Friday, May 25, 2012


I have always disliked the portion of interviews with famous persons when they are asked if they would, in retrospect, make different choices.  It seems a favorite question to ask politicians, for example.  Two things irritate: First, the answer is rather obviously “yes” for every sentient being.  Of course we would act differently if armed with what we know now.  Even on those events which we believe we got largely right and say cheerily “I wouldn’t change a thing,” we would change something, even if it were only to invite more people to watch us succeed.  Second, the politician essentially answers “no,” despite knowing that this cannot be a correct answer.  It’s a trapping question by the interviewer, designed to extract an “I told you so,” and they deftly sidestep it.  You could hear it in the later comments of both Bill Clinton and George Bush, and I could barely stand to listen.  Both would speak – and I have heard businessmen, sports figures, and military figures do the same – in terms of making the best decision they could on the basis of what they knew at the time, and not looking back or second-guessing.  They were obviously being evasive, but they simply had to because of what would be made of even the mildest admission. 

Something similar came up in my own field which causes me to reconsider.  A psychiatrist whose judgment I greatly respect restated the issue in a subtle way which made all the difference.  To my comment about looking back into the past and doing something over (regarding a discharge with a semi-bad outcome), he rather twinkled and asked “You mean if I knew the future, would I make today’s decisions differently?”  That is a logically equivalent construction, yet it feels very different.  He is a man accustomed to making difficult decisions, and I suddenly wondered if these leadership types, these “deciders,” are naturally forward-looking, while the interviewers – and all of us trained in humanities and social sciences – are natural reviewers instead.

For the record, I still believe the politicians are being evasive and politically cautious in those comments.  But I no longer think that is necessarily the whole story.  The difference between the people who want today’s information yesterday, versus those who want tomorrow’s information today (and can leave yesterday behind) may be far more profound and thoroughgoing than I had thought.

Additional note.  In the few areas that I am required to make decisions and be competent, I am much more of a forward-thinker, shrugging off what I may have gotten wrong in the past.  Not entirely, but enough to notice.  Yet in the areas where I am free to contemplate and have no real consequences, I am entirely backward-looking.  I pick up a chance stone and examine it, looking for oddities, and the process is congenial to me.  Nearly everything I write here stems from that process of reviewing.


Sam L. said...

As 'twas asked: "What did he know, and when did he know it?"

We can only guess at the future, but the future has both 20-20 eyesight and a bunch of people who want us to look bad for what we did.

Donna B. said...

It's a standard question and it was one of the required ones in a high school history assignment* given to one of my daughter's classes -- they were to interview the two oldest people they knew.

I like the response she got from a great aunt: There are lots of small things I wish I'd done a little different, but not the big ones. It would have nice to not have to face some of those choices.

*part of a semester focused on finding and using original sources and the project my daughter chose was genealogy. She chose this one because she was lazy and thought that much of it had already been done.

She ended up working extensively on it going far beyond the requirements of the assignment. It was life-changing for our family. The first change being her enthusiasm for family reunions -- she went from "Do I have to go?" to "When is the next one? Why do we get together only once a year?"

Other family members got enthused when she brought her project to a family reunion and started gathering stories from the rest of the elder generation.

Twenty years later, we're still working on it.