Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

Authored by Ben Zauski, Facundo Bouzat, and Neil Browne

Authored by Ben Zauski, Facundo Bouzat, and Neil Browne

1.    How do any of us arrive at our current place in life?

2. To what extent is it meaningful to claim that we are charting our own course?

3. Why would we persist in considering a decision after a circumspect (to pick a random small number) 3-hour analysis of the options?


We doubt whether humans will cease anytime soon presuming that they are major players in their own destiny.  Regardless of logic or evidence pointing toward the contrary and dismal news that we have little to do with our life outcomes, we just find it too flattering to believe anything other than the primacy of our decisions in writing our story. 

Consequently, at first and second glance the title of this post seems confused.  Of course, it makes sense for us to throw everything we have into our decisions.  Those define our course and both the destinations we avoid and those we call our home. 

But take a look at The Other Wes Moore.  Two boys grow up in the same Baltimore neighborhood at the same time. Both lose their father figure; they even share the same name. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar, White House Fellow, decorated army officer; the other is serving a life sentence for murder and armed robbery.  What is happening here? 

The simplest way to respond is to assume that the sameness as described above shouts to us that the decisions of the individual Wes Moore’s  propelled them to their respective identities. 

But we prefer a more intricate explanation: We do make what may be called "choices", but the choices we make have particular results that are far beyond our control. When we make the choices, the identity of our parents with all that such identity implies, the time in which we make the choices, luck, race, class, the fluke of an encounter with an encouraging mentor, conditions of the economy, national origin and many other external factors nudge the results of the choices in directions we may well have never even remotely envisioned at the point of choice. 

Look back at the stories of the 2 Wes Moore’s.  How little we know about their choices from that brief description pretending to encapsulate their external scenarios! Listen to the troubling wisdom in the lyrics of “Dancing Nancies” by the Dave Matthews band:


"Don't ya ever wonder maybe if I took a left turn instead of taking that right I may be someone quite different tonight,

Don't ya ever wonder could I have been on the other side, don't ya ever wonder, [pause] anyone,

Well could I have been a parking lot attendant,

Could I have been a millionaire in Bel Air,

Could I have been lost somewhere in Paris,

Could I have been your little brother,

Could I have been anyone other than me?


It is only a slight exaggeration to say that each decision we make might result in our being “lost somewhere in Paris” or “a millionaire in Bel Air.”

 Any control we may have over our lives probably begins and ends with the initial choice we make. Many of us give thought to the extent to which those initial choices are shaped by factors outside our control. (See Nicholas Kristof’s August 9, 2014 column. But then we seem to forget that decisions are made at one moment, while the results wind their way forward over many years. As the results of our choices emerge there are many causal sequences jolting the end results hither and yon. For example, a legal decision affecting our well-being goes in a particular direction because the judge made the ruling at a particular time in the day when those rulings prevail.  

In light of what we have argued so far, just how much energy should we invest in even the most important decisions in our lives? 

Consider the film “Mr. Nobody.”  In one scene, the main character, a kid, is walking along a sidewalk, and passes three girls sitting on a bench. Each of them is wearing a different color—they symbolize the different futures he might have. The director then creates several different narratives for each life that the main character could have had with each of the girls. We enjoyed the scene because, to us, it highlighted that life is full of uncontrollable mysteries.  Which girl is the "best" choice? Is there even such a thing as a "correct" choice? Probably not (although, in hindsight, we can always create a narrative for a "best" anything).

The boy can believe that he is being so careful in making a choice, but he is almost entirely unable to foresee what will happen regardless of the girl he selects. If he wishes, he can spend the next 5 years ruminating about the choice.  He can make a list of possible consequences that stretches around his house multiple times. But his ability to make a better choice will have been enhanced little thereby.

 We will continue to make the attempt to be circumspect when making decisions, as if doing so will give positive direction to our lives. But as a result of our thinking, we are now much less likely to believe that the result of our contemplation will be some wonderful choice foretelling the future we seek. That belief is going to make it so much easier for us to make a decision and then put it to bed.

 1.    Would not the amount of time profitably invested in a decision be related primarily to the size of its possible effects?

2.    Is the search for an optimal decision ineluctably a fool’s errand?

3.  Are there avenues for reducing the hold that external factors have on our fate?  

AuthorM Neil Browne