The Sum of Our Decisions

I’ve been thinking a lot about decision making—and if you’re familiar with my work this will come as no surprise—but, there’s a specific idea that I’ve been mulling over.

That idea is that: we are the sum of our decisions.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea—it’s one that I imagine many of us know to be true. But, I think it’s an idea that we tend to lose sight of.

Life is choices

Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy—we know that his figure sits atop Mount Rushmore and that his image is impressed upon every penny we touch. What we forget is that Lincoln was not born on Mount Rushmore, that he was not pre-destined to reside there, and that, for much of his life, he was a relatively unknown politician.

When all we see is the end product of someone’s life, we sit unaware of the twists, turns, and decisions that brought them there. We don’t fully realize the onslaught of choices they made to mold their character.

One of Lincoln’s biographers, William Lee Miller, wrote that “out of their margin of freedom, whatever it may be, human beings make choices,” and he argued that “Lincoln’s important changes did not unfold through the working-out of a pattern of nature; they came by his own intent, through thinking, and might otherwise not have happened.”

Lincoln developed himself through the choices he made, and he acted out of the margin of freedom he had to do so.

The Power of Decision

Unfortunately, it’s dream stuff that luck and circumstance will play everyone the same; but, whatever the conditions of our life may be, we all make decisions that have the power to change our life’s course.

A powerful example of this is the Great Migration, where millions of African Americans fled the South in hopes of a better life. In her masterwork on the subject, Isabel Wilkerson concludes on the thought that:

“It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface. “In the simple process of walking away one by one,” wrote the scholar Lawrence R.. Rodgers, “millions of African American southerners have altered the course of their own, and all of America’s history.””

If decisions hold such power to alter the course of both our own lives and a nation’s history, then it seems a bit foolish to me that we devote such little time towards the study of decision making.

Why Study Decision Making?

I’ll admit that the study of decision making can come across as dry, and that it’s far from the exact science that it pretends to be. But if we subscribe to this idea that we are the sum of our decisions, then it’s hard for us to deny the importance of decision making.

When we do recognize the value of decision making, it’s usually when we’re facing life’s ‘bigger’ decisions. Buying a house; going to college; changing careers; the sort of decisions we make only a few times in life. These decisions are important, and they will have an impact on our life’s trajectory, but decisions of this magnitude can probably be counted on two hands.

The vast majority of decisions that we make are small; researchers have found that each day we make nearly two-hundred decisions related to food alone. These decisions are so small, in fact, that we may not even recognize them as decisions.

Many of them are repeated. Many of them rely upon heuristics. Many of them don’t seem like they’re all that important. But, it’s these decisions that will compound over time. It’s these decisions that will mold the structure of our character.

And when we talk about this notion that ‘we are the sum of our decisions,’ it’s these decisions that we’re talking about.

The Sum of Our Decisions

We are all the sum of our decisions; but, to borrow the words of David Epstein, “the precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been.”

Decision making should be thought of as the underlying engine that drives who we were, who we are, and who we will become. It’s not just some tool we pull out of the shed and dust off for life’s biggest moments. It’s the operating system we use to choose who we will be.

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