One of my favorite rappers of all time, Nas, says:
"It's life or death for me now
But you know, there's no turnin' back now
This is what makes me, this is what I am"
Nas says that right before he proceeds to sing one of the best songs of his career and one of the greatest rap songs ever, "Hate me now."
Why is it that humans seem to make the very best decisions when confronted with life or death circumstances, perform at the very top of their game, and ultimately elevate the entire human race?
I went digging to find out. So far I've read psychology, biology books, and what some of the most successful people in the world had to say about the topic.
Our evolved brains are highly adept at dealing with life or death circumstances. We are literally the result of trillions of life or death iterations from bacteria to what we are now, thinking multi-celled organisms. By definition, the ones who were bad at those life-or-death circumstances did not live to reproduce and pass on their genetic makeup, so therefore we are all extremely good at those life-or-death situations.
The book Gut Feelings goes into depth about our ability to make good decisions in uncertain environments. Gerd Gigerenzer, the author, quotes a study that tests parents in a life-or-death situation of their child. The vast majority of the parents answer the same way; they decide based on one reason, they use what Gerd describes as the "Take the best" technique. According to Gerd, trusting our gut and going with "Take the best" beat out complex models such as multiple regression or the Bayes model. "Take the best" had the same accuracy at predicting outcomes as the much more complex Bayes model and did so in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the compute. The technique did so while ignoring most of the information too. Given life-or-death scenarios, or if we can learn to trust our gut, all of us intuitively know the most important data points related to an uncertain future.
So since we now know that we are well equipped to make great instinctual calls with imperfect information about the future, how might we tap into these innate abilities? Can we tap this ESP (Extrasensory Perception) to make great decisions about our future? Of course, as we already found out, this isn't ESP at all, and there isn't anything magic about instinctual knowledge that is encoded into our genes; that's all just science.
I have a few examples for you of people who all could tap into this "Life-or-Death" mentality to make far better decisions than the rest of us. Their process might help us gleam how we might be able to do this too.
Marc Lore, someone I worked for and is the founder of Jet.com. Marc built Jet from the ground up and sold it to Walmart for 3.3 billion dollars within two years of launch. Marc says that we all operate on certain gears, gears 1 through 5, when we are working or doing anything worth doing in life. But he also says there is a sixth gear, something you can only achieve when you are all in. According to Marc, this sixth gear allows you to do all sorts of extraordinary things; it allows you to get creative and survive when you may have otherwise died. He says the only way to tap the sixth gear is to be all in. To be all in means, you burn all the boats that got you to the place you're in now over the vast ocean of life. To burn the boats also means that you cannot go back the way you came, that it's life-or-death with what's in front of you now.
Marc is a big risk-taker, and he has reaped the rewards of having guts; the approach he preaches is a surefire way to get us into sixth gear, but there may be less risky and less painful ways for those of us that don't have the same guts as Marc.
In the book the Everything Store, Brad Stone describes Jeff Bezos's process to force good decision-making. Rather than place himself in literal life-or-death situations, Jeff preaches that we only need to fast forward to the moment of our death, our deathbed, to get the same outcome. Jeff calls this the "regret-minimization framework," and here is how the book describes it:
"he came up with what he called a "regret-minimization framework" to decide the next step to take at this juncture of his career. "When you are in the thick of things, you can get confused by small stuff," Bezos said a few years later. "I knew when I was eighty that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time. That kind of thing just isn't something you worry about when you're eighty years old. At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionizing event. When I thought about it that way… it was incredibly easy to make the decision."
Jeff places himself at the moment of his death then thinks about how his decisions will impact him at that time. In a speech to Princeton University, Jeff elaborated further:
"When you are eighty years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices." —Jeff Bezos
After Jeff listened to his hypothetical 80-year-old self on a deathbed, he decided to forgo his bonus in 1994 and start Amazon. It turned out to be the right decision, although from the book Everything Store, we learn that not everyone thought so:
"Bezos's parents, Mike and Jackie, were nearing the end of a three-year stay in Bogotá, Colombia, where Mike was working for Exxon as a petroleum engineer, when they got the phone call. "What do you mean, you are going to sell books over the Internet?" was their first reaction, according to Mike Bezos."
Jeff isn't the only one to use this framework of remembering our death to elicit great decision-making; Steve Jobs did the same thing. In a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs told us how he had used death to make great decisions all along:
"When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."
I feel I have confronted what I thought would be my death more than once in my life. I was robbed at gunpoint more than once. As an immigrant, we grew up dirt poor in a bad area of the Bronx, and at around the age of 12, another young man pulled a big shiny silver handgun and placed it against my temple. I remember the fear; I also still recall the gun. But most of all, I remember the stillness in myself. I remember shortly after coming to terms with my mortality.
We could all be dead tomorrow, you know.
Now I am not trying to be morbid with all of this, but it's literally life or death for all of us all of the time. Yet we push that all away and act as if it's not when we could be using it as a forcing function for better outcomes in our lives.
This idea of using life-or-death to get us to good decisions, to illicit our instincts and genetic intelligence, has stood the test of time too, Marcus Aurelius wrote more than 2000 years ago:
"On the occasion of every act ask yourself, "How is this with respect to me? Will I regret it? A little time and I am dead, and all is gone"
"Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you."