Why things are never equal


The biggest lie I frequently hear is when someone says for all intents and purposes, every option has pros and cons and they can be considered equal when you weigh everything. This really can never be the case.

You see this kind of thinking and philosophy everywhere. Let’s take the case of universities with degree programs or high schools that say every elective course of study is considered equal for the purposes of graduation. Yes, for graduation the credit you earn might be the same and equal between the two courses, but if you start thinking about outcomes things are vastly different, let’s compare these two (real) courses

If you look at the first course, it is kind of clear that ML and AI will be some of the most important technologies that will reshape the world and our collective future. A good argument can be found in the book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari‘ where Yuval says that there will be a society where people build AI to take over all the other jobs that do exist.

Now let’s compare that with the other course on tea ceremonies. I agree tea ceremonies are intrinsically interesting from the perspective of preserving cultural norms and the invaluable lessons that can be learned from the ceremony itself that are applicable to modern life now and in the future. However, will that course by itself significantly alter the direction of the person’s life and or impact them in the future like the other course on AI? I think it is pretty clear that it won’t.

Given this kind of wide variation between the two courses (forgive the pun) of action here, why does society tend to behave as if they both are equally important? They clearly are not. In fact, college courses should come with a warning on the label just like a cigarette pack does. ‘Taking this course might not help your career as much compared to other courses available’.

These kinds of examples are everywhere, buying things (car, house), long-term life choices (like career, spouse etc). On the face of it it looks like superficially they are the same, but objectively they are not.

Now, we might argue that some of this is only because the information is only known about the choice much later, and therefore since we can’t predict the future, it is simply wrong to talk about bad decision-making under those circumstances. I concede that, but my main point is that we are talking about choices where reasonable information is fully widely available and understood. Even in those cases, treating options are really options when in reality they are not is catastrophic. A cascade of tiny bad decisions over time will lead to a lifetime of weaker optionality.

Even though the example was from education, this is very true in business decision-making. Every moment you live and survive as a business you have choices on what to do, what to prioritize, and what risks to take. Even not acting is a choice. Even though many times and through many countless PowerPoint decks on decision making there are neat tables on the Pros and Cons of each decision and every choice we make, in reality making one choice will lead to really outsized outcomes.

This is where you need sufficient information to make decisions, especially about what outcomes will matter in the end. Note that you cannot wait till you have perfect information in which case it is already too late. You will need sufficient and just enough information to act judiciously.

Might be good to re-read Robert Frost here:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Think hard and choose when you come to these forks along the road, as not all paths leads to the same places.

PS: I have nothing against a tea ceremony, in fact, I love and adore the entire Japanese philosophy of life (including Kaizen which is Japanese)

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