The Proverbial Fork in the Road

I’ve been in a pensive, contemplative mood the past few days. I suppose that it’s partly my nature. I wouldn’t say that I’m a classic over thinker – but I could be deliberate. When it comes to more important decisions, I like to consider my options – weigh all the possibilities. Once I’ve taken account of the situation and played out a few “if / then” scenarios in my head, I typically act decisively. Rarely, if ever, rethinking it or playing the “what if” game. In many ways it’s been a point of pride. Proper planning, anticipating outcomes and being prepared for whatever may lie ahead are all good things, right?

Then there are the more trivial things. Countless decisions I may make (and probably you too) every single day that are made instantly, decisively and often with little consideration at all. Aimlessly steering a shopping cart at the supermarket and filling it with items for instance – I may grab laundry detergent because the price was right – I may grab shampoo because I liked the color of the bottle. It feels random and driven by chance. Saving a few cents on the detergent, being swayed by the bottle design of the shampoo. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, so we almost go into an “auto pilot” mode – acting instinctively to get past the more mundane tasks we have ahead of us from day to day.

Now we all agree – it makes sense that we should take time with the “big” decisions and not sweat the small stuff, like the grocery list items. But there is a charm to it when you step back and give it some thought. Those snap decisions that seem random and unconsidered are really a product of millions of moments, millions of trips to the store, millions of shopping list items checked off, that have contributed to our “gut,” those instincts that guide us even when we don’t think that they are.

All of this got me thinking back to when I was a kid. I was inquisitive and curious just as I am today, and I’d often have something on my mind. Something I wanted to know about, something I needed an answer for. Often times it probably had to do with sports… how many homeruns did Mickey Mantle hit in his career? What was the most points Wayne Gretzky put up in a single season? I know – really consequential stuff! But for a kid growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s – that didn’t have a computer in the home until much later, I often had to wait for my dad to get home from work – so that he could either tell me the answer or make something up himself!

Now this got me thinking even more. The absence of “instaknowledge” and Google and an “all-knowing” smartphone in my pocket that could be drawn upon on a whim whenever I had a question – it drives someone to either shrug their shoulders and forget the question all together, or to seek an answer. If you weren’t one to shrug, it drove you to books, encyclopedias, the library. It drove you to ask friends, relatives, neighbors. For some questions there were no easy answers, no books to seek. There was no “hey Siri, how long should I cook a 16-pound turkey for?” For some things it was trial and error. For some things, it was life itself – living it, experiencing it, that provided the answers. And those experiences not only helped you grow your knowledge – but they also developed your “gut” and the instincts to act and react. Make decisive decisions, and not just about what shampoo to buy – but for important decisions too.

Today, we have endless streams of information at our fingertips on demand. If anyone wants to argue with me about a random baseball statistic, I could just whip out my phone and prove them wrong, instantly. (Thank you But I can’t help but wonder if the shortcut and taking out the journey that used to reside between questions and answers is weakening our instincts. Advanced metrics and analytics are taking over every industry. In the sports world, the debate rages whether an experienced head coach or manager is even needed when there are teams of data engineers and analysts on the team payroll that could project out what the best lineup should be based on historical matchups, time of day, temperature, etc. What should that manager do? Listen to data? Trust the analytics? Or go with his gut and his own experience from his 30 years of being in the sport? Probably both.

Now I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. Information is wonderful. Having the information we want, when we want it is a luxury I wouldn’t willingly give up. But like all advancements – there is usually a casualty, a trade off. Good or bad – it simply is what it is.

So now when those big life decisions come up, and I’m faced with making a choice of some consequence – there is much more to draw on. I could weigh out all my options, draw on my experiences, and play out all the scenarios in my head. If this happens, I’ll do that. If that happens, I’ll do this. But I could also seek out so much more information. I could look for reviews. I could find statistics. I could seek out groups of people in online forums who may have gone through similar experiences or who have had to make similar decisions. But I wonder, does all that information and countless opinions help us make sounder decisions? Do we feel better about the choices we make – or does it add to more overthinking and second guessing? Can the information overload weaken our gut instincts and strip us of our decisiveness? Probably.

In the end, for me at least, the answer is everything in moderation! Just because the information is there doesn’t mean you need to consume it all. Take some, leave the rest. Formulate your own opinions, developed from your own experiences and keep those instincts sharp. Sometimes when we face that fork in the road, there isn’t time to ask Google. Sometimes, we quickly draw on what years of life has taught us, and we react. As the late, great Yogi Berra once famously said, “when you get to a fork in the road, take it.”

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