headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

July 2023

Decide to Decide

"I had to do it! I didn't have any choice."

I've heard people say this more than a few times. You may have said it. I may have said it myself, when I wasn't listening. I don't think it's true, though. Perhaps there are extreme circumstances where we literally have no choice, but I can't think of any.

A Learning Experience

Back in high school, I was participating in a sit-in protest in front of the school. The principal came out and told us to report to the vice-principal who would assign detention to us, or he would have us arrested. Neither of those alternatives sounded like a good choice to me. Everyone in the protest who had a car thought similarly, so they all left. There were just a handful of us when a dozen squad cars showed up and blocked all the roads out of the school.

The principal then came over with some of the police and asked us if we were going in to be assigned detention, or if we were going to be arrested. Apparently no one thought that was a good choice, so no one said anything. Then he happened to turn to me and ask me singularly. I was trying to think of a better response than either of those choices, so I stood up to reason with them. Before I could straighten up, a big cop grabbed me and handed me off to two others, saying "take him!"

As they were dragging me toward a squad car, my arms twisted back, their hands under my arm pits, and my toes occasionally skipping on the pavement, I innocently asked, "What would you do if I refused to go?"

The cop on my right growled, "I'd break your goddamn arm off!" But then he let go to go grab a friend who'd said "You can't take him!" Four of us were arrested.

All in all, our choices were pretty constricted at that point. Even in the face of overwhelming power, though, we were still making choices other than what they intended to offer us. We were speaking up. We sang protest songs when they locked us in a room at the police station. That made us feel better, and perhaps it made them happy to release us into the custody of my father.

We make decisions all the time, and often we're not even aware that we are. I won't claim that all my decisions that day were the wisest ones I could have made. They were the best I could decide extemporaneously without preparation for what might happen. In the short run, the consequences of those decisions didn't seem to help me. In the long run, I think they helped me a great deal in terms of personal growth and opening new opportunities. Passively "letting things happen" might have had the same short-term results, but not the same long-term.

We Can't Not Choose

If we can make choices at all, then it shows that we have free will to decide. And if we can decide, then we can't help but decide. Choosing not to decide and therefore accept the default outcome is, itself, obviously a choice—even if we're not aware that we're making it. Doing nothing is a choice.

When people say they "have no choice," they mean they don't like the alternative. When pressed for details, they may soften the statement to "If I hadn't done that, then some terrible thing would have happened." And that may be true, but I don't think it tells the whole story. They haven't thought of a choice they'd prefer. Perhaps there is no better choice than accepting their status quo, but often it's a matter of imagination. We often get caught viewing our current choice as a binary option, either this or that. With some imagination we can get beyond that.

A Conscious Choice

Some months later, in the same school year, I had another memorable decision-making experience. I was walking across a parking lot with some friends and a cup of water I'd gotten at the Dairy Queen. There were lots of people hanging out and showing off their vehicles in the parking lot.

As I walked past one pickup truck, a man in the truck poured his beer over my head, jumped down and punched me in the face, knocking me to the pavement. I stood up and he punched me again. I stood up again and he punched me a third time.

My friends told me to run. His friends told me to stay on the ground. I made a very conscious choice to do neither of those. I had recently decided to be a pacifist and refuse to kill people at the request of my government. I had not trained in nonviolence, but had read enough to think that I could open some line of communication if I was patient.

Again I stood, arms at my side, making no attempt to fight back, and was again knocked down. Some of his friends started yelling at him to stop. I don't know how many times I stood up to him, but maybe his punches were becoming milder. His friends seemed embarrassed, and finally a couple of them grabbed him and dragged him away. I thanked them and walked away.

This decision to confront, but not fight a bully may seem like a poor decision to you, but it was the right decision for me. It was a turning point for me from my younger years where I tried to either placate or run from bullies, neither of which had ever worked. It confirmed that I had what it took to be a pacifist. It demonstrated one way that pacifism can work on a small scale. I sometimes wonder what effect that scene had on some of the others there.

It certainly bolstered my own confidence in myself—a confidence that has come in handy innumerable times since then. That confidence has supported me as I've made many decisions in my life. Even without knowing how those decisions would turn out, I've made them knowing I could continue making decisions such that they would turn out OK. I wouldn't say I've become fearless, but I'm confident that I can do well in spite of my fears. I'm not cowed by fear, and that has freed me to try and to accomplish many things.

Annie Duke says, "The only thing you have control over that can influence the way your life turns out is the quality of your decisions." I think you can make better decisions when you choose explicitly than when you passively let the decision make itself. I think that's true even when the action you choose is the same in either case.

/signed/ George

P.S. I'm sure that you have made decisions in your past that still affect your life today. Think about those, and appreciate how they've helped you become the person you are today. Think about the decisions you can still make to help you become the person you want to be. If you're feeling brave enough—not fearless, but brave—I'd love to hear your story. You could schedule a Zoom Session with me to talk about it.

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Or you can also simply reply to this email or send an email to newsletter@idiacomputing.com to continue the conversation. There's a person, not a bot, on this end. I'd really love to hear from you.