How to live your life based on what works is at the core of wisdom, and it makes sense that any source of what works should be consulted. Algorithms to Live By explores the human world from the experience derived from computers and mathematical algorithms. Here is a sampling of the strategies found in this book.
Any human activity has an element of random risk that can affect the outcome, and methods are developed in this book that put constraints on the risks. When you have a good understanding of the risks and their consequences you can make decisions that are more likely to bring about desirable outcomes. When in a given situation the risks and rewards are high, and you decide in favor of taking the risk it makes sense to act in such a way that losing the bet doesn’t take you totally out. “Even the best strategy sometimes yields bad results—which is why computer scientists take care to distinguish between ‘process’ and ‘outcome.’ If you followed the best possible process, then you’ve done all you can, and you shouldn’t blame yourself if things didn’t go your way.”
It’s easy to become fixated on outcomes, but processes are what we have control over. The objectively right act is the one which will probably be the most fortunate, it’s the wisest act. It’s computational Stoicism. But sometimes it’s a waste of time to find a better solution to a problem when a workable one will get the job done quicker. Sometimes a problem is just too difficult to cope with, but we can complete an easier one that is okay. If we know the limits of acceptable, then do an acceptable job promptly, and then buff up the results later if needed. Good enough is good enough if done on time, and perfect is not good enough if it’s done too late, or not at all.
Many, probably most, human problems have so many complex variables that it impossible to produce a best answer, in part because it is impossible to know exactly how to please another human being. Offering them a few choices constrains the problem and makes finding an acceptable overlap easier. Often we can make our problems mentally easier without disturbing the social balance. In most cases the best solution to a problem is the one that can be done most quickly, and time is a problem that we can usually work with. Often the quickest way is simply to get started now. That’s what the Brits call muddling through, and it usually gets the job done.
We are usually better off trading off the costs of error against the costs of delay. Get it done!