Extract of THE WONDERFUL PARADOX: Embracing the strangeness of existence and the poetry of our lives. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer Michael Hecht. All rights reserved.
Brain science talks about our negotiation of the world using two distinct mental systems – one for quick problems and one for hard problems. For small decisions, our limbic system relies on vague associations and half-forgotten assumptions perceived as “hunches”. We make these calls all day, and while our guesses are no better than chance, the stakes are low.
For hard or large issues, we engage our ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It takes a lot of energy. People walk and talk all day, but to solve an equation we tend to walk to a sidewalk and stop walking – and we won’t bother working that hard unless it’s urgent.
How do we stop?
Business decision theory breaks down the steps of a well-analyzed problem. Naming the obvious can help us examine it well and ensure that we are not skimping on the difficult parts. Current decision models are often versions of the following seven steps:
- Are you sure you have to make a decision here?
- What facts do you need? Is it even possible to act now
- Isolate and describe the best alternatives.
- It’s time to do all the math and start asking around.
- Look for risk details. Ask for advice.
- Create a plan, get others on board.
- Consider the process and the result. What can be improved?
There’s room for reflection in these models, but when the risks are high, CEOs with no express aversion to prayer might just try that too.
For example, in 2005 German researchers published a study of Sri Lankan business leaders including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims. When asked anonymously if and when they practice religion in their secular workplace, many said they do, for rulings. Although they were trained in multiple management protocols for making choices, and some even received specific versions of their businesses, participants of Buddhist background set up shrines and practiced reflection and chanting of stanzas. ; Hindus held puja ceremonies, recited mantras at work and prayed for clarity; Christians worshiped with crosses and other symbols and celebrated Mass at work. Business leaders of Muslim background have spoken of aligning their behavior with the principles of Islam.
The study used the term the ultimate, to include references to “God, Transcendent Reality, or Truth”. One participant ‘admitted’ he turned to the ultimate in the face of critical decisions and added, ‘It might be psychotic, but I’ve been doing this for 30-35 years. I feel like it makes me a better man and helps me make the right decisions. The researchers found that decision outcomes, both good and bad, were often attributed to the quality of the ritual experience. Business leaders said the rituals provide “comfort, guidance and inspiration”.
Both the checklist and the sanctuary can help us take risks and gauge results, but they each have limitations. We can do a better job than religion of guiding our attention through rational steps, and a better job than Business 101 of inviting calm thoughts and unclear feelings.
We can make a retreat for ourselves by bringing water to a plant and taking a few moments to sit still and read a poem.
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It may seem logical to spend a few moments thinking about a choice. Languages around the world have idioms for “Sleeping on it” or “Deciding in the morning”, showing that we are aware that we need time and various states of mind to know what we are thinking. In sports, when you get hurt, someone often tells you to “go for it”. Also when you get mad. Maybe we could add “go out” for a decision-making ritual where you walk around.
Find a way to take a carefree stroll, a stroll around a clump of trees, perhaps. Meditative walking is a must in Buddhism. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the practice, called there marketas a way of feeling the present, consciously grounding one’s feet and moving benevolently through the world.
Religions often accompany rituals with psychotropic words to be proclaimed aloud or savored in silence; chant, sing or mumble. For the interreligiouswhat can hit the sweet spot of gravity and pleasure is poetry.