Our decisions, and the actions they lead to, make us who we are. In that sense, decisions are fundamental to our identities, our humanity and even the future of our planet. But what is a good decision and how do we get great at making them? I want to share with you my answers to these questions in the form of my proposal to participate in Freakonomics podcast’s Peak project.
“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.” – Malcolm Gladwell
What do you think?
Dear Mr. Dubner,
The recent Freakonomics Radio episode “How to Become Great at Just About Anything,” on the power of deliberate practice, following popularization of the “10,000 hour rule” in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers, led me to wonder: is decision-making an improvable skill like piano playing? Will the right kind of practice, “deliberate practice”, make me an expert? I propose to design and execute a program of deliberate practice to become a great decision-maker.
I’ve always thought myself, and been told by helpful colleagues, friends and family, that I am decision-challenged. I’m subject to bouts of analysis-paralysis and second-guessing that are not just annoying to myself and those around me but could also impair my effectiveness as an entrepreneur, educator and parent. That’s why I’ve been teaching, studying and blogging about decision science and behavioral economics: so that I can get better at making decisions.
Furthermore, the mission of my company, Decision Fish, is to empower consumers to make better financial decisions. I’ll be teaching a new course at CCNY’s MPA program this fall, “Public Economics and Decision Making.” I need to model good decision making for my teenage children. I really need to become that expert because I really want to make an “eminent contribution” to our society.
That’s why I am applying to participate in the Peak Project. But what does expert decision-making — and a deliberate practice program to achieve it — look like?
Expert Decision Making
An ideal decision results from a systematic process with limited scope for counter-productive cognitive biases.
A wise decision:
- Uses information and advice efficiently
- Considers all reasonable and feasible alternatives
- Projects the possible outcomes of those alternatives
- Calculates the relative costs and benefits of those outcomes
- Translates benefits and costs in terms of your values
- Adjusts outcomes for their respective probabilities
- Recommends the alternative with the best probability-adjusted net benefit or lowest cost
- Respects feelings and intuitions, especially moral/ethical considerations
- Uses appropriate decision support tools and heuristics
An expert decision-maker will use this process consistently and effectively. This will increase the likelihood of—but won’t guarantee—good outcomes.
Applying Deliberate Practice
Ericsson, et al’s seminal paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance“, argues that innate talent matters much less in the development of expert abilities than prolonged, hard practice that is carefully designed to improve performance (“deliberate practice”). They find that expert performance requires resources, motivation and effort over ten years or longer.
I propose a period of deliberate practice of six to twelve months, intended to show quantifiable improvement in decision quality. My specific goal is to develop a habit of using the best practices I’ve outlined above effectively and for every important decision. To succeed:
- I will find a willing instructor, ideally in the decision science/behavioral economics community, who will help me design and execute the training program
- The program will include decision-making tasks intended to stretch my decision-making competency, address specific weaknesses, ramping up difficulty as needed
- The tasks will result in immediate, measurable and informative feedback on my performance
- They will be repetitive, challenging and not necessarily enjoyable
- I will schedule individual, intense practice daily, in the morning, for 1-2 hours
This program addresses the three constraints outlined in the paper: 1) I have sufficient resources including time and space; 2) sufficient motivation to endure a difficult training process, including the support of my family and 3) I can and will apply the required effort.
Thank you for considering my proposal and for your good work on Freakonomics!