The story of Icarus is one of my favorites in Greek Mythology. Icarus’ father, Daedalus, angered King Minos, causing both Daedalus and his son Icarus to quickly flee the island of Crete. Being an inventor, Daedalus created two sets of wax wings so that they could fly away from the island. Daedalus, knowing how to construct the wings, cautioned his son to fly only in the middle of the sky, lest he fly too close to the sea and dampen his wings or too close to the sun and melt them. Icarus, in his youth, got so carried away that despite his father’s caution, he flew too high and too near the sun, melting his wings and plummeting into the sea, where he drowned. Icarus’ death is something that Daedalus never recovered from.
Daedalus is not unlike many of us. He was required to make and execute decisions that had profound consequences for others, oneself, and even generations to come. Daedalus didn’t choose to set out to put his son in a precarious position—he believed that he was making the wisest decision possible under the circumstances, yet his inability to see a potential unknown led to disaster. History shows time, and again, despite our attempts to make wise decisions, people fail to identify what it is they know and solve for what they don’t, leading them to decide or act unwisely. Making wise choices relies on a complex set of processes and an awareness of the totality of the situation being faced. If, as Socrates says, “True knowledge exists in knowing we know nothing,” what then can increase the likelihood that we can distinguish, decide, and act wisely in an impatient world where we have created a sense of immediacy in responding?
We need to master the art of balancing two related activities: discovering what is known and solving for what is unknown or what may remain unknown. This requires that we tap into our intuitive mind. Finding the right things to do and the right way to do them comes through practicing mindfulness, engaging in reflective thinking, and focusing on actively learning not from actual experience of the event but as part of envisioning and testing out the possibilities.
Questions that trigger reflection, and increase our focus and awareness at the moment, can be used to bring about the balance needed to decide wisely. Here are a few to get you started:
- What is the source of the information I’m using to make my decision? Are these facts or opinions?
- What facts are known, what remains unknown, and what do I need to know to make this decision? What other sources of information may I be ignoring or remain unknown?
- What biases might I have toward one idea versus another? Have I listened to anyone who opposes the decision I intend to make?
- Have I been given enough time to consider my decision, and is the time frame adequate to reflect the importance of the matter being decided?
- What are the long-term considerations and impacts? Who does the decision benefit or disadvantage, and what are the risks?