Nathanael Garrett Novosel, September 1 2021

When to Think, and When to Act

Figuring out what you want in life is difficult.  You can spend hours agonizing over decisions.  There’s a reason why ice cream shops offer free samples and many products and services offer trials: experience can be the best teacher regarding what you want or don’t want.  So, how do you know when additional thought and discussion versus when more experience will help?

Everything in life has costs and benefits.  Thought and experience both require effort, but many experiences have prices and additional effort, risk, commitment in that equation.  There are benefits to both as well: thinking or talking out a problem helping you solve it without distractions, and experience can often tell you immediately whether you like or dislike something that hours of thought could never do.  Academics, for example, use both, as they conduct experiential learning such as laboratory tests to determine which approach might be best in combination with hypothesizing and theorizing the best approach based on the projected results.  You can usually do a lot more thinking over the same period of time at little to no cost, but you learn a lot more from experience.

The most important factor in these methods are the risks involved.  When thinking, you only have the information that you already have available to you to analyze; experience is more likely to give you new information.  Discussing with others gives you another person’s perspective, but you are both making assumptions and speculating about what could happen.  When pursuing experiences, you not only risk the unnecessary spend and opportunity costs mentioned earlier but also risk over-committing (i.e., going with an option because you already picked it), being harmed or injured, or unforeseen issues.

So when do you spend time thinking about life decisions, and when should you try experiences?  Well, the short answer is to factor in the value, cost, and risk of experience versus the value, cost, and risk of analyzing the problem.  For example, if you’re going to decide which ice cream to have, most ice cream parlors allow you to taste test before you select, making the experience deliver much more information so that you can make a better decision as to what you want.  Otherwise, the thinking would have more value before you select a flavor because the experience of eating it would cost the price of the ice cream.

One of the most famous examples of comparing the value of thinking to experiences is The Design Challenge (also known as The Spaghetti Tower or The Marshmallow Challenge).  In the challenge, you have bunch of uncooked spaghetti noodles, masking tape, string, and a marshmallow.  To win, you have to build the tallest structure you can measuring from the table to the top of the marshmallow that can stand on its own for 3 seconds without outside support.  The game lasts 20 minutes.  The surprising finding after running the challenge thousands of times was that the highest-performing group was kindergarteners and the lowest-performing group was business school students.  Why?  Because the business school students spent a chunk of their build time talking about how to approach the challenge while the students just started experimenting.

You might run into the same issue when facing a big decision.  I’ve seen many people spend hours, days, or even years agonizing over decisions about what to do with their lives: which career to pursue, how to ask their crush out, or where to live.  While there absolutely is more value to thinking at first than the experience—i.e., you might be able to make a more informed decision about which career you might like best, the right approach that will play to your strengths, or what you want to do in your free time day-to-day—you lose it at the point where you’ve obsessed for a long time and you’re no closer to figuring it out than you were a few hours after you started.  Often, you are better off just doing it: trying a job to see whether you like it, just be yourself and ask, or take a vacation there (or even just take the leap and move!).

The biggest fallacies in thinking vs. acting are that you will regret your decision forever if you make the wrong one or that you can’t change your mind or change direction after you’ve selected.  The truth is, however, that you can move again, change jobs, or try something/someone else if you fail, and you might regret the things you don’t do as much as the things you choose to do (if not more).  The biggest fallacy in acting over thinking is the “What’s the worst that could happen?” attitude toward something risky like demanding physical activities or conflict.  Obviously, thinking and preparing would be more beneficial given the probability and impact of negative consequences.

So, what do you do?  Your best bet is to think until you begin to feel like you’re “spinning your wheels” and then take the best action based on your level of confidence: commit if you’re sure or find a trial or test if you’re unsure.  Don’t fall into the trap that you can think of a solution if you just try hard enough, and don’t mindlessly jump into experiences before you understand the risks.  When you strike that balance, you’ll usually make the right decisions for you about how to get the information you need to make a decision and what decision to make when you have enough.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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