Decisions are Made Alone

One way to irritate writers is to ask them what they are working on next. But somehow I heard myself ask this in an airport lounge when I bumped into a British historian, even though I liked him. He looked pained, but that was only because he wanted to answer the question earnestly, and it had evoked a private misery. He was torn between some options and was undecided between a book, podcast, or documentary. He had to pick one because only amateurs do too many things at once. A professional has to bet on the best path. Every decision he makes would cost him months, even years, at the expense of other pursuits. Then he said something intriguing. He said he couldn’t decide and there was nobody he could turn to. “Nobody can help you,” he said. He pointed to his wife who was sitting right next to him. Even she won’t be able to help, he said. She can only listen, take in the facts, but the decision has to be his and he had been in its throes for weeks. She, as is often the case with wives, was not surprised. She had heard it before and probably agreed.

This is a pleasant successful man with his own tribe of peers, friends and a loving home. Yet, he is alone when he has to make crucial decisions. That is the nature of decisions.

This is true not only of major decisions. Actually, major decisions have disproportionate grandeur because they are ‘major.’ Most people have to make a major decision very few times in their lives, if ever. I, for instance, have never had to make a ‘major’ decision. I have been seriously wrong about one or two important things, but I did not get there by deciding—I got there by being certain. I suspect that when people look back at their lives, some of the decisions they had once considered ‘major’ may not be major at all. Life is filled with a series of small decisions, some of which can have an outsized impact.

When I set out to write a novel, it was not after a major decision. It was a mere inevitability. But once I began, the first shock was how many decisions I had to make. Should the narration be in first person, what should be the voice, should the lead character do this or that, should bad things happen to the main character, should it all be happy and well? All minor decisions, by the standards of decisions, but some of them turned out to be crucial, not only to a page or the tone or the novel, but to my life.

Eventually, opinions on the manuscript come from a friend, agents and professional editors, all voices that attempt to influence a decision. Even considering the quality and intelligence of those opinions and advice, I feel that the actual decision-making process was almost entirely lonely. You may say that writing is a lonely profession anyway and it is not surprising that such decisions do not involve the company of others. But I see that this is true in all professions, including managerial situations. There appears to be a swarm of advisors, but they are peripheral to the actual decision taken. In the end, decisions are made alone.

Gregarious people, or normal people who have a circle of friends and family, may find this confusing. They have a community and accept that some people are very important to them. So it appears logical to seek the advice of those who matter to them when they must make decisions. But it never helps. An odd thing about human relations is that odd combinations are forced upon them. For instance, parents are expected to be coaches and a person we love is expected to get naked with us. Far more absurd is that people who are close to us must be able to make decisions for us.

But people cannot help. This is chiefly because we do not share complete information with anyone. We never say entirely what we want, what we need the most and the hierarchy of values we secretly hold. Yet, most people allow others to make decisions for them. It is an act of love, even an obligation of love.

In 2011, Australian cricketer Greg Chappell released his memoirs, Fierce Focus, which included an account of his disastrous stint as India’s coach. In the book, Chappell presents his view of Sourav Ganguly, the Indian captain at the time: “His problem was common in India, where the cultural upbringing of such young stars had it that parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors, managers and even sponsors, would make their decisions for them.”

It is not as though experts can alter the solitary nature of decision-making. But a whole industry of experts has risen to influence decisions. The most harmful thing about a successful person is that he begins to emit advice. Stripped of all the frills, the advice industry has one common theme: a person saying, ‘Why can’t you be like me?’ Experts advise on decision-making itself. Now and then, a new material arrives in the advice podcast market on how to be a good manager by making “swift decisions,” and I begin to see some people around me suddenly not spending too much time deciding which hotel to book or which airline to take. Other weeks, I see people taking their time, and explaining that being indecisive is smart. I then know that new material has come in that celebrates indecision.

Most people are not trained to be alone physically, therefore they are not trained to be alone mentally. I do feel that almost everyone has a conversation with the self, but very few know how to argue with themselves. And the only way to make decisions is to argue with oneself and be acutely aware of all the forces influencing us, especially the shameful and petty ones.

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