Writing Things Down

I am reading a good book called “Partners in Command” about the relationship between George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Biography is my favorite form of literature.  I am always surprised how much these guys wrote down.  They evidently all kept detailed diaries where they wrote their thoughts and plans.  Besides this blog, I have never had the discipline to do that.  I write a lot, but when I write, I tend to speculate and riff, much like you see on this blog.  Even if I assembled all “my papers” I don’t think I could write a decently documented autobiography and nobody else could make sense of it at all.

These guys started keeping journals long before they became famous enough to justify one.  I wonder if the journal keeping helped make them successful.

I HAVE developed one reasonably good journal habit.  It is not biographical, but more pragmatic.   Before something big happens, I write down my prediction and then I don’t look at what I wrote again until well after the event has been decided. Before I look again, I write a brief note of what I thought was going to happen, not what did happen but what I thought I had predicted.  Then I compare them.  I learned this method from a good book on decision making called (appropriately) “Decision Traps”.  

According to the authors, we overestimate our judgment because our memories are not like tape recorders.  Rather they are constantly rewriting and editing memories in light of subsequent events.  We try to make sense of chaotic events and with the benefit of hindsight we emphasize our understanding of trends and facts that turned out to be significant, even if we didn’t recognize them at the time, and forget about those that came to nothing.  That is why all of us are rich and successful in theory but fewer are in practice & that is why we are always sure we could do better than those who were responsible for decisions.  I found that is true for me.  When faced with the evidence written in my own hand, I am often surprised not only by the mistakes I made in the past but also by the fact that my honest memory has been edited to elide or even expunge my most serious  errors. 

The exercise of specifically analyzing my decisions using a concrete written method has improved my decision making, however.  Experience is not a good teacher if you don’t pay attention to the lessons.  I have learned be a lot more disciplined in seeking a wider variety of information, looking at data that disconfirms my assumptions and understanding significant role that chance plays in outcomes.  Of course it is still important to be “certain” once the decision is made.  The hard part is holding the contradictory facts in mind at the same time.  I still make some of the same mistakes I made twenty years ago, but now I see some of the patterns and can anticipate and mitigate.

Anyway, I think the journaling probably provided this kind of look back to great men like Marshall or Eisenhower, just as it does to ordinary guys like me.  They made some serious misjudgements.  Eisenhower was sure he was a failure as a militiary officer and thought he would be selected out.  Douglas MacArthur didn’t think the Japanese would ever invade the Phillipines.  What that shows is that even the best make big mistakes.  Their greatness involves adapting and taking advantage of changes, not in making great predictions.  Eisenhower also said something like no plan every works, but planning does because it makes you think through the permutations.

Our modern Internet age is a little too harsh on people.   Some nerd will fish up any statement you make and use it against you later.  Let me quote Emerson for any future nerd thinking of giving me a hard time.  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  You have to change your mind when facts or conditions change, but at the same time you need to be firm when finishing a job.  Both things are true.  People not involved in real decisions cannot seem to understand the nuance, but as usual I am drifting.

My Iraq blog has helped me and I thank those of you who (I think) are reading regularly.  It is easy to backslide when you are in it alone.  Having others watching tends to make us all more consequent.  I apologize that I sometimes have to generalize or take out details.  Security does not allow me to share some details; others I just prefer to keep to myself.  I hope the story is interesting to you.  It is interesting to me when I go back and remember things I certainly would have forgotten, flushed down the memory hole.