Last week I watched ‘The Imitation Game’ which, with some Hollywood ‘artistic licence’, tells the story of Alan Turing’s recruitment, in 1939, to the newly created British intelligence agency MI6 to crack Nazi codes, including the supposedly unbreakable Enigma and it sparked a conversation about decision making.
Part of the film’s narrative centres on Turing making a decision not to use certain elements of the intelligence intercepted so that the German’s would not know the code had been cracked – a decision which would result in the loss of lives. While this aspect of the story isn’t historically accurate, it prompted my husband and me to have a wide-ranging discussion about the complexity of decision making. We thought about decisions such as the one made by climber Simon Yates in the Peruvian Andes to cut free his partner, Joe Simpson, in order to save himself. And the one made by Kyle Carpenter, the youngest and one of only eight living individuals to have received the Medal of Honour, to throw himself in front of a grenade to protect his fellow marines from a blast when he was serving in Afghanistan.
On the scale of decision making, these are fairly extreme examples. But although very few of us will be faced with decisions that might have life or death outcomes, we do all make decisions on a daily basis and some of them certainly feel more significant than others: choosing the right senior school, selecting GCSE and A level subjects; shortlisting which universities to apply to; deciding which university to accept an offer from; thinking about how to behave towards others; knowing which opportunities in life to accept and which to decline. There is a poem, by an American poet Robert Frost, which captures a sense of these dilemmas. It was written as a joke for his friend who was forever wishing he had chosen alternative routes on their walks but, when it was first read to an audience, it was taken somewhat more seriously than the author intended.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Making decisions can feel challenging, especially when it is impossible to predict how things will develop – I rather like the way this is reflected in the poem. I remember trying to decide whether to accept an offer to Exeter University or Royal Holloway. Both courses looked great, both Biological Sciences departments had good reputations for research and teaching and I liked the atmosphere of both. In the end I chose Exeter because it was near the coast and Dartmoor and being able to have an active outdoors life is important to me. I enjoyed my degree, made fantastic friends who I still see regularly and I carried on making decisions, one upon another. My path to Royal Holloway disappeared when I chose the path to Exeter and the only certainty is that my life would look different now if I had made the other choice. I’ve no way of knowing whether it would have been better or worse, I can only be sure that elements would be different.
So, does that make decision-making frightening? No, I don’t think so. We can only make the decision that feels right at the time and then embrace it. If, ultimately, it doesn’t work out, there is little point wasting energy regretting the decision. It is far better to accept that it didn’t work out and make new decisions which will improve the situation. It is also important to realise that very few decisions permanently close doors, unless they involve other people and their choices – it can just be harder to go back and reopen some doors than others.