A Clear Eyed View Of The Way Forward

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Rules of Thumb

It’s often hard to see your way forward. When there are many courses of action open to you whose possible outcomes are hard to predict you can remain paralyzed by analysis. I often find myself dithering past the point where picking any reasonable option and proceeding is far better than continuing to analyze my choices.

A Clear Eyed View Of The Way Forward

“One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere.”
William the Silent (“William of Orange”)

I frequently long for a clear eyed view of the way forward. Sometimes the path becomes clear when a situation echoes with prior experience or I see a pattern match to a prior success (or failure). Other times clarity flows from recognizing that there is only one option left: the “best bad plan.” The trick is to act immediately so as not to foreclose your only remaining potentially viable option.

Bowing To The Inevitable

“I not only bow to the inevitable, I am fortified by it.”
Thornton Wilder

I watched Interstellar again today and was even more impressed than when I watched the first time when I really liked it. My only regret was not watching again on a theater screen because so many of the scenes deserved it. [Spoiler Warning: stop reading now and watch the movie if you have not seen it already]. For me the most compelling scene comes about two hours in when Mann blows the airlock and sets the Endurance spinning towards a crash landing on the surface of the planet below.

Cooper: “What happens if he blows the airlock?”
CASE: Nothing good
Cooper: OK, pull back, pull back, retro thrusters, everything you’ve got.”

Cooper anticipates Mann may succeed and backs up to minimize the risk of getting hit by debris. Once the airlock explodes he spend a few seconds thinking through what to do next and starts to accelerate through the floating debris field toward Endurance

“It’s not possible!”
“No, it’s necessary”

On YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3lcGnMhvsA

CASE: “Cooper, there is no point in using our fuel to chase the …”
Cooper: “Analyze the Endurance’s spin.”

Cooper has already figured out that as slim as the chances are for docking with the Endurance it’s their last chance to save their mission. If Endurance crashes on the planet they lose Plan A because they don’t have any fuel and Plan B because all of the frozen embryos for the new colony will be destroyed. You can watch him reach that realization in about three seconds on the screen.

Brand: “Cooper, what are you doing?”
Cooper: “Docking.”
CASE: “Endurance’s rotation is 67, 68 RPM.”
Cooper: “Get ready to match our spin with the retro thrusters.”
CASE: “It’s not possible.”
Cooper: “No, it’s necessary.”

And that’s all of the explanation that he offers as he commits irrevocably to a course of action with a slim chance of success.

CASE: Endurance is hitting stratosphere
Brand: She’s got no heat shield
Cooper: CASE, you ready?
CASE: Ready!
CASE: Cooper, this is no time for caution.

Now CASE has caught up and realizes that the longer they keep spinning either Cooper will black out or the Endurance will burn up on re-entry. Once he is committed he has to see it through.

When Things Go Wrong

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is.”
Ernest Hemingway in “The Old Man and the Sea

I think you need to distinguish between two kinds bad situations.

  1. You have learned that the path you are on is not going to work out or clearly going to fail.
  2. You have realized that unless you change you plan it’s going to end in catastrophe and even if you stop actively pursuing it, your momentum will carry you into catastrophe.

In the first you can take time to analyze your options before selecting a new approach. In the second you have to act immediately to change course to steer away from danger.

“In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Prudence

When Caution is Indicated

“The time to be most careful is when you have a hand full of trumps. ”
Josh Billings

  1. When you cannot see how a plan can fail, you need to give it more thought.
  2. When you are clear on what you want to be true but not clear on the risks or the reasons it may not be, you need to be cautious.
  3. When you have not determined how big a step to take to learn more and want to test the depth of the water with both feet, you need to re-evaluate whether you need to make an all or nothing bet.

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