What is Your Default Setting?

01/01/2018 04:48 pm ET

While we may not realize it, a mix of natural tendencies, social norms and codes of conduct give us an almost algorithmic framework to how we make decisions. Add in our natural risk aversion, which has been formed by millennia of falling prey to saber-toothed tigers (or believing one is lurking around the bend), understanding how we are hardcoded to make or avoid decisions, ironically will help us make better choices. What better time to confront this dilemma than at the cusp of a New Year, when so many possibilities may be missed by our deep-seated apprehensions and decision-avoidance biases.

If life is nothing more than the sum of our experiences and time is at once our most precious and scarcest asset, reevaluating our default setting can profoundly change the way we experience the world and how the world responds to us. Far too many people are hardcoded to no or maybe as their default setting. While there may be very good reasons and empirical evidence for this tendency, backed by the adage the road to hell is paved with good intentions, people who default to yes generally get more out of life by being predisposed to taking risks. In a decision tree, yes creates new branches and growth, while the negative choices prune them back. This is something we can not only overcome, but master. Doing so consistently, as if by second nature, makes us protagonists rather than bystanders.

My default setting is yes. While occasionally this may lead me to some degree of regret or “buyer’s remorse,” defaulting to yes has opened many more doors and possibilities than the alternative. Saying yes more often than not is the equivalent of pulling on the string of life unraveling it to see where it takes us. A yes alone, however, may not take you very far if it is borne out of fear of missing out (FOMO) or insincere. If you say yes to something it is critical to be authentic, consistent and to do what you committed to. The difference between a Rolex and a replica after all is consistency.

Naturally there is a risk that you may be taken advantage of by defaulting to yes. However, saying yes, especially after an experience proves to be negative, does not preclude you from returning to negative options at a later stage. Defaulting to yes in the end is about engagement and having doors and opportunities open that would otherwise not be available to you by remaining on the sidelines. If your hardcoded setting is no or, worse yet, you are plagued by the anxious ambivalence of maybe, you have trained people not to bother with you. Besides, when you can say yes, you are in effect in control of your choices by being sought after and given the choice in the first place.

My friend, Guy Spier, who is a legendary value investor, writes about this theme in his book, The Education of a Value Investor. In it he describes another facet of serendipity, through his incessant hand written thank you notes, which he delivered to everyone and anyone who paid him a kindness no matter how small. Over time, Guy realized that the sum of these notes was like having a lottery ticket to serendipity, which without that ticket (the equivalent of saying yes), whatever was supposed to happen cannot if you are not participating.

What is the value of negative options in the latticework where we default our life choices? Negative options should come later in your decision-making process, however they should not be your default setting. After all, how can you be open to possibilities or new experiences if your first answer is negative or ambivalent at best? The best place for a negative choice should come in cases where a prior yes proved invaluable or where a yes would strain your authenticity, resources or capabilities. Rethinking how we make yay or nay decisions in the end is about changing our outlook to possibilities, which is a skillset we cannot learn fast enough given our rapidly changing world.

In a world where the future is being defined for us by technology, constant change, automation and wildly shifting pathways, a default setting of yes can give us the right experiences and knowledge of reinvention that are required today. A well-placed yes can change the arc of your life and career by exposing you to serendipity and exposing others to what makes you unique. Having experienced this firsthand, the sum of the yeses can take you to surprisingly new places. Although at the beginning of this journey the destination is imperceptible and all you have to take with you is your goodwill.

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