By Matt Gordon
True story: there was once an ox-weighing competition at an old-timey country fair. So people would walk up, assess an ox, and then write down what they thought it weighed. We used to do something similar in grade school, only we’d guess how many Lemonheads were in a jar and the closest guess won the candy—because what kid doesn’t need 1,874 Lemonheads? In the case of this fair, I’m not sure if some lucky lad jaunted home with a well-fed ox or not. But I do know that one guy went home with all the guesses. A bunch of them. Serious ones and silly ones. All over the board really. These guesses were made by school children, farmers, and city slickers, so there was a wide range of age and expertise involved. Rather than scoff or discard the bad guesses, this man totaled them. All of them—good and bad alike. Once averaged—again, good and bad alike—the result was the weight of the ox to the ounce. 787 guesses from a concert of strangers produced truth. This was weighty knowledge, much heavier than that of an unsuspecting ox.
The man’s name was Francis Galton, a British statistician, and his little day at the fair led to myriad experiments about what we know and how WE come up with better conclusions than you alone do.
This is not news. Ancient wisdom and our own intuition have been advocating for counsel for millennia. Biblical wisdom is rife with the idea of advice (see Proverbs 19:20, 11:14, 1:7, 24:6, for instance).
But in an individualized world, and one where everyone is expected to know everything or Google the answer themselves, seeking a wise average can be an afterthought. If even a thought at all. Here are simple steps that might prove helpful the next time you have the ox of a decision stood before you.
Prayer is a simple practice that quiets the heart and enlivens the mind. Prayer is the means by which we honor God and seek His mind on things. EM Bounds, a professional prayer, likened the prayerful person to one passing through an orchard with trees adorned with large, wondrous fruit. Prayer is the means by which one would pluck down heavenly fruit—it was both delicious and fortifying. But one must reach out to take it. Prayer is the arm extended; the hand grasping a fruitful life.
2. Ask three wise, likeminded people for input.
It is good to hear from some people who generally think like you do about the world. These are likely trustworthy friends who occupy the same cultural context as you, but certainly ones who generally share the same world view, read the same things, and align with your beliefs. Choose people whose lives you admire because your admiration has been bred, in part, by their decision-making. In other words, if one of these people had to make the decision for you, you wouldn’t lose much sleep.
3. Ask at least one wise person who is not like-minded for input.
Confirmation bias is a plague. Steinbeck writes that no man really wants advice; corroboration is what we are after. Often, when we seek advice, we are simply looking for any person who will confirm the way our proverbial emotional elephant is already leaning. We have our mind made up, we are just looking for co-conspirators to condone pre-chosen action. Asking a person outside of context can help you till out more options and perspectives. If you are a parent, ask a non-parent. Married? Find a single friend and get feedback. Theist? Find a materialist. Ideally, you have some of these people in your circle full-time so you don’t have to seek them out. Otherwise that could make for a weird classified post: Looking for unbelieving vegan who loves heights who likes to weigh in on the affairs of a grounded, godly, meat-eating stranger. If you don’t have some friends who are different than you make that a priority: developing some solid relationships with those whom reside outside your echo chamber. Relationships like this are good for you and them, and actually cultivate the pathways necessary for unity. It is easy, after all, to be united with those who belief and think the same. When cohesion and peace exist across ideologies is when true, gritty unity is forged. Asking people different from you for advice is an invitation to grow such friendships. It is a sign of deep respect, openness, and humility. And it will help you foster perspectives too.
4. Ask an unwise person for input.
At that ox-weighing there were some absurd guesses. But they were factored in nonetheless. It is important that we keep some bad notions close-at-hand in life so that they are easy to spot. It also makes wisdom clearer when we mingle with its counterpart, Folly. (Silence making a sound and all that.) There have been times when I rethink my world—a reordering of the content of drawers, so to speak—based on the realization that I am in dogged agreement with a foolhardy individual. Suddenly the mirror is raised to my face and I have subtly become the fool. By keeping a fool or two in your company, you benefit from developing a sense for bad choices, but also, over time, you may end up making a better guesser of them too.
5. Take the time you need to do these things.
The bigger the decision the more important these layers are. Where time is short, you cut from the bottom of this list up. But also where time is short you consider why? If there is not time to weigh out your course, you might question the decision altogether. Say you receive a big job offer that would require you to move, but the recruiting company needs to know by the end of the day. If there is not time to proceed with time-tested wisdom protocols in place then perhaps it is unwise to proceed at all? What I mean, more simply, is that one should not be cowed into unwise action. If there isn’t time to act wisely, inaction is likely the wisest course.
This is front and back loaded because God gets to throw more than one “guess” into the hat. Further, an amazing thing happens when we bookend our advice-seeking process with the silence and solitude found through prayer. On the front-end we enter the fray with peace. It calms us. Psychologists have known for centuries that humans do not act wisely when emotions are high. The tenderness of prayer lowers the emotional load to a bearable weight, so we enter a posture to listen to the advice we seek. Then, at the backend of things, we again enter the silence, and what we will find is certain voices falling away and others rising to the forefront. The time spent in prayer allows for us, like Galton, to lay the guesses out before us and get the math just right.
We can bound forth into the world of daily decisions like a slapdash bull, all brash bravado and occasional destruction. Or we can approach decisions as a wise statistician does a standing ox. He is calm and measured, collecting the accumulated guesses of a gaggle of bystanders; then, rather than seizing on the first good guess, he takes them all into consideration and strives for a result down to the ounce.