Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most

By Steven Johnson

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

256 pages; published by Riverhead Books; September 2018

Hardcover $28, softcover $20, e-read edition $13, audio book version $15

In a nutshell: Complex decisions seldom come with a road map or text book. Writer Stephen Johnson studied the imperfect science of decision-making before writing the relatable and enjoyable book, “Farsighted.”

Who is it for? General audiences; those facing difficult individual or organizational choices.

Author’s quote: “We need to deliberate, to weigh the options, to listen to different points of view before we render a judgement.”

The science of making important decisions has traditionally been more reliant on gut reaction than a proven methodology. Author Steven Johnson argues that the lack of process in this area was the motivation for him to write his recently released book, “Farsighted.”

Johnson is a skilled writer who first made waves with his book “Where the Good Ideas Come From,” which explained how the process of innovation occurs in a more complex way than an inventor simply coming up with a big idea.

In “Farsighted,” Johnson explains that making good decisions has more to do with mapping a number of choices that act as variables with an array of possible alternatives. The example he comes back to throughout the book is the planning of the raid to capture Osama bin Laden at a compound in the remote Pakistani town of Abbottabad in May 2011. Nine months of “debate and deliberation” prior to the raid examined 37 possible ways to complete the mission. This included scenarios that asked a number of simulation questions including: Was bin Laden actually in the house? What was the best way to get in? Should bin Laden be captured or killed? What happens if he is killed?

Toward the end of their planning, American intelligence experts with no prior knowledge of the effort were brought in to offer an outside perspective. The newer experts were able to see faults and blind spots in the plan that might have been overlooked otherwise. All of this forms the process that Johnson recommends for both group and individual decisions.

When discussing individual decisions, Johnson admits his own flawed process for deciding to move his family from New York to California (his blind spot was ignoring his wife’s priorities) and Charles Darwin’s pros and cons list for getting married (Darwin worried that having children would take him away from his old friends).

There have been other books that focus on the human ability to make choices. “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell and “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman both address split-second ways we make choices. Instead, “Farsighted” preaches a more methodical philosophy. Like the bin Laden example, Johnson recommends guiding important decisions with well-vetted information that maps variables to best predict where each decision path will go. This can be a slow but effective process. The only weakness with this line of thinking is analyzing important choices that have to be made quickly where the odds of favorable results decrease dramatically.

Perhaps Johnson’s most intriguing suggestion to hone important choice-making is to read fictional novels. Johnson points out that most literature has a narrative where the characters have to navigate through challenging choices. When viewing these situations from an outside lens, we are able to address our own challenges with a broadened sensibility. The idea is that over time, seeing difficult choices resolve themselves (or not) enhances our ability to prioritize important decisions.

In the final pages of “Farsighted,” Johnson reiterates his questioning of why sound, long-term decision-making is not given much attention as high school or college curriculum. Fortunately, “Farsighted” already offers up the foundation of such a class, complete with great stories and relatable techniques for facing the future with certainty.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.