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Decisions, emotions or bad luck?

I admit, I like the famous Wayne Gretzky cliché quote “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”. 

I, however, just noticed that I have always phrased it a bit differently — and never have used it seriously. My version is: 

“Don’t skate where the puck is, skate where the puck is going to be.”

The difference is not huge but there is a different flavour. If you know where the puck has been but is not anymore in there, skating there is really stupid. When you observe where the puck is, see the situation and learn to read the game — the other players movements — so that you are good at predicting where the puck will be, you are smart. We may conclude that Gretzky’s wisdom is about ability (1) to estimate probabilities, (2) to do predictions and (3) to act accordingly.

To be really good at all these three you must use both decisions making processes; (1) the automatic, intuitive and often unconscious thinking and (2) the slower, analytical reasoning (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow). In the case of hockey, you can’t really do the second. The game is fast. Therefore, the great players have internalized the second thinking so well that it has become part of the first.

In slower processes, such as life, we are not in a great hurry to do decisions. Still, we make decisions relying on intuitive fast thinking that is often strongly affected by emotions. In life the ability to vary and combine fast and slow thinking is important. In this your ability to recognize your emotions helps a lot.

Emotional, something one could say non-rational, decisions are not bad as a such. The key is that you are aware of it being an emotional decision. For me so called emotional decisions have been my best decisions. In these situations, I can be aware that the probability of things going well are not great, the prediction is unclear. Still, I want to act. I take a conscious risk. The puck may come where I am skating to. Often it does.

I recently read my grandfather’s (born 1909) memoirs. He was not a hockey player. He was primary an officer in three wars, and secondary a businessman. I think he was relatively good at estimating probabilities, but terrible with predictions and actions. He was definitely bad at recognising his emotions.

He quit the school and joined the army in 1926 as a voluntary. He was 17. His father asked him to finish the school before going to the army. He didn’t follow his father’s advise. They didn’t talk much after this.

Although, for him the decision to join the army was strongly emotional, it was not a bad move. Europe was fragile and Finland was a young nation in a need of an army. The puck was going there. In the army he joined the cavalry, because he was good at riding and loved horses. Bad move. He went where the puck was, not where it was going to. When he was serving in the army, came a new law that for the Cadet School you need the upper secondary diploma. The puck was moving again.

After the unsuccessful carrier in the army, he was . . . today you could say . . .  a serial entrepreneur with different kind of businesses. In 1930’s he travelled several times in Europe and looked for business opportunities. In summer 1939 he made his last trip to Baltics, Poland, Germany and Hungary. Hitler attacked Poland on September 1st. He made it back to Finland on September 7th 1939.

Soon after the trip he joined the army again. On 30 November 1939 Soviet Union (USSR) attacked Finland. The Winter War began. In the following seven year in three wars, he served as a captain and a major. In his memoirs, the parts where he writes about the war times are full of stories of good luck. There are also good examples of his rational decision making.

Still, very often he claims that in the war he was lucky. He survived from terrible situation and saved others, because he was lucky. I think he was not lucky. I think in the war he was in his best. His ability to put his emotions to background and to do rational decisions, and most likely also fast but good decisions paid off. He was where the puck moved.

When the wars were over, however, the army didn’t have anything to offer him. New situation. Back to business. Back to different kind of decisions making environment.

His later life story is full of examples of bad luck, or bad decisions, as I would call them. Not because he wasn’t able to do rational decision but because he was not good at reading the situation and to predict. Between the lines you can read his inability to recognising his emotions and their affects to his decision. All the obstacles in his life were seen by him as bad luck. He missed the puck.

I don’t even know why I wrote this. It is not really related to anything. Should I press “publish”? OK. Intuitive decision.

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