"Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes." - From the book The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Consider a hypothetical situation.
Imagine that you are a medical doctor working in a poor village, and that 1,000 patients have contacted a life-threatening illness. You have a choice between one of two antidotes, and you cannot use both. The first antidote offers an 85% chance of saving all 1,000 patients (with a 15% chance that it saves none of them). The second antidote will save 800 patients for sure, but 200 will not be saved, The first choice is a gamble, the second choice is a sure thing.
Which would you choose?
Well, despite the fact that the gamble has a mathematical chance of saving 850 patients whereas the sure thing will save only 800 patients, a large majority of people prefer the sure thing over the gamble (1,2). This is called risk aversion - when faced with uncertainty, most people attempt to reduce the uncertainty by choosing a small, sure option over a larger, uncertain one (1,2). The reason for this may be that people are afraid to make a mistake that they will regret later.
Let's examine the validity of this fear.
Mistakes Are Really Experiences In Disguise
Many or most people in the world seem to be "hustled" through life - pushed through school, coaxed into long-term decisions before they are ready to face them, and then held to those decisions by fear and shame (3). In this scenario, life is perceived as a race where there are winners and losers and the best strategy is to try and get ahead of the next person; as such, the emphasis is on making gains and minimizing losses. The small, sure gain is opted for over the large, uncertain one so as to avoid making a mistake that could slow a person down, disadvantage them in the hustle. All of this is reinforced by "a sort of creeping common sense" as identified by the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in 1890 (4). Eventually, people become old and do have the time to reflect, yet by then they cannot bear to question things too deeply; it would jeopardize their self-worth, a self-worth they no longer have the time to rebuild (3).
Leaving aside the question as to who sold us this formula in the first place, I pose a more pertinent question - what is life about? Is it really about getting "ahead," going "somewhere," or finding that elusive "someday?" Or, is it more about relishing the experience itself, whereby a person might improve their awareness of themselves and the world in general and use that awareness to accomplish good things? If we opt for the latter, then mistakes are not to be feared as they enhance a person's awareness and their ability to accomplish more the next time around.
Take a minute to think about the last time you made a decision that went against the grain and it did not quite work out as you had hoped - it turned out to be a mistake. Yet do you regret making that decision?
The answer is probably "no." Probably, you learned from it - increased your awareness and ability to accomplish more the next time around - and maybe, just maybe, you now look back on that mistake with a certain degree of fondness.
So really, it makes no sense to be risk averse when faced with uncertainty. If life is viewed more as an experience than a hustle then making a mistake should not be feared; quite the contrary, for mistakes are really experiences in disguise and constitute some of the most essential building blocks of the experience of life itself.
When Faced With Uncertainty, Choose The Bolder Option
In the scenario where life is an experience and not merely a hustle, the best decision in an uncertain situation is the one with the greater potential for mistakes. The large, uncertain option ought to be favoured over the small, sure one.
This is not to say that a person ought to intentionally pursue the mistakes themselves - that would be masochistic. It simply means that when the large, uncertain option is chosen, mistakes become inevitable and are not to be feared but rather embraced for the experiences that they really are.
It may not be easy to choose the the large, uncertain option when the way ahead is not clear. Especially when many other well-meaning people will caution you against it. Just remember that true strength lies in the ability to make the hard decisions, rather than just carry them out. Once your decision is made and your course is plotted, things do get easier. So when faced with a decision where the best course of action is shrouded in mist, choose the bolder option. It is unlikely that you will ever regret it.
Solace (inspired by Myla Buyan).
References (1) Kahneman D, Tversky A. 1984. Choices, Values, and Frames. American Psychologist 39(4), 341-350. (2) Schwartz B. 2009. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Harper Collins e-books. (3) Rosenberg P. 2016. Hustled Through Life. http://www.freemansperspective.com/hustled-through-life/. (4) Wilde O. 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.