of irrationality going on.

The best way to illustrate this is by using the example of Newcomb’s Paradox.

Imagine this scenario: There are two boxes – one transparent, and one opaque. You’re supposed to choose either (1) the opaque box OR (2) both boxes. The transparent box contains $1000. But we do not know how much money is inside the opaque box. Now, there’s this magical person known as The Predictor. The Predictor can predict with a 99.999999…% accuracy on which choice you’ll make. If he predicts that you’ll choose option (1), the opaque box, then he’ll put $1million in it, and you’ll get $1million. If he predicts that you’ll go with option (2), of taking both boxes, he’ll put nothing inside, and you’ll get only $1000 at the end of the day.

So will you choose to take only the opaque box or would you choose to take both boxes?

Chances are, if you chose to take the opaque box only, you’d think that people who chose to take both boxes are crazy. Since you’ll probably get $1million, why bother with two boxes where it’s highly likely that you’ll get only $1000?

Yet, those who think that it is perfectly rational to choose both boxes will think that it’s crazy to choose only one box and risk losing all of one’s money.

So who’s crazy and who’s rational?

Well, before I say anything more, I think it’s very very interesting that a study was conducted and people are generally split 50-50 over which option to choose from.

So back to the question: who’s crazy and who’s rational?

Well, if you chose to take only the opaque box, chances are you made your decision using the Expected Value principle. The expected value is calculated using the formula:

Expected Value = Expected Gain x Probability of Acquiring It

Using the Expected Value principle, there are four possible scenarios:

  1. Choose opaque box & $1m put: Get $1m. Expected value = $1m * 99.99…% = 999,999.999…
  2. Choose opaque box & nothing put: Get $0. Expected value = $0 * 0.000001 % = 0
  3. Choose both boxes & $1m put: Get $1.001m. Expected value = $1.001m * 0.0000001% = 0.00000001
  4. Choose both boxes & nothing put: $1000. Expected value = $1000 * 99.99…% = 999.9999…

From the above four scenarios, only scenario one yields the highest expected value. And so, it makes sense, from this point of view, that one ought to choose only the opaque box. This decision is well justified.

Yet, on the other hand, those who choose both boxes have a well-justified decision too. They are operating on the Dominance principle, or what I like to call, the kiasu (Singlish for ‘scared to lose’) principle.

Anyway, the Dominance principle weighs which decision will yield the best result in all possible cases.

There are four possible scenarios that we can construct:

  1. Choose 2 boxes & no money put: Get $1000 (Probability 100%)
  2. Choose 2 boxes & put $1m: Get $1.001million (Probability 0.0001%)
  3. Choose opaque box & no money put: Get $0, i.e. LOSE $1000 (Probability 0.0001%)
  4. Choose opaque box & money put in: Get $1.001million (Probability 99.999%)

In which case, choosing both boxes will yield the best result since:

  1. Choose both boxes and $1m put, get $1.001m > Choose only opaque box, get $1m
  2. Choose both boxes and nothing put, get $1000 > Choosing only opaque box, lose $1000.

From this perspective, it makes sense to choose two boxes instead of one.

The Newcomb’s Paradox is a paradox because in such a situation, people arrive at two different solutions, each justified with a different principle.

But what justifies the use of one principle? Or what justifies choosing one principle over the other?

At this level, reason begins to break down. The two principles above give weight and value to two completely different things. One places value on the expected value while the other places value on which choice yields the best outcomes in every foreseeable case.

But how do you justify which should be given greater weight? In most cases, attempts to justify one value over another already assumes the superiority (or inferiority) of one value. So that wouldn’t be a fair assessment. For example, if I say that it’s better to favour the best outcome in all possible cases rather than the expected value because I will always get some money at the end regardless of the outcome, then I’m implicitly already giving greater value to ‘the best outcome in all possible cases’.

For this reason, a sincere neutral assessment will not be able to answer which principle to choose. That’s why people are divided 50-50 over this issue. We can’t rationally justify why we ought to value one thing over the other.

This is where some level of “irrationality” comes in. We choose one principle over the other for non-rational reasons – gut feeling, our upbringing, our cultural/intellectual context, etc. These things shape us to develop a positive bias for one, and a negative bias for the other.

On the broader picture, we all value different things for different reasons. And even if we can agree that we value a set of things, people rank the things they value differently. I value quiet walks, while others may value loud parties.  I value philosophical discussions more than discussions on sports; while others may value discussions on sports more than philosophical discussions.

We may judge others as being worse than us for valuing some things more than we do. But, as I have mentioned earlier, such judgements are unfair judgements because we are judging them from the perspective of our own order of value. And yet, there really is no means for us to justify why one thing should be valued more than another without already assuming the superiority of one value. Why? Because of some level of irrationality going on in the background that makes us favour one value more than another.

So, the next time someone seems to have made an apparently irrational decision, if that person is capable of rationally justifying the decision – even if you still do not agree with it – that’s because we’re making our decisions while placing value on different things or value something more than others, and there’s really no way of properly justifying why we choose to value one thing over another because of non-rational factors.