–My thoughts on making choices.

I have to admit that starting an article with the cliché “to be or not to be” 1 is somehow awkward. But actually, this is the topic of this article. No, I am not trying to answer the question asked by Hamlet. Everyone asks the same question towards different things over and over again everyday, and so do I. Several bits and pieces came to my mind recently, so I just record them down. Instead of getting the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, which is 42 2, here, I want to figure out my principles in making choices.


Thought #0: Making choice is a choice, or why only the paranoid survives.**

Lots of people won’t make decisions unless they have sufficient information. But in the real world, information is necessary, but never sufficient, for making decisions. The idea never making decision before you get sufficient information is common but misleading. The long period of making decision finally hurts the outcome of that decision for lacking of time in implement it.

In making choices, our goal is to choose the best one. However, usually there is no obvious superior as the world is complicated, that’s the reason why information is needed to distinguish all the alternatives. Keep in mind that information should be helpful instead of delusive. Sometimes, conflicted information will make people lost and let the decision-making procedure be very painful. Therefore, in the decision-making process, one still makes decisions like ‘whether I should take this information’ or ‘whether I should wait for more information’. I would call this procedure “meta-decision making”.

My idea here is at any time, never let the meta-decision making take up the actual decision making time. I’ve seen more than once that someone staggered at the opportunity and hesitated before deciding. Needless to say, they finally make no better decision than roulette. There is a famous saying that only the paranoid survives. The paranoids usually make decision at the very beginning and hold on straight to the end. There is no meta-decision making for them. Sometimes they make worse decision, but hopefully, they can make superior decisions surprisingly, and they survive. Thus, please focus on the decision making itself and do not let the meta-decision murder your decision. Be aware of them, they may kill your decision.


Thought #1: Occam’s razor, or why more is less.**

Once upon a time in my life, I had three pretty good offers, and I have to choose one among them finally. Frankly speaking, I’ve never imaged that. Anyway, I had to choose one. I began to realize that the more is not always the better. Sometimes, we do need an Occam’s razor 3. Why is that?

The reason was because I felt satisfied with any of the choices, which means I could not simply nuke any one of them. Actually I shouldn’t always mention my achievements in the past, but please allow me to explain it in brief. My first choice is attending Peking University for the graduate study. Before taking the graduate entrance exam, I just want a try. I didn’t want anything more than an exam score. The thing turned out to be amazing that I ranked the 1st among all the students in that major–one of my favorite majors–Bio informatics. My second choice is Google China. At that time, Tina (I guess she is a senior assistant to Dr. Kai-fu Lee) told me that I have a probability of 99.9% to get an offer from Google China. In the meanwhile, I got the offer here, Washington University. Well, for some distinguished students, probably they can withdraw all of these and choose Stanford or MIT. However, for me, all these three are really really good — I had my beloved girlfriend studying in Peking University at that time; Google China was (and is) shining and flourishing; I wanted to stay in Beijing as lots of my relatives and friends were there; I wanted to have my own start up in Zhongguancun with some friends there and Web 2.0 was a buzzword at that time; USA is a free land and the major is computer science, my dreaming major; My advisor was (and is) doing excellent research work in his field; professors at Peking University were quite nice to me; to stay in Beijing would be definitely better for my parents; Gee, tons of pros and cons in my mind at that time. All of these things are twisted together. As a result, I got serious insomnia and was in a blue funk in making this decision. I would rather choose to hide under the rock.

Then, I would like to say that my uncle and my advisor gave me the Occam’s razor. My uncle suggested that I shouldn’t consider too much about others’ idea; and my advisor just told me that I could choose Beijing and Google in future. I’ve noticed that, unlike me, someone takes a different decision 4. I would like to say, there is no standard Occam’s razor. I absolutely admire him if he didn’t get insomnia in making this decision :). I am saying that the more is not the better is not because I’ve hold such three good offers and am trying to show off, I just want to say that keeping the life simple and stupid is indeed very necessary. For more details about why more is less, I recommend a Google Video 5 for you guys.


Thought #2: Murphy’s Law, or how to use greedy algorithm.**

This is about making decision between the current worse choice and the future better choice. Some people will take a risk of 80% probability to get another opportunity in the near future that is 20% superior over the current one. It sounds perfect, right? Since you can get a better one at a relative high probability, why bother with the current one. Now let’s do a simply mathematics. The expectation of the outcome of the future opportunity is 80% * (1+20%) = 96%. Boo, it’s worst than 1, so why not holding the current opportunity?

Most people, if not all, are very optimistic towards the future opportunities, and this 80-20 principle is universal acknowledged. But simple mathematics reveals the truth that one should never be too optimistic to put a bid on the future, unless it’s 25% or more better than the current one. In fact, in my opinion, 25% is not enough. If we take into account the time wasted in waiting for the future, I won’t bid for it unless it’s 30% or more better than the current one.

I am not trying to persuade others to be conservative. In fact, I encourage taking a risk on high-rewarded opportunity. But the Murphy’s Law states “things will go wrong in any given situation if you give them a chance.” 1 The future event will always have a larger probability to go wrong than your expectation. Therefore, if you want to be greedy, the best algorithm is not choosing the best choice in terms of result, but the best choice in terms of expectation. That’s the usage of probability. :)


Thought #3: No bargain choice, or don’t catch the deal if you don’t want it.**

Some people make decisions to do something not based on their need, but because doing those are easy. In other word, they want to catch the deal. For instance, a friend of mine had two choices: one was going to a big company as an intern; the other was going to US for graduate study. The previous offer would delay his admission for half a year. Actually, the previous offer, even accepted, wouldn’t help much about the graduate study here. However, he would like to choose the first one because he thought that the later one was “difficult” for him at that moment. Therefore, the previous choice is like a bargain — you can live without it, but if it comes, just get it.

I am going to say “no” to bargain choice. First, bargain choice will misdirect one from the main road. Second, as Paul Graham pointed out, bargain choice will consume your energy 6, and you will be controlled by all these bargain choices. If you don’t really want it, why get it? Remember that more is less, and too much bargain choice will degrade your vision in making choices.

I’ve put all four thoughts here. If you have other principles or idea that is worth while sharing, why not leave your comments? ;)

PS: I am not an expert in making choice per se. Here I just summarize my thoughts in making choice. I will be very glad if someone can help translate this article back to Chinese, as I really have no time to do this.