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A Relentless Search For Greater Understanding

--by Robert E. Rubin (May 23, 2006)


There are no provable certainties. That is the view of modern science and much of modern philosophy. And, this view that there are no absolute or certain answers quickly leads to recognizing that all significant issues are inherently complex and uncertain and, as a consequence, that all decisions are about probabilities and trade-offs. That, in turn, should lead to restlessly seeking to better understand whatever is before you in order to most effectively refine your judgments about those probabilities and trade-offs.

Once you recognize uncertainty and complexity, you approach new questions -- or for that matter, new experiences, such as, in my life, a new job or moving from the private sector to government not with answers or a sense of certainty, but rather with a sense of inquiry and searching and the pursuit of understanding.

All of this may sound somewhat abstract and conceptual, but in fact it is intensely practical. For me this probabilistic framework led to sounder decisions and, in addition, recognizing that decisions are about odds and therefore have at least a possibility of not turning out as you expect leads to contingency planning, which can make all the difference when matters do go unexpectedly. []

Even if you do all this, there is another essential for successful decision-making. I sat next to a former presidential candidate at a dinner in 1972, shortly after he lost in the primaries, and I've never forgotten what he said to me that night, which was that the worst mistake he had made in his life was trying to be something he wasn't when he ran for president, and that he should have simply been the person he was and let the American people decide if that's what they wanted. []

These three elements -- the willingness to make difficult decisions; the resolve to approach decision-making with an open mind, a recognition of uncertainty, and a relentless search for greater understanding -- and the ability to remain true to oneself in the face of adversity and challenge -- are as important to everyday life in Washington state as they are in policymaking in Washington, D.C., and the best response to a complicated and uncertain world.

--Robert E. Rubin


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On May 29, 2006 Nipun wrote:

Notes from Wednesday discussion ... Decision making process is easy for yourself. But it's hard to convince others of your decision making skills! Rumi once said: "If you want what visible reality can give, you're an employee. If you want the unseen world, you're not living your truth. Both wishes are foolish, but you'll be forgiven for forgetting that what you really want is love's confusing joy." First sentence says there are no provable certainties. Certainties simply aren't provable. First decision, gut instinct, is usually the right one. Babies always try to help. Villian and hero are on the same screen; it all originates from the same beam of light. We must seek that light. Be yourself. We often try to emulate our own self images. Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that simple decisions are better with conscious thinking, the complex  See full.

Notes from Wednesday discussion ...

  • Decision making process is easy for yourself. But it's hard to convince others of your decision making skills!
  • Rumi once said: "If you want what visible reality can give, you're an employee. If you want the unseen world, you're not living your truth. Both wishes are foolish, but you'll be forgiven for forgetting that what you really want is love's confusing joy."
  • First sentence says there are no provable certainties. Certainties simply aren't provable.
  • First decision, gut instinct, is usually the right one. Babies always try to help.
  • Villian and hero are on the same screen; it all originates from the same beam of light. We must seek that light.
  • Be yourself. We often try to emulate our own self images.
  • Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
  • In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that simple decisions are better with conscious thinking, the complex decisions are much effective with the use of our sub-conscious.
  • Where are we as humanity? The answer depends on how strong people's opinions are. If we live in a cut-n-dry right-n-wrong world, we're still very young.
  • Like Patricia Ryan Maddison said, we must substitute presence for meditation.
  • Some say fear helps us protect ourselves but fear often prevent a good decision.
  • How to buy a rocking chair? My husband research, I just buy it.
  • I go with intuition because I'm afraid of exposing myself, my narrow view points, to my intellectual reasoning.
  • Heart, mind, action.
  • Backup plans is a big hinderance for my decision making. Gotta remove contigency plans.
  • For difficult decisions, I pray for guidance from a higher source.
  • Before I make a major decision, I always give it one night of sleep.
  • If you want to hear a good laugh, just tell God your plans.
  • In British English, we "take" decisions. In American English, we "make" decisions.
  • Whatever you decide, don't have any regrets.
  • Uncertainty isn't a hurdle; it's a part of the decision making process.
  • I have many mentors with various areas of expertise. I'll just ask them which car to buy and just do it. Best of both worlds. :)

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On May 25, 2006 James wrote:
There's a joke I heard once about planning:

You want to hear God laugh? Just tell him your plans!

On May 23, 2006 Voltaire wrote:
This all reminds me of a quote by Voltaire:

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."

On May 23, 2006 Matt wrote:

This is from Robert Rubin's June 11 commencement address http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2002369786_sundayrubin10.html (its good and its short) at the University of Washington. Rubin was U.S. treasury secretary from 1995 to 1999 and wrote the excellent book In an Uncertain World http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375757309/qid=1121056865. I love his probabilistic way of thinking that he outlines. I agree with it so much, I really think high school should teach advanced statistics and probability rather than calculus. I can't think of the last day that I actually used calculus and I can't think of the last day I didn't use some form of probability. This Scientific American article http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000935E5-CCA0-1238-8CA083414B7FFE9F continues on this theme, looking at how to make a decision will be good in most environments rather than trying to make a decision that will be best for a particular environment, when there is uncert  See full.

This is from Robert Rubin's June 11 commencement address http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2002369786_sundayrubin10.html (its good and its short) at the University of Washington. Rubin was U.S. treasury secretary from 1995 to 1999 and wrote the excellent book In an Uncertain World http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0375757309/qid=1121056865. I love his probabilistic way of thinking that he outlines. I agree with it so much, I really think high school should teach advanced statistics and probability rather than calculus. I can't think of the last day that I actually used calculus and I can't think of the last day I didn't use some form of probability. This Scientific American article http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000935E5-CCA0-1238-8CA083414B7FFE9F continues on this theme, looking at how to make a decision will be good in most environments rather than trying to make a decision that will be best for a particular environment, when there is uncertainty regarding the future environment.

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On May 23, 2006 Lariv wrote:
Great thought, and great comments too.

A couple of interesting studies.One: With complex decisions, like buying a house, the unconscious appears to do a better job of weighing the factors and arriving at a sound conclusion. More here:

(see link)

Two: Research shows that as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up. More here:

(see link)

On May 23, 2006 Jesse wrote:
I saw a movie trailer recently that had the tagline -- "Difficult decisions are the ones that don't get taken."

That is to say that once you make a difficult decision, it's no longer difficult. The human spirit is so strong, that no matter what the situation, it will adapt.

Partially, I blame the media for giving us fears and our material progress for giving us so many choices that we start generating doubts. In reality, the human spirit so strong that no matter what the circumstance, we adapt. Nothing is really all that difficult, if you break it down. As Victor Frankl points out, Jews shared their bread (and love) in concentration camps.

So yeah, go make difficult decisions, embrace the unknown, live on the edge. :)

On May 23, 2006 armeen wrote:
Your essay was really inspiring, and I couldn't have read it at a better time. For the last few weeks I have been tussling with the question of whether I should join the university in which I had gained admission or not. I just couldn't decide. But I finally did decide to take it up, and what you said makes perfect sense.the willingness to make difficult decisions; the resolve to approach decision-making with an open mind, a recognition of uncertainty, and a relentless search for greater understanding -- and the ability to remain true to oneself in the face of adversity and challenge , are very important in life. I feel so liberated that I have finally decided!!!