Trampoline Hall is an anti-lecture series that happens the first Monday of every month in Toronto. It’s the brainchild of writer Sheila Heti who thought it would be interesting to hear people talk on subjects that don’t have to do with their jobs, or professions. You speak from 10 to 13 minutes on your subject and then effervescent host Mischa Glauberman opens the lecturer up like a tin of pate. Really, the talk is preamble to the real event—the Q & A, which is lively and honest, like a kind of improvised personal theatre you’ve never seen in your life. On March 2, my subject was The Tree of Bad Decision Making. At the end, I handed out a decision tree template that helps you make a good decision about something you’re trying to figure out, like whether you should get married, take that job, or have a baby. (I’ll include it in my Friday blog.) Here’s the gist of what I said about bad decisions:
1. What I told my York University Students:
When I was teaching Creative Writing, I used to tell my first and second year students there were no bad decisions because in your twenties, life is trial and error. You have to actually try something out to see if it works for you and if it doesn’t work for you, then you move on and try something else. It doesn’t matter what you chose, a marriage or a job like day trading, the important thing, I told my students, is that they experiment and not judge themselves.
2. What Oprah Says About Bad Decisions
Looking back I think that’s still good advice for your twenties, and recently I heard Oprah Winfrey say more or less the same thing. But she applied the logic of learning from your mistakes to everything you decide in your life. She also said there absolutely were no bad decisions. Because each decision leads you to a certain perspective and from there you can ask: Does this path suit me? Does it lead to my special destiny, the thing that I am meant to do with my life? And if the answer is no, you move on and choose something else.
3. Second Thoughts about No Such Thing as a Bad Decision
Before I decided to give this talk, I believed Oprah’s philosophy was essentially right and I still think there’s a lot of truth to it because it’s a positive counterpoint to the background of our religious teachings that say we are sinners who make a thousand mistakes in the eyes of God. In effect, sin is a kind of bad decision according to Christian theologists. However, now I think that Oprah and I were only right up to a point because there are some very, very, very bad decisions. To sugarcoat the impact of these decisions with a philosophical wisdom is sometimes not helpful. By a bad decision, I mean, decisions that either result in your death, threaten your survival or sense of identity and wellbeing. Essentially, there are three branches of the bad decision-making tree: (1)Bad, bad decisions; (2) bad decisions you regret and (3) bad decisions you don’t regret.
4. The History of War is Full of Bad, Bad Decisions:
Historians are never tired of analyzing Napoléon’s misguided invasion of Russia. It was a bad, bad decision because Napoléon underestimated the forbidding Russian winters, and the Russians’ unorthodox way of waging war. In June 24, 1812, Napoléon and his Grande Armee set off to conquer Russia buoyed up by his early successes. As the summer unfolded and the early fall, the French won a few battles but the Russians retreated and Russian burnt up the land and the villages that the French troops were about to enter. Napoléon couldn’t understand why the Russians would want to harm their own territory or people and he kept following the retreating Russian army, perplexed but determined. Meanwhile, the weather grew colder and colder and colder. Soon there was no food so the French soldiers had to go out at night and forage for game, and quite often they were caught and killed by Cossacks or peasants. By the time they got to Moscow, the French soldiers were starving; the city was in flames and most of the Russians had fled. His army was exhausted and hungry; he had lost 72,000 soldiers, 49 generals and 250,000 of his men were wounded so he ordered a retreat. This was the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It was all down hill for Napoleon after that.
5. Over a Hundred Years Later Hitler made the same mistake
You could say Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 was a bad, bad, bad decision. What happened to him is really fascinating considering that his generals had studied why Napoléon had failed and yet, even with this knowledge, Hitler made the same mistakes. Hitler’s army retreated after a costly three year campaign in which he lost 734,000 men, about 23 percent of his over three million German soldiers. He’d been too confident after his success invading Western Europe, and he hadn’t anticipated the poor Russian road system. So when, in early November, the rain and snow came down, the German tanks and vehicles bogged down in the mud and many of the military machines wouldn’t start in the cold—the German soldiers had to light fires under the tanks to get the motors going—plus the lubricating oil in the German machinery didn’t work in such extreme cold temperatures; and the German soldiers didn’t have the right winter clothing because the Germans couldn’t get the equipment to their men on account of the poor roads. Meanwhile, the Russian soldiers were used to harsh winter conditions and they had warm quilted coats, felt boots, fur hats.
6. Some Other Bad Military Decisions
(A) Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg (July 1 to 3, 1863—lost over 6 thousand men) when General Lee sent out Pickett’s men to fight a vastly superior force. (B)The charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War Oct 25, 1854—when three military officers contradicted each other and sent 278 men and 335 horses out to die.
7. Summing up Bad, Bad Decisions
There wasn’t really anything very positive for these soldiers who were unlucky enough to be in campaigns fought by Napoléon or Hitler. Not even Oprah could come up with something that made the loss of thousands of lives and the dreadful experience worthwhile. So beware: Bad Decisions, they could kill you.
8. The Second Branch of the Tree is Bad Decisions You Regret.
In preparation for this talk I asked my Facebook friends to give me examples or stories of some bad decisions that they regret. I got over sixty answers and I have picked out the best of these bad decision stories. They will be reprinted on this blog in two days.
9. The third branch is Bad Decisions You Don’t Regret
These are decisions that didn’t seem wise at the time and may certainly have threatened your well being but ended up having a plus side, like the cliché about the cloud with the silver lining. My boat story is a bad decision I don’t regret. It happened two years ago, on a late August night. There was no moon, the wind was up and my partner Patrick wanted to go home to the island we had rented in Nares Inlet on Georgian Bay. He didn’t care if there was a chop or if he couldn’t see in the pitch darkness. And he knew that the marina guy said our ancient wooden Geysler outboard was so old it might not last the summer; he also knew we had a dim running light. I told him not to go and he said he was going anyway. So I had to make a decision—should I go or should I stay? I knew if I stayed home I would be safe but he might drown. If I went I might be able to stop that from happening because I grew up on the bay. I decided to go, but I knew it was going to be one of the all time harrowing experiences.
The night was even blacker than I anticipated. We couldn’t see a thing. The pines and rock islands all looked alike. Three miles out from the marina, we were lost and the wind was still coming up. We had no sense of direction so we made the wrong turn. A few minutes later, we hit three shoals, one right after the other. Each time the boat made a terrible crunching sound as if it was going to come apart there and then. I began to wave our flashlight and shout for help. Nobody answered. Without warning, we ran into an island and the waves blew our boat against a cliff of rocks. Patrick jumped out to push the boat away from the cliff and got caught between the rocks and the old wooden boat; he felt his strength ebbing. A human being suddenly appeared on the cliff and shouted at Patrick to go to the front of the boat. She was an islander, somebody who had been coming up to the bay since she was three and she knew what to do. She scrambled down the cliff and helped Patrick push the boat so that it wasn’t washing against the cliff; Patrick jumped back in and she pointed us in the right direction. Whew. Twenty minutes later we landed at our friends’ cottage near her island and we spent the night there. Several days later our rescuer told us that we had been coming in from far out in the open. We were much further out than I realized, so the dangers had been even worse than I thought because if you are far out in the open and your boat’s in trouble and hitting shoals, it’s much more difficult to get help. In fact, there’s a good chance you might drown and no one would know what happened to you.
Later, I decided going with Patrick wasn’t a bad decision I don’t regret. It was a good decision because we lived through the experience although our boat was totalled. In other words, how you think about your decision can change over time. On Friday, the handout on how to make good decisions and my friends’ stories about their bad decisions.