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Hesitating versus Rushing In
November 18, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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Fools Rush In, But He Who Hesitates is Lost

In times like these, when many houses are flooded on the coast of Florida on a monthly basis due to global warming, and being a refugee is no longer unusual, a lot of people can look forward to making a lot of decisions they have never had to make before.

But in a sense human life, even animal life, is about making decisions. So people have come up with helpful folk sayings for some of the more common situations.

"Fools rush in where others fear to tread," speaks to those who go into danger without knowing it. The implication is: know your dangers, and avoid them. Also, part of knowledge is not rushing. Take your time, assess the situation before taking actions. Sounds wise.

"He who hesitates is lost." Life is almost never simple. Standing around assessing the situation, as advised by the prior proverb, can get you killed. Usually these are dramatic situations, like on the battlefield. But it is often quoted about rivalries of love, where the man who fails to make his intentions known loses out to the man who offers marriage first. [No gender discrimination intended, just sticking to the history.]

Which brings us to the more general problem: how do you know what situation you are in? Should you rush, or should you take your time to make a good decision?

People usually learn which rules apply to which situations as they age, but even older people run into novel situations. Generally we compare them to the situations and results we remember, and make our best guess.

Deciding between rushing and hesitating is just the beginning. Every situation has its particulars. Even when the rules are artificially well-defined, say a professional football game, outcomes are uncertain. You will never see the game played exactly the same way twice. Part of the game is guessing what decisions will be made by the other players.

If you are crossing the road and suddenly a car is coming at you at 80 kilometers per hour, it is almost certainly time to rush. But the car driver may swerve to not hit you, and if the swerve is in the direction you jumped to save your ass, well, the outcome can be the same as if you hesitated and the car did not swerve.

Generally I prefer to make careful, informed decisions. I also favor planning, the old If This happened to me, then I have a plan to react. Practice helps. I once took classes to be a swimming instructor and lifeguard. And sure enough, eventually I had to react quickly, and the training paid off. But you cannot train for the unforeseen.

Sometimes you simply have good fortune or not. No one decides what family to be born into, which largely determines what you learn and what your opportunities in life are.

Fortune is largely about randomness and probability. Most of the time most people follow routines that work reasonably well, in a world that seems predictable. But wars, famines, bad weather, and sudden economic changes are not uncommon. To stay in Yemen or Syria and starve or be bombed, or to suffer the dangers of becoming a refugee: it is a decision that even Americans might need to make some day. But the specifics are unknowable, until they happen.

Often the most important decisions are about small things, like who to be friends with, who to get in a relationship with, whether to party or work, or whether to spend or save. In most cases it does not make sense either to rush, or to take a long time inert, waiting to see what happens. A moderate pace is the best pace for all but the most extreme situations. Learn to pace yourself. You may not avoid surprises, but you will have built the inner resources that could help you make the best of them.


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