Some Thoughts on Serendipity

Media248In mid November at the INFORMS Conference, the Decision Analysis community held a little celebration (INFORMS is the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science).  The celebration was to mark 50 years since the creation of the field of Decision Analysis, or DA, in 1964.  As often happens, the foundations of DA were developed in parallel by several individuals, two of whom – Ron Howard of Stanford and Howard Raiffa of Harvard – are generally given the lion’s share of the credit.  The celebration also was the first time that the newly created Raiffa-Howard award for achievement in organizational decision analysis was awarded.  The award went to Chevron Corporation.

The day was filled with stories from “the old days” by many of DA’s pioneers, including Drs. Raiffa and Howard themselves.  Ron Howard’s relating of how he came to focus his attention on applying a structured approach to making decisions included a story about when he had been working in the northeastern U.S., but set out in his car to pursue opportunities out west.  The car broke down near Pittsburgh, Howard didn’t have the money to get it fixed, and he ended up returning to his work in the northeast.  It was that work that got him thinking about a better way to make complex decisions.

Dr. Howard closed his talk with the following statement (paraphrased):  “You never know what little things in life will have a huge effect on you.  Had that car not broken down, had I continued on and found new work, I might never have gone on to do the research I did in Decision Analysis.”Media441

Truer words have never been spoken.  I have often mused about the enormous role serendipity plays in all of our lives.  Had I not been playing darts and drinking beer with a British friend on a certain afternoon in Indonesia in 1992, I almost certainly would never have heard about – let alone landed – a job in Scotland that year.  My family and I spent six years in Aberdeen; my daughters did quite a lot of their growing up there.  We all have strong feelings of nostalgia for the place, despite the weather (nobody likes the weather in Scotland – not even the Scots).  I cannot imagine how different our lives would have been without our years there.

And so it goes for countless people.  By sheer happenstance, Bill Gates attended one of very few high schools in the 1960s-70s that had a computer available for students to use.  The rest, as they say, is history.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this kind of randomness; they have a strong need to believe that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all part of some master plan.  There was a movie a few years ago starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt called The Adjustment Bureau.  It was essentially a chick flick, a romantic thriller about two people (Damon and Blunt), and a team of agents (angels, actually) who go to great lengths to try to prevent them from getting together as a couple.  The agents are supposed to remain undetected as supernatural beings, so they cause incidents and accidents like making Damon spill coffee on himself to disrupt his routine and make him miss a bus, all in the name of keeping the two apart.  The reason proffered for why they do this is that it would interfere with “The Plan.”  Damon and Blunt manage to subvert their efforts, of course, and in the end, The Plan is modified to accommodate their desires (and, presumably, the audience’s).

This is, of course, nonsense.  Think of all the incredibly trivial, happenstance occurrences that result in major changes of direction in our lives.  With so much randomness coming at us from all angles, how can there be the kind of master plan so many people believe in?  It could only happen if there is, in fact some sort of Adjustment Bureau out there, causing us all to spill our coffee, or to drink beer and play darts, or causing our cars to break down at opportune moments.  I sincerely doubt that.

Claiming that everything happens as part of The Plan – even the things we choose to do – strikes me as an abdication of responsibility.  One of life’s great paradoxes is that we are ultimately responsible for our decisions and our actions, and yet with the staggering amount of randomness in the world – good luck, bad luck, and just plain unpredictable occurrences – we cannot control the results of our decisions and actions.  Therefore, judging, rewarding, and punishing people solely on the basis of results isn’t just unfair – it isn’t even sensible.

This may also sound like an abdication of responsibility, but I assure you, it is not.  One should be held accountable for one’s decisions, but not for the ultimate results from those decisions.  The penalty for attempted murder should be identical to that for murder; whether or not one’s homicidal intentions were successful isn’t really relevant.

This is not to say that our choices don’t make a difference; they do.  They change the probabilities associated with various outcomes.  We may not be able to ensure certainty, but we can and often do influence outcomes.

Word Decision and arrows over black

This was another pearl of wisdom from Ron Howard at the Celebration.  He vehemently distinguished between good and bad decisions, and good and bad outcomes.  As he pointed out, “If you drive drunk and kill somebody, that’s a bad decision with a bad outcome.  If you drive drunk and get home safely, that may be a good outcome, but the decision was just as bad.”

As such, I don’t buy the notion of a Master Plan.  I believe we are all captains of our own fate, but with a couple of huge caveats:  the seas can vary from placid to stormy, and the ship’s wheel has an awful lot of play in it.

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