Reflecting on my first semester at graduate school, it is uncomfortable to define the wisdom I have gained in decision making. Nietzsche said, “We are not “men of knowledge” with respect to ourselves.”1 I would have to agree. It is difficult to self assess, and when I do I think in some ways I am not any wiser than I was in August. In fact I believe I am less wise in certain aspects. The reason for believing this is illustrated by the following quote:
Genuine learning occurs as we stimulate new dendrite growth in the brain. (Dendrites connect neurons for continued, effective thinking.) The three emotional states that interfere with optimal dendrite growth are 1) fatigue, 2) stress, and 3) fear. Most students attending college battle against one or more of these factors most of the time. (Harvard Brain Research Conference, 1998)
This semester has provided plenty of opportunities to enjoy the feelings of fatigue, stress, and fear; and, as a result I have even felt myself retrogressing at times. Not all is lost though; I can still feel that in key areas I am a smarter decision maker. I have indeed felt my brain grow bigger and when I look at myself in the mirror I think, “You look like a smarter decision maker than you did a few weeks ago.”
There are two main areas in which I feel I have grown in wisdom. The first stems from the impact excel has had on my capacity to conceptualize my decisions thus furthering my intuitive capabilities. The second relates to a lesson learned in Professor Walter’s economics class, a conversation I had with Ben Thurgood, and an interview I had with Professor Thompson.
Before this semester I had made lists and charts and stewed on a decision but never had I put everything in to an Excel file like I have this semester. I believe my old way is fundamentally the right way just like there’s also nothing wrong with writing a book by hand, it just takes longer. Through my excel work I was able to put all of my decision factors into one document and itemize them. It is in the visual itemizing that I found power in Excel. I had never before had such clear understanding of the factors in a decision before. I had had very clear understanding of what I should do in a decision situation before but never such a thorough understanding of why I should make the decision I should. I usually go on 130% intuition because I find the factors of life to be incalculable. However, now I feel I can itemize life a little more and understand the specific connections my objectives, alternatives, and risks have with one another. I will no longer try and weigh so many factors in my head. I can write things down for a reason. I have always trusted to intuition and now I have a tool to further my intuition when I cannot comprehend all of the factors at once.
The second wisdom lesson started in the middle of the semester when Professor Walters reviewed the concept comparative advantage. For some reason I made the connection that comparative advantage has to do with one’s life’s work. It was a big breakthrough for me. It makes economical sense to do what you’re good at and what you love. I had been struggling since I was 12 on which profession I should choose. I was struggling because I felt I had to either be a CEO, a top tier lawyer, or doctor when I didn’t really want to be any of these things. When the comparative advantage concept clicked in my head I realized I had been framing the problem incorrectly the whole time. I thought I had to decide between three uncomfortable alternatives. I could never come to any conclusion or resolution on which career path to choose because it was a completely cerebral decision in which I never asked myself what I wanted. Now having an intellectual and economic justification for pursuing a passion I could now frame my life’s biggest problem correctly.
This realization came into greater focus when I was talking with Ben Thurgood about what to do with our lives. He was struggling with what to do with his life. He was thinking about law, and being an economics major that made sense. I told him about what I had recently learned in economics about comparative advantage. I told him that my comparative advantage is not being a lawyer. I could be one, sure, but I could be a much greater teacher. I told him that my comparative advantage was in working with people and inspiring them. Funny enough Ben had never as an economics major applied the term comparative advantage to his understanding of what he should do with his life. He had a Eureka moment just like I had in class. He said he had never thought of that and he seemed much less stressed about life afterwards. This experience with Ben strengthened my conviction of the truth that I should following my passion rather than prestige.
Then two weeks ago I was feeling extremely stressed because I was still struggling with writing even though I majored in English. I knew it was right for me to be in the MPA program but I had not been performing well in school and I started to feel bad about my inability to do well in school. In fact I have never done well in school, not since the 3rd grade at least. I knew though that my performance was not related to my work ethic or my intelligence or my desire to follow the Spirit. With these stresses weighing on me I went to the 7th floor to talk with Professor Thompson in an attempt to get some reassurance. I told Professor Thompson that I knew my comparative advantage was not school and that although I thought differently from other people in the program I still felt I could offer something to the world even if no one else saw it. Luckily Professor Thompson reassured me that he was grateful that I was in the program and that I should not stop being me. The unique qualities that made me me, although not currently recognized through grading as valuable, would make a difference in the long run. This reinforced the comparative advantage lesson and all these things distilled into a wisdom lesson in decision making: When you make a breakthrough in framing a problem have faith in that breakthrough. This lesson validated the very way I functioned daily in my thinking and the lens I saw life through.
I end with a quote from T.S. Elliot: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”2 I think this quote embodies the heart of decision analysis. I can’t force good consequences; all I can do is try. I feel one of the big battles in decision analysis for me still lies not in my Excel skills but in my intuition – can I disconnect from the world long enough to connect to the true vine and let the Lord help me frame the problem correctly?
1 Friedrich Nietzsche. Preface. On the Genealogy of Morals. Ed Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967, 15
2 “East Coker,” from The Four Quartets. T. S. Elliot. Stanza 5