On rational thinking. Rationality is overrated.

4 mins read
Big decisions. If I had listened to reason I wouldn’t have even applied to business school. It was irrationality that led me to Columbia University.

A few months ago I was asked to address an audience of budding actuaries. As I spoke to them about model building, I touched upon the fatal attraction of rationality in making bigger choices and decisions. Of how it deceives and drives us to make safe choices when we could do very well with adding a little bit of spice and uncertainty in our life. How it holds us hostage to a bland and boring future.

Here is what I really wanted to say but didn’t have the time to share on that day. Life is not a micro economic or decision making under uncertainty class. It is more complex. Hence more fun. Get with the spirit of living, be unpredictable. 

I have been working with arithmetic for 35 years. Not mathematics, not theorems, not differential calculus, not non-linear optimization. But arithmetic – the joy of playing with numbers.

The original appeal of taking one, adding two and getting three has seen me flirt with Lotus 123 and Symphony (in a different life before Office and Office 360), build macro driven spreadsheet templates for doing unthinkable things in 1989 (When VBA was just a dream, RAM was measured in kilobytes and there were no hard disks), take actuarial exams for eleven long years, follow the path of a computer scientist and fall in love with the magic behind manipulating numbers with just a lead pencil and a booklet of lined papers.

Thirty five years is a life time. I have been a model builder for longer than I have been a student, a husband, or a father.   That is my only qualification for saying what I am about to say. Not hard science but years of practicing addition, multiplication, divisions and subtraction; of arrogance, naivety and stupidity masked by a belief in a rational world. Of building models that couldn’t be built.

Rationality is over rated.

Don’t burn me at the stake as yet. Hear me out. Give the old man a chance to let some steam out.

Rationality is over rated because simple arithmetic cannot capture the complexity of real life. And trust me where simple arithmetic fails, sophisticated mathematical models don’t have a prayer.

Rationality is over rated because all that is right in my life is because in moments of sheer lunacy I did the unthinkable. I did not listen to reason.

The world said, “Are you mad? You will be sorry one day, just you wait and see.”

It wasn’t easy. There have been many days where I look back and wonder what in the world was I thinking. Was I really insane? Was this the best I could do with all that education behind me?

But here is the funny bit. Despite those moments of doubt, of wonder, and trust me there have been many more than I would care to count, there is one only sentiment I feel when I look back.

No, not regret. Relief. Relief that I did not listen to reason.

From finding and fighting for love to following impossible dreams, from exploring paths I thought we were not destined to follow to helping others find themselves, from ignoring well-meaning sane advice to brushes with madness, from forgiving and forgetting and moving on, there is one common theme that I see again and again.

I did not listen to reason.  And that made all the difference in the world.

Let me qualify that before you try jumping off the penthouse suite to test and challenge gravity, physics and common sense. When it comes to big life changing decisions we generally have two clear choices. The safe choice and the insane one.

Sometimes when we examine the insane option we find that it has more going in its favor that we originally thought. It still remains an insane choice but a choice that you still really want to explore. All that is holding you back is that nagging voice in your head. “Are you sure? This really isn’t rationale, you know.” And you hear yourself say, “In a different world, with a different hand of cards, I may have given this a shot. But right now, no.”

When you come across a fork in the road like that, when you have to pick a path and the safe, rationale one is the one you don’t like, don’t listen to reason, listen to your heart. I know it is not easy. It is not supposed to be. It is awkward, painful, embarrassing. Occasionally overwhelming, often outright depressing. Going against the flow always is.

But start slowly. The switch to irrationality can be quite a shock to the mathematically inclined. Begin with giving a little more, by taking a little less. Feel a little less entitled, let go every now and then, skip that claim you wanted to file out of spite. Just a small little step, a small little switch in your thinking.  Create dis-balance in the cosmos and watch the dominoes fall. Try a sushi burger.

Small decisions. A desire to experiment and give up on a tried and tested sushi joint and sushi rolls to explore something new led to the sushi burger. Create dis-balance in the cosmos.

Thirty five years later, like me, on a pleasant sunlit morning as you sit down to jot down your morning task list for the day and are blindsided by a memory or a thought, you will look back and wonder. What was I thinking? There is no model for justifying the crazy things we do in our lives. I am glad I didn’t build one. I am glad I didn’t stop to think, re-examine my choices and did just what I did.

When all else fails, toss reason out of the window for a day. Give insanity a chance. Live a little. See where that takes you. You would be surprised.