Book Review | Avani Jain | Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson
The hardest choices are also the most consequential. So why do we know so little about how to get them right?
Big, life-altering decisions matter so much more than the decisions we make every day, and they’re also the most difficult: where to live, whom to marry, what to believe, whether to start a company, how to end a war. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for addressing these kinds of conundrums.
Steven Johnson’s classic Where Good Ideas Come From inspired creative people all over the world with new ways of thinking about innovation. In Farsighted, he uncovers powerful tools for honing the important skill of complex decision-making. While you can’t model a once-in-a-lifetime choice, you can model the deliberative tactics of expert decision-makers. These experts aren’t just the master strategists running major companies or negotiating high-level diplomacy. They’re the novelists who draw out the complexity of their characters’ inner lives, the city officials who secure long-term water supplies, and the scientists who reckon with future challenges most of us haven’t even imagined. The smartest decision-makers don’t go with their guts. Their success relies on having a future-oriented approach and the ability to consider all their options in a creative, productive way.
Through compelling stories that reveal surprising insights, Johnson explains how we can most effectively approach the choices that can chart the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. Farsighted will help you imagine your possible futures and appreciate the subtle intelligence of the choices that shaped our broader social history.
Science writer Johnson (Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World) looks at decision-making, on both the individual and collective level, persuasively arguing that it should be approached not intuitively, but deliberately, rationally, and even scientifically. A wise decision-maker, he believes, should engage in “full-spectrum mapping” of the alternatives at hand. As an example of a collective decision, he returns repeatedly to the painstaking process by which the Obama administration concluded that Osama bin Laden was holed up in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and chose to storm that house. Johnson is particularly interesting on some of the momentous collective decisions facing humanity today, such as whether to make superintelligent machines that might ultimately outsmart their creators. Regarding individual decisions, one should build mental models of the repercussions, both for oneself and for others. Johnson also observes how great literature, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, helps readers broaden their emotional frame of reference and develop understanding and empathy for the sensibilities of others. Johnson is a succinct, colorful, and skillful writer, and this book is one of those rare works that is highly relevant to the daily functioning of just about everybody.
I am a big fan of Steven Johnson and was really excited to see he was digging into decision making. The first three chapters are 5 stars and typical of Johnson’s excellent story telling. Those chapters detail the process of long term decision making 1. Mapping 2. Predicting 3. Deciding. They come to life with stories of major decisions (Bin Laden raid, Collect Pond). The book kind of falls apart on the back 9. Johnson tries to show how to use these techniques in different decisions. He goes super macro about decision related to climate change and alien life, then he goes micro about his family moving across the country. There’s a gulf of decisions in between those two extremes. The book finishes with a summary of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and a big call to action to read literary fiction to help your decision making. Sure it was interesting but the connection to the decision making process was tenuous.
Read the first three chapters, skim or drop the last two.
Edit: I took Johnson’s advice on reading literary fiction with an eye toward improving decision making and I can see literary fiction is an excellent way to simulate difficult decisions. But those chapters in this book still were not as interesting as the first 3 chapters of this book.