how to be smart
January 4, 2009 3:56 AM   Subscribe

how do I become smarter in making the best decision when facing a new situation for the first time?


I would like some suggestions as to how I could become a smart person who can be decisive, and make good and snap (under time constraint) decisions when facing a new situation for the first time.

I have thought of the phase 'learning by mistakes' but this won't help me as there are always new problems and situations which I have never encountered before.

I am the type of person who when faced with a new difficult situation, would freeze and become useless and made stupid decisions. I would like to know how I could change myself from that.

This is my background:
I'm a 26 year old male. I have gone through university and graduated with a bachelors degree. My grades weren't great and I have failed a few papers. I am now working full time as an administrator (in the custody department) for a stockbroking firm (work experience approximately 3 years)

Any suggestions would be much appreciated

posted by thomasck to Education (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I think one of the simplest things you can do is to take things slowly. Making decisions too fast has a way of working out negatively. When a problem arises, don't just react, think about it first, try to figure out a couple of options with regards to your course of action, then pick one that seems to be most applicable.

Training yourself to see nuances can be crucial, as well. If you can understand more of the issue, you can make better decisions.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:15 AM on January 4, 2009

In my humble opinion, it is still experience that helps make better and faster decisions.

Obviously, all problems are unique -- otherwise, they are no longer problems, aren't they? But experience will help me understand a good portion of the issues involved, and help me make better and faster decisions. Of course, after that moment, you'd still have to follow through, and this is where slower and more complete thinking and attention-to-details helps.

In other words, don't be afraid to try, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. Nothing in the world is doomed because of one single wrong decision.
posted by applesurf at 5:31 AM on January 4, 2009

Ask lots and lots of questions and gather info. Over time, you'll see a pattern in the type of info that are most critical. Combined with just raw, accumulated time and a good win/loss record of your decisions, you'll get better if you are a normal human. Don't expect yourself to be a good decision maker right out of the chute, for heaven's sake. People don't usually get to be CEO until they mature and have a chance to develop judgment. It'll come.

Ghidorah is right, IMO, too. Speed is your enemy, not your friend. In my experience, smart is indicated by the quality of the questions, not the answers. Unless you are in a battlefield setting, an emergency room, or an accident scene, you can take time to assess the situation.

You might gain insight by reading about how others have done it. There are scores of thousands of books of 'war stories' in business, politics, war.
posted by FauxScot at 5:32 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions

I don't know exactly what kind of decisions you're making, but Klein did some research into people who had to make decisions with a lot of time pressure. He found that experience played a role. He also found that generally, when under time pressure, people do not figure out all the alternatives and pick the best one. He found that people under time pressure try one idea, visualize it, and if it works, they go with it. If it doesn't work, they discard it.

He said that the best under pressure decision makers were people with good imaginations/visualization skills.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:13 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

FauxScot is a absolutely correct.

1- Define the problem by determining the root cause. What actually IS the problem?

2- Define the constraints. When does it need to be done by? How little must we spend? What can't we move? What options will cause harm?

3- Gather relevant information.

4- Where applicable, remove all emotion and only think rationally. You can't go back in time, for example. So worrying about what could have been done is a waste of time.

5- Test solutions- as simple as playing things out in your imagination and looking for pitfalls.

5- Once that's done, the best decision is usually obvious. Or at least a good decision is. The BEST decision comes from experience and broadness of thought.

(6- Depending on the scenario, do a post mortem on the decision. Were there ways to have identified the problem before the constraints became a burden?)

Poor decision making is failing to do one or all of these steps.

This can be done in seconds, or years, depending on the situation. Sometimes there are better solutions available that are contraindicated by the time available. If I'm having a heart attack, I really don't have time to eat better and get more exercise. If the car is racing out of control and the accelerator is stuck, it doesn't matter why- the root cause of this particular momentary problem is that the engine is racing- just turn the engine off.
posted by gjc at 6:53 AM on January 4, 2009

A few tricks:

I try to anticipate (or yes: visualize) what's coming. Most new situations aren't really new, it is just that we didn't see them coming. This can be systematically trained (plus it trains you not to shy away from decision making as a whole. Candid - but not abrasive - self-evaluation may do the trick here too).

I try to make myself accept situations as they actually are. As opposed to thinking 'I wish I wouldn't have to do this now' (a common manner of thinking that accounts for a large deal of people's inertia). Sometimes I fail completely, but the next time around, I'm already doing much better.

I train my sensitivity for when real big stuff comes along. Even things that happen to me personally. If I get this feeling of 'okay, this is not a routine issue', I force myself into a relax-and watch-mode, including watching my own reactions. Deciding becomes much easier if you're not awestruck, frantic, trying-to-do-well, etc. but watchful and calm.
posted by Namlit at 6:58 AM on January 4, 2009

On the personal level: Know yourself and what you want. Every decision opportunity will flow from that. Like spicy food? Then you know where to eat when someone asks "Where do you want to go to eat?"

On the professional level: Know your job. What does an administer in the custody department for a stockbroking firm DO? Boil it down to a sentence i.e. "my job is to keep the company servers running 24/7" Then every time a decision must be made, test the answers against how it impacts keeping the company servers running 24/7.

My grades weren't great and I have failed a few papers.

Stop wallowing in self pity, it doesn't help. It doesn't matter that you failed per se, but rather what you learned from that failure and what steps you've taken to prevent it in the future. Some of the most important lessons I learned in college came from failed assignments.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:12 AM on January 4, 2009

The fact that you are inquiring with others indicates you already make good decisions. Perhaps it is the outcome of the decision that you aren't satisfied with. That's a matter of acceptance and realizing you're not always in control.

Regarding the decision making process itself. I find it very useful to ask "how much time do we have?" and respond with a specific time / day / date in which this will be delivered. I often repeat the question and try to weed out any if/and/but. I'll also note the means in which the answer will be delivered --and to whom.

This may seem too formal for fairly routine items but you can modify it for various purposes.
posted by ezekieldas at 8:22 AM on January 4, 2009

It probably sounds trite, but have you considered taking up a competitive game or sport or multiplayer video game where much of the challenge is mental, the difficulty is speed, and you are constantly forced to make snap decisions and evaluations in order to win, and then compete at that game until you play at a reasonably high level?

In my experience, the snap analytical skills you get from this won't apply directly to your real-world decision making, but you'll gain ability to keep a cool head and function crisply under high pressure at high speed.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2009

Not surprisingly, the US military has put some thought into this problem. You might benefit from the ways the military teaches people to make good snap decisions. I don't know much about their approach, but you could start with the OODA Loop.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:06 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

You shouldn't make "snap" decisions. Few situations are so dire that you cannot take at least some time (minutes? an hour?) to consider the options. If a situation is that dire, it probably involves physical danger and then the only thing to do is get yourself and others out of danger before making any other decision. So first thing to learn to do is to say, "I'll get back to you." Don't let people force you into unconsidered decisions.

So, that said, two analogies occurred to me. The first is the first aid mantra "Check Call Care." Really, this is just a way to analyze a situation. First step is Check to see if there is any imminent danger. This could mean physical danger, but it could also mean, will this situation deteriorate rapidly if I don't do something immediately. If you must do something immediately, do that. If it's that dire, the nature of the action ought to be fairly obvious. Next step is Call. In First Aid, this means call 911. In our non-injury analog, you are now considering "who can help, and how can I reach them." Third step is Care. This is your direct action to remedy the immediate situation, but it isn't a final resolution. It is only getting the situation stabilized. Once the situation is stabilized, you can move on to a more considered decision-making process.

So that brings me to the second analogy, the classic problem solving matrix of a SWOT analysis. Consider the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats that any given scenario presents. Link is just a google search of SWOT matrix. It's a terrific tool for getting your thinking in order on a specific problem.
posted by nax at 9:43 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any time someone is pressuring you to make a decision "NOW NOW NOW!" and the reality is that the decision could be delayed or that the deadline is arbitrary, consider if they are, for their own advantage, attempting to prevent you from thinking about the situation.

Any time a superior tells you that "this how how the world works" in some friendly chat describing how you will come to wisdom as you get older, compare it to every other friendly chat you've had with some other supervisor in some other country about how the world works. If discrepancies exist, that may tell you something.

Whenever something does not go according to plan, in whatever wrap-up memo or email you send out, put in a section called "Lessons Learned." It's a good way to stimulate humility and growth in decision-making.
posted by adipocere at 9:44 AM on January 4, 2009

I've had similar problems in the past. This is what I did

Anticipate - if you have to, learn how or ask others who tend to know/decide what comes up in the future. Start thinking about it. I try to put aside 2-3 hours a week for this, sometimes while driving or between other tasks.

Delay - if a major decision needs to be made now, and you didn't have any time to think about it prior, try to delay and think it through. Even 20 seconds can prove vital.

Look back, and learn - after everything is over, figure out what went wrong and what should/should not be done next time. That list is helpful for you personally, and in my case with team projects most of the team finds it useful too (just be fair so you don't offend anyone).

Good luck. I agree experience really is the only way to improve, but these things help.
posted by rmathew1 at 1:27 PM on January 4, 2009

The smartest person I know is a former university-mate of mine, who annoyed the crap out of his teachers by asking question after question after question. Like they say, the smarter you get, the more you realise that you know very littleā€¦ or something to that effect.
posted by vincentv at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2009

It's hard to say how to make smart decisions. Sometimes making decisions is sometimes better left to the gut feelings, other times some contemplation is needed. It's a very, very complicated problem. Something that tends to be forgotten is that NOT making a decision - is making a decision as well.

Our brains and our bodies are not designed to make good decisions in a modern world. Our physical survival is rarely at stake in this world we live in now, however our decision making process is still very much rooted in the survival instincts that we all have. Fight or flight, etc. I'm fairly sure that we've reached the limits good decision making in say, driving.

Driving is a very complicated task and it's taken for granted all the time - biologically we weren't built to be making decisions at 70mph in heavy traffic. We make mistakes in driving all the time, but the bad decisions that are written off as accidents have serious consequences. And because driving is such a common activity, our normal emotional protection mechanism our short circuited. This is just one example of how we aren't built to make good decisions.

If you would like to investigate this more here's a couple of resources for you:

RadioLab - episode on decision making.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less - Barry Schwartz
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions - Dan Ariely
The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World - Tim Harford
On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not - Robert Burton
Malcom Gladwell also has a few books that in a roundabout way discuss this as well.
posted by bigmusic at 5:33 PM on January 4, 2009

Basically I am looking at ways I could train myself up so that I could approach any situations with full confidence that I have approached them in the right way and provide the best solutions to the problems.

The 'problems' I mention here do not point to anything in particular. I could say that I probably want to know how smart people can make good decision and why they approach certain situation differently.

I have read all your replies. They are very helpful. Thanks for your help. Hopefully I will become a smarter person.
posted by thomasck at 8:48 PM on January 4, 2009

Read some of the material at Overcoming Bias, especially Eliezer's early "how to be a good little Baysian reasoner" posts. Also look at a book called Judgment in Managerial Decision-Making (I think that's the title -- something like that -- google will get you close enough) by Max Bazerman.
posted by paultopia at 11:42 PM on January 4, 2009

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