THE BLOG
02/05/2013 08:32 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Make Better Decisions by Ignoring Three 19th-Century Philosophers

Every day, both in life and at work, people make wrong decisions that could have been avoided. Or they make right decisions, but lack the confidence that lets them do away with stress and proceed with vigor. Are these inalterable facts of life, or is there a remedy?

There is a time-tested remedy unique to we human beings that, however, is not used enough: Seek personalized advice from your network of family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even strangers. Personalized advice, when artfully sought, helps you make better decisions with greater confidence.

Why is this so? I learned long ago in graduate school in science that no matter how smart or experienced you are about a topic, somebody else is smarter or more experienced than you, with very few exceptions! Students are expected to build upon the knowledge contained in books and to consult their formal advisors, and the results are very good. Just consider all that American graduate schools have accomplished, especially in science where this culture is the norm. So your task is not to be the smartest person in the building, but to leverage the world's knowledge to help accomplish whatever you undertake.

At this point, readers may see all this as blindingly obvious. But observe the decisions that are made all around you, and reflect on mistaken -- but avoidably so -- decisions in your past. (If you have none, you're exceptional.) Also consider viewpoints like that of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his 1854 book Walden, "I have lived some 30 years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors." Or consider Thoreau's contemporary soulmate Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his 1841 essay "Self Reliance" nuggets like, "Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right," and, "Insist on yourself; never imitate." Emerson and Thoreau may be 19th century but aren't forgotten; their extreme self-reliance has been highly influential and often taught in U.S. high schools. Other cultures are similar; just consider this from the famed 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "Whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of others pays them too much honor."

Writings like these are just one of the deep causes of the tendency to go it alone while making important decisions. My research has uncovered 28 reasons, which I've grouped into intellectual, emotional, social, and biological reasons. Another cause is the lack of parental or teacher training. Parents raise their children to express regret when causing harm and to give thanks when accepting help. But very few parents teach their children this: If you face an important problem or issue, ask yourself if you have the knowledge and experience to deal with it, and if not, who does and can help. I've given a number of talks where I've asked the audience if their parents taught this. Only one hand has gone up, during a recent talk for MBA students at the famed pan-European Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. (I told the hand raiser that I wanted to meet his parents.)

All of these deeper causes of the tendency to go it alone in decision making give rise to a very common immediate cause: People just don't think of going out to get personalized advice. It doesn't occur to them. To change this, one has to develop the habit of asking oneself the above question: Do I have the knowledge...?

There is much more to learn about why and how to become a skillful advice-seeker. Let me point out one emerging factor that is a real obstacle: the increasing tendency to rely on technology and hyper-connectivity as the source of external knowledge. The web is a fantastic invention -- I co-founded in 2000 a Pittsburgh company, Vivisimo, that made a name in search engine technology and was acquired by IBM in 2012 -- and has diffused vast knowledge cheaply and easily. However, the knowledge found in books and the web isn't advice, which depends critically on one's circumstances and goals. Book knowledge offers not advice but principles, examples, and inspiring stories. Good advice takes account of your situation, and in the light of principles and experience, offers counsel as to the right way forward.

The best way -- for social, emotional, and other reasons -- to get advice is via a personalized, face-to-face interaction, not mediated by technology, where a good advisor first listens to one's circumstances and goals and then recommends decision options, aspects of the problem one hasn't considered, and other sources to consult, and instills confidence and deepens social engagement with the advisee. Technology-mediated interaction doesn't lend itself to this kind of patient listening, understanding, empathy, and engagement.

For more by Raul Valdes-Perez, click here.

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