Dithering denounced

November 30, 2012

“This way and that dividing the swift mind in act to throw. But at the last it seemed better to leave Excalibur concealed.”

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Tennyson got that one just right; the dying Arthur had ordered Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights, to cast the magic sword Excalibur back into the lake from whence it came. But Bedivere dithered, hid the sword, and then lied about it. In fact, it took two more tries before Excalibur was properly returned to its owner.

Which only goes to remind us that we were born on a rotating planet where night follows day with mechanical precision, so that we are habituated to polarity, the concept of extremes: plus or minus, on or off, black or white and so on. Can you even imagine a computer running on half-bits? Yet you know perfectly well that black or white doesn’t preclude gray even if there is no alternative to “on/off” or “plus/minus.” There has to be a middle way, like half-baked, half-open or half-starved.

Is there any concrete justification for dithering? Yes, well maybe, even perhaps possibly. We have a mental mechanism which evaluates both sides of any potential action and, based on previous experience, comes down firmly on one side or the other before giving the go-ahead to act. But when the pros and cons are evenly matched, the mind breaks down and dithers, or else curls up into a ball and goes to sleep. I myself find it hard to admire people who can’t make up their cotton-picking minds, and since disliking myself would be kind of weird, I make sure of never having to make a tough decision; I carry a coin with a distinct head and tail, assign the head to one side of the argument, the tail to the other, and flip.

But if you think that is simply evading the issue, let me be clear that I have a strong theoretical basis for my action (or, if you will, inaction). Briefly, the argument goes that in any situation where the pros and cons are evenly balanced, the very essence of the dithering problem, it simply doesn’t matter which side you come down on.

This is not very important when deciding whether to carry an umbrella or not, but can be critically important when deciding whether to spend a billion dollars on a nuclear plant or a political fight. But, says this highly mathematical argument, if it turns out you were wrong, it must have been because something came up to invalidate your choice after the decision was made, and you can hardly be blamed for not taking into account something that hasn’t yet happened.

Actually, I did once make just such a costly decision, and my boss pointed out as he handed me the pink slip that managers are absolutely required to foresee the future. But that’s another story altogether.

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