Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
By Steven Johnson
256 pp. Riverhead Books.
Think about all the hardest decisions you’ve ever had (or are ever likely) to make. What career are you going to pursue? Should you start your own company? Where will you live? Will you get married? Should you have children?
Now think about the bigger, tougher questions we face as a society. How do we reduce carbon emissions? How do we plan a city? How do we win a war?
How do we make a decision when the choice will affect our lives for years, or even centuries, to come? This question is the subject of Steven Johnson’s fascinating new book Farsighted: How We Make The Decisions That Matter The Most. Johnson explores the art and the science of the decision-making process, by analyzing several high-impact decisions throughout history. He argues that we now, more than any other point in time, have the tools to make smarter and more effective choices.
“The ability to make deliberative, long-term decisions is one of the few truly unique characteristics of Homo sapiens. […] And despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary, we are, on average, getting better at this way of thinking.”
Intelligent, farsighted decision-making is a skill. But we tend to think of it as a character attribute (such as a decisive leader), rather than a skill that must be continuously honed. We tend to emphasize intuition and snap judgments, without realizing that most of the decisions that matter in our lives require slow, deliberative thought. We focus on the results of good decisions, without considering the long, complex process that lead to it.
Perhaps the best example of this is how the Obama administration successfully pulled off the May 2011 raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Haunted by the disastrous failures of previous administrations, the team took every precaution to ensure that they made the right choice. It’s tackled in fascinating detail throughout the book.
Johnson also delves into a wide range of disciplines to give concrete examples of the tools and principles being discussed. We learn how to lessen uncertainty by applying learnings from social psychology. We discover how advancements in weather forecasting and military planning helped develop our capacity to make long-term predictions. We learn about moral algorithms through noted utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, but also through Google’s self-driving car. It even dissects full-spectrum complex decision-making in great works of literature. But it’s not all about broad abstract examples. The book also ties this all back to how we make decisions on a personal level. In the end, Johnson is able to present a nuanced, systematic process for complex decision-making.
Wonderfully crafted and singularly insightful, Farsighted doesn’t just show you how to make better, more informed decisions. It also helps you appreciate the wisdom of crucial choices that have shaped the history of humanity.
Farsighted by Steven Johnson will be available soon at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]