One of the most pernicious lies I can think of is that it’s wrong or weak to change your mind. That once a decision is made you are committed to that course regardless of the consequences. To which I simply say, “Bollocks!”
As we grow we acquire a cultural opinion–a meme if you like–that decisiveness is what matters. It’s better to make any decision and move forward than to stop and wait for a degree of certainty.
Motion is everything, the direction secondary. Except that you must never backtrack. No about-face, U-turn or retreat. Think about those terms: “backtrack”, “about-face”, “U-turn”, “retreat”. See how they are imbued with negative connotations: you have been conditioned to see them that way.
The consequence of this is that a bad decision is seen as better than no decision at all, and that bad decision, once made, commits you to a particular course of action. This is accepted by many without question and yet it is utterly false.
Let’s think about a simple scenario: you want to cross the street so you decide to step out into the road. Okay, you’ve made a decision (good for you!). Are you now committed to crossing that road come what may? Or should you change your mind and retreat if you notice a car approaching after stepping out?
My point is that we rarely have all the information at the point of making a decision. We try to predict what will happen but in all except the most trivial cases we cannot know. This means we know more about the consequences of our decision after making it, once we have taken the first steps along that course.
Which is more foolish? To argue that a decision has been made, it is set in stone and we must continue along that particular path, or to re-examine the decision periodically and judge whether it is still a beneficial course of action?
It’s not a new phenomenon. Wellington was castigated in the weeks and months following the 1809 Battle of Talavera when rather than advancing on French-held Madrid (a key aim of that summer’s campaign) after the French retreat, he made a rapid withdrawal back into Portugal and spent the winter sheltered behind the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.
At no point did Wellington have complete information about the size or disposition of the French forces opposing him, but his success in the Peninsular War long-term was a result of planning for different scenarios together with his ability to abandon a plan when he saw that circumstances had changed.
If not for the support of influential figures in London, Wellington would have been replaced as commander and the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have been very different. And even today it is politically almost impossible for anybody to change a decision once made.
The core of the problem is absolutism, the idea that every question has one correct answer. Reality doesn’t work like that, but few people are comfortable dealing with probabilities. But incomplete information means that a decision based on what appears most likely at one point in time can easily turn out to be the wrong course of action, something that comes to light later as we learn more.
Politicians don’t help their situation by applying absolutist arguments to justify their decisions: their way is the One True Path, the only way that will work. It means that when events conspire to frustrate their plans they need to maintain the fiction that their original decision was correct and continues to be correct.
There can be no wrong decisions because their jobs depend on the illusion that they alone have the right answers. We are all losers because this binds them to inflexible ideologies and prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances.
The way out of the trap is to recognize and admit that the world is a complex place and it’s not always clear how best to get to where we want to be. Admit that pressing on regardless sometimes means going further down a dead-end path, wasting time and resources in pointless activity.
Adaptability and flexibility are what matters most. Setting goals matters, but it’s not so important how they are reached. Indeed, stating what outcome you hope to achieve should be the most important thing.
Regarding the EU Referendum, the biggest problem with it as far as I’m concerned is that is offered a choice of two courses of action (leave the EU or remain in it). Nowhere did it ask people what they hoped to achieve by those actions. It was like asking people whether to turn left or right without giving them any idea where they were trying to get to, or where either path might end up.
It means that the government have a (narrow) mandate to take a particular course of action–leave the EU–without saying anything about what it is intended to achieve. Is it supposed to create jobs? Cut NHS waiting times? Stop it raining on Bank Holidays?
At times like these it is more important than ever to scrutinize those in power. To be critical. To ask “Why?” and “How?” Don’t be satisfied with attractive but empty slogans. Push for the details, and if they can’t or won’t provide them ask yourself why they might not want to reveal their objectives. Are they really working in the best interests of you and me, or of corporate lobbyists?
Question everything. Be critical. Think for yourself.