Monday, January 16, 2012

Making the right choices.

“What do you wish for in 2012?” I was asked by someone at a New Year’s Eve social gathering. I was tempted to respond with “That all my wishes will come true”, but then gave it some more deserved thought.

“That all my choices in the coming year prove to be the correct ones”, I replied. And that’s my wish for you as well. The daily choices we make, from the smallest to the biggest, shape who we are and can create happiness or severe discontent both in the immediate and the future. It is quite astounding how many times we will make choices based on knee jerk responses, instinct and emotion. Yet with a little practice and a smidgen of patience, we can ensure that our choices become far more appropriate and productive.

The first tool is reflection. This is more than giving greater thought to each choice, although it is that too. I have made reflection something of a hobby these last few years, but must concede that I am not applying it nearly appropriately enough. I tend to wallow in nostalgia and meander in the hall-ways of the past, sometimes very dark and at other times pleasant and uplifting. But the real value of reflection lies in reviewing the choices we made in those events, their outcomes and how we could have responded differently. It is simply a technique of learning from past mistakes and improving knowledge of the self, which is the most important knowledge of all. We are seldom in control of what happens to us, but we are always in control of how we respond to it.

More important than reflection, but linked to it is patience. A decision postponed to allow for greater reflection leads to a more appropriate and positive outcome. It has been the wisdom of ages, a cornerstone of sound economics for several centuries, and a basic tenet of financial security and saving. I am reminded again of a previous quote by Adam Smith when he praised as one of the most useful attributes to have “self-command, by which we are enabled to abstain from present pleasure…to obtain a greater pleasure in some future time”.

Yet it is one that we regularly get wrong, and seemingly more so these days than in previous generations. Impatience, immediate self-gratification, imprudence, and short-termism have been a growing feature, if not the main driving force of our economic life since the mid-seventies. There is a very credible argument that says that this, more than anything else has caused the economic quagmire we are in today, having led to rampant greed, the financial crisis, greater debt, our cappuccino economies and wealth disparities. The price we have had to pay for impatience has been dealt with in a previous article.

Why are we so prepared to ignore the wisdom of ages? The answer must be found in the third, and perhaps most important dimension of choice: that of intent. It must surely drive everything we do, all the actions we take and all the choices we make. A closer examination of intent is essential to assess the validity of any choice. It seems as if this is painfully obvious, but surprisingly few of us are fully aware of our deepest intentions and misguided motives are more often than not the real source of bad choices. It is only when we re-examine our intent that we fully grasp the inappropriateness of many of the choices we make.

Intent lies at our deepest desire. Our choices may be based on many motives, goals and purpose, but it is only when asking “why” makes no further sense that we have peeled away the layers of the onion to reveal the inner core of intent. Let’s use an example: someone does something and when asked why, he responds: “to make money”.

“Why do you want to make money”?

“For financial security.”

“Why do you want security?”

“For peace and contentment.”

At this point, any further “why” is silly and superfluous. I may have removed a layer or two, but eventually the outcome is most likely to be the same. And it can be logically argued that for all, if not most human beings, intent will reflect a desire for sustainable peace and contentment.

So the simple question to ask is whether the choices we have made both at an individual and communal level have enhanced human peace and contentment over the years, or have they detracted from it. Empirical research confirms the latter. Motives behind the choices we make seem to be totally at odds with achieving our deepest intent.

The solution is quite simple. All motives are defined from two perspectives: a raw immediate self-interest or a desire to contribute; taking or giving; malevolence or benevolence. There are many shades of grey between them – giving to get, getting to give, meaning or means, unconditional altruism, or legitimate rules of transaction. But each gives the opportunity of tipping the balance towards contribution.

Our grand flirtation with the unbridled material self-interest hypothesis has clearly failed to achieve what we as humans desire most. There’s been much talk in recent years about the demise of capitalism and the need to find new economic models. Some of it is based on the false premise that free enterprise is best driven by selfishness, greed, consumption and acquisition. Any model or system builds in automatic failure if it does not re-examine its ultimate intent and the most appropriate behaviour that will achieve that. Ultimately we have to change the context of economics and redefine its true purpose. The resultant change in behaviour will give rise to system changes and new models.

Our capacity to make a contribution to others is not only where our true value lies, it is also the best way of achieving personal contentment.

Together with reflection and patience, it is the perfect guide to sensible choices.

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