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Interview on March 9, 2005 with
Ron Howard


Conducted by John Esterle and
Dan Clurman at Howard’s Stanford University office

KEY:
DC: Dan Clurman
JE: John Esterle
RH: Ron Howard

Biographical Sketch
What are the elements of a decision? 
Emphasizing Different Distinctions 

Transparency, Accountability, and Outcomes
Assessing Clarity of Action
Decision Education Foundation
Ethics and Decision Making
“Little D” and “Big D” Decisions
 
 
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Interview on March 9, 2005
with Ronald Howard

Biographical Sketch

Professor Howard directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering, School of Engineering, Stanford University. He is also the Director of the Department’s Decisions and Ethics Center, which examines the efficacy and ethics of social arrangements. He defined the profession of decision analysis in 1964 and has since supervised several doctoral theses in decision analysis every year. His experience includes dozens of decision analysis projects that range over virtually all fields of application, from investment planning to research strategy, and from hurricane seeding to nuclear waste isolation. He was a founding Director and Chairman of Strategic Decisions Group and is President of the Decision Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing decision skills to youth. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of INFORMS and IEEE.


What are the elements of a decision?

RH: When you really think about it, the three elements of any decision are: alternatives, information, and preferences. I like to think of a three-legged stool because if any one of these is missing, you really don’t have a decision. If you don’t have any alternatives you don’t have a decision. If you don’t see a connection between what you do and what’s going to happen – that’s the information – you don’t have a decision. And if you don’t care what happens, you can do anything and it doesn't make any difference. So you need all three. And we call those three legs the decision basis.

In the seat of the stool is the logic that holds these together and says, “OK, if this is what you can do, what you know, and what you want, what are you going to do?” And that’s the analysis part. What’s missing is where you put the stool. Because you can set up to work on any decision you like. And we call that the frame. And it’s very important to think of the frame. Because suppose you’re looking at a housing decision. If you frame it as “where shall I rent the place?” now your alternatives are rental alternatives. You don’t say anything about buying, you don’t even think about that.

DC: The framing sets up how you sort the data...

RH: Exactly. So you could say, “Should I rent or buy.” That’s a bigger frame. “Where should I live?” is an even bigger frame. The idea is you want to expand the frame until it’s too big and then shrink it down to what makes sense.

You can help people with decision-making just using the concepts we’ve talked about. They don’t even know they have a frame; they just jump in. So you can help them by asking, “How are you framing this?” And then once you’ve got that, “What alternatives do you have?” and so forth.

DC: When you talk about decision making, you give them a set of distinctions so they can start to talk about the content of the decisions they're working with.

RH: You used one of the most important words that we use, distinction, because that’s sort of the base, that is the basis of thought. You can’t think unless you’ve got distinctions, and we talk about powerful distinctions. I say an expert in anything is an expert because that expert has powerful distinctions. And we don’t mean he or she has memorized the glossary. It’s that you really have a working knowledge of why they’re important and why that distinction was a very valuable one in the history of the subject and in your thinking.

So in our first decision class we say that the objective of the class is to give them powerful distinctions about decision making, not about plumbing, though they are there, or fixing cars, or being a brain surgeon, but about decision making. And these distinctions , as in these other fields, are usually not in the heads of let’s call them lay people. In other words, the brain surgeon and the plumber have distinctions about the enterprise that ordinary people, untrained people, don’t have. And the same thing is true about decision-making. So that’s what we do.


Emphasizing Different Distinctions

JE: In terms of that model of the stool, are there areas such as framing or finding what the client really values that you tend to work on more than others?

RH: That’s an excellent question. Let’s take two very different areas: one is business and the other is medical. I’ve worked in both areas. It turns out in business the preferences are pretty simple. They just want money. There are some subtleties but generally if you tell a business they’re going to make lots of money, they’re going to be smiling, right? But the question of the connection between what you do and getting the money – let’s say you bring out drugs, you have phases of research and approval by the FDA, and there’s a lot of uncertainties and lot of time between when you start and when you end, even though what we’re looking for is money. So the information and the structuring become a lot more important.

Now in medical areas, preferences are the hard thing because people are going to have pain, days in the hospital, restricted activity, maybe not be able to play tennis after the operation, maybe they’ll die, costs. One of my current doctoral students is working on how to help women who are at high risk for breast cancer make decisions after they’ve had surgery about the adjuvant therapies -- things you give people afterwards to keep a recurrence from happening. And it’s complicated because it depends on how bad their tumor was, how old they are, things associated with their health state, their preference for some side effects versus others. So it’s quite complicated because it’s all on the preference side. So that’s the answer to your question, it depends on the …

DC: It’s context-dependent – you need to know which features will be more prominent...

RH: Right. But, you see, we say that’s only a matter of emphasis. You need to see three legs no matter what it is but sometimes you have to work more on one than the other. And sometimes the alternatives leg is really difficult. You know, “What would be a really smart thing to do here?”

What people forget is that there are always more alternatives than they’ve thought about, so one of the things we introduce is the notion of the option. And we define an option as an alternative that gives you a new decision situation after the revelation of information. Now, is that complicated? Well, one example is a fire extinguisher. You carry a fire extinguisher in your car? Have you ever thought what would happen if you had a fire in your car? I once watched a mini-van have a little fire. People were standing around watching the whole thing go because how are you going to put out a fire? You don’t have a garden hose, you’re on the side of the road, it’s an oily thing, what do you do? But if you had a little fire extinguisher you probably could have stopped it at the beginning, right? But carrying that fire extinguisher has costs – you have to buy it, it takes space in the car, and so forth. Your best wish for it is you’ll never use it. If you have that option you’re not forced to use it, but you have the choice.


Transparency, Accountability, and Outcomes

JE: Has the client base for decision analysis expanded since you began?

RH: Yes, it has certainly expanded, but – this is a very important thing to observe: not every executive wants the decision process to be transparent. Some like to control by controlling information: “I know it and I’m not going to share what I know…” But if they do use decision analysis, then they get this great advice where people can say, “Hey, we disagree. Let’s talk about that.” So it’s a great process for those that want to …

DC: …monitor the process?

RH: Not just monitor the process, but make it transparent so you can get advice. “I’m making a decision here; I’d be happy to have you guys check my thinking. And sometimes that makes a big difference. Sometimes it’s as simple as just keeping your thinking straight by having a friend help you.

JE: Would part of someone’s reluctance be that when you are transparent the need to be accountable increases?

RH: Well, it could also be decreased. Suppose you have a boss and you’ve gone through this process and you get a bad outcome, right? You made the decision. So you can say to your boss, let me tell you why that was a good decision. Here are the people who were involved and these were the experts that gave me the information. I used your preferences, and here’s how we found alternatives.

We all want to make good outcomes, but all we can control is our decisions. This is lesson number one in decision making, the difference between the quality of the decision and the quality of the outcome. They are completely different. Yet in everyday language we don’t make that distinction. If you’re listening to a football game and the coach decides to go for the two-point conversion and it doesn’t work, the announcer says he made a bad decision. Well, no, he had a bad outcome. It might have been a great decision, right? It’s so ingrained that people judge the decision by the outcome that it’s a major teaching point by the time they get here to say, “Wait a second, you shouldn’t be thinking this way. And the other advantage of thinking this way is now you can improve the quality of the decision.” Before you’d say, “Well, it depends on what happens.” No no, it depends on what we know, what alternatives we had, all those legs of the stool. So, let’s make sure we have a great set of alternatives, we’re using our best information, we’re accurate in our preferences, and we put it together with the right logic. Then we’ll have nothing to recriminate ourselves about.

There’s another aspect to it. I had a group here this morning and we were talking about systems engineering. And what you realize is that the purpose of decision analysis is achieving clarity of action. In other words, it’s not about guaranteeing good outcomes; it’s about making the best decision you could make. It turns out you can’t be excellent in achieving clarity of action without clear thinking, so the course is as much about being clear in your thinking as it is about making the right decision.


Assessing Clarity of Action

DC: And the way in which you assess if there’s clarity of action would be based on the distinctions …

RH: You can talk about the frame, the alternatives, the informational preferences, the logic, and another one we call commitment, which is focusing on the fact that there’s a person here – you can’t talk about a decision in the abstract. You can’t talk about the decision to have a root canal; we can talk about your decision to have a root canal, right? So the person is very important. So now we can go through here and say, “OK, do we have the right frame?” “Have we got enough alternatives?” And enough doesn’t mean there have to be many.

Suppose you need a carpet. You go to the store for an hour and you look at the carpets and you say “This is a nice one, let’s get this one,” And the salesman says, “Well, we have a whole warehouse out in the back with 100,000 carpets – maybe you should go out there.” That’s more alternatives. “Well, wait a second. This is good enough. I feel very comfortable that we’ve looked at a wide enough range of alternatives.” And the same for information. See, you can get paralysis by analysis, where you just keep studying and studying. So in each of these there’s a trade-off between the cost of getting more alternatives and information and the value of getting more alternatives and information.

DC: You have to determine where to draw that line.

RH: You have to determine that. You know, you could apply all this stuff to select which pizza you’re going to get at the pizza store – that would be really silly. So you want the depth of analysis to be appropriate to the importance of the decision.


Decision Education Foundation

JE: Are there any assumptions that the Decision Education Foundation has had to reevaluate based on its work so far?

RH: What we found was that some things that would be taken for granted in our class here at Stanford are not so in many of the teenage groups that we deal with. It turns out in some of these groups that the idea of making a decision is kind of a novel thing. For many of the at-risk or adjudicated, they don’t think they have choices. So that’s a big part of the curriculum – just telling them they do have choices, making them aware of that. Choices have consequences. You like some consequences more than others. Some are more likely than others. If I told that to an incoming Stanford student they’d say, “Yeah. Right.” They’re already familiar with it.

I remember seeing a video of an interview with a kid who had just come out of continuation school – juvenile hall – which is like a school where you go to classes and then go back to your cell. He was in there because he had beaten a couple of kids very badly with a baseball bat. And so the interviewer was saying, “Did you learn anything?” “Oh yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t do things like that.” And at the end she said, “Well, suppose somebody called your mother a bad name, what would you do?” “I’d kill him.” OK. Sounded good, but there’s this little gap between the thought and the act that we’d like to think we all have. “What am I really going to do in this situation as opposed to being on automatic?” That’s what road rage is. “I’m gonna cut him off.” You’re not thinking, “I could cause an accident, I could kill people, I could kill him, me and other people.”

DC: You want to drain the emotional component.

RH: Yeah, it’s kind of short-circuiting behavior or something.

JE: And would that be one of the primary distinctions between decisions you have time to work through and things that come up right in the moment?

RH: Yeah, although when you think about it, you already know what you’re going to do in many of these situations. If somebody flips me off I’m not saying “You son-of-a-bitch, you can’t do that to me.” There’s no better alternative than just ignoring the person. If you say I’m just going to try to mouth “I’m sorry” they may think you’re cursing them out and the thing gets worse, right? The more wise you are, the more you’re thinking, “Well, he’s probably not mad at me, his boss chewed him out….I’m just the little stimulus that brought this out.” He doesn’t hate you; he doesn’t even know you.

JE: One of the questions that comes up, especially interacting with high school kids, is that I could see them asking their teacher, “Well if this process is so great, do you use it?”

RH: We certainly use it ourselves, but again in the sense that we’re not going to order pizza with it. But it’s more about your thinking. Very few of us in our personal lives are doing a lot of calculations to make decisions. You would if you had a major medical decision, but you know, I’m not going to do it today or tomorrow, most likely. But the concepts are extremely useful. Like framing, you could use that right out of the box. Decisions versus outcomes. Another one is sunk cost. You’d be surprised how many times even in the board room people say, “Well, should we continue this project or not?” And somebody else says, “Well, look at how much we’ve spent on it already.” And nobody laughs. See, that ought to be a joke. That would be the equivalent of “Look at the money we burned out in the parking lot.

JE: Ideally, what would you like to see happen with DEF?

RH: Well, I would like to see decision skills in everybody’s education. Ultimately, I’d say not just the kids, but also the parents, anybody, everybody. Now, that’s a long ways off. It would help us all if everybody made better decisions. The road rage guy is not going to cut you off and so forth. I’m not saying it’s going to be a perfect world. People can make good decisions with preferences you think they shouldn’t have, and that’s another thing we can talk about. Because this skill has no ethical component built-in -- it’s like an adding machine. If you’re going to put ethics and values in, they have to come from the person who’s using it. I can use matches to light my charcoal or I can burn a house down with them. That’s up to me. And there are people who say, “You know if you’re going to teach this stuff you really ought to make sure the kids are making not just the right decisions for them, but for particular alternatives – just say no, no sex, whatever.” And that would be a violation of what we’re all about. We want to teach people to make decisions in the best possible way.


Ethics and Decision Making

JE: Can you tell us about your involvement with Stanford’s Decision and Ethics Center?

RH: The decisions and ethics center within the department, that’s me. The reason for that came right out of what we’re talking about. Because the decision analysis is amoral, yet it’s very powerful. And if people thought that we were misusing it that would be a problem. So that’s why we started these classes. We have a class in the legal system – the part of your personal and ethical code you’re willing to impose on others by force. That’s what it is. It’s all about force, putting your body in prison or taking your property, that’s all the legal system can do. There is no law about writing nice birthday cards to mother, though that’s a nice thing to do, right? So the part you’re willing to impose on others by force, that’s a big one. So we have them write a personal ethical code. And we say it’s not about having one that looks good – that’s easy. It’s about having one that you will really use to guide you in making your decisions.

DC: It gives them a chance to explicitly look at assumptions and values.

RH: Exactly.

JE: Thinking about getting people to clarify their ethical codes, I’m curious how much of a decision analyst’s work with businesses involves clarifying a company’s ethical code, if indeed they have one at all.

RH: Well, more companies are concerned about it now. I think every company should have an ethical code, although when we look at them we find that some of them are not very helpful. They’ll have an ethical code like not speaking ill of a competitor’s product. Well, why not? If it’s a lousy product why wouldn’t you want your salesmen to tell people? We have one at SDG (Strategic Decisions Group) and it really comes down to not deceiving anybody – not the people we’re hiring, not our vendors, not our clients, and so forth. I’m not saying that people don’t fall off the wagon sometimes, but it’s very clear that they have a code. It turns out that for most of the students here the big area we talk about is truth-telling.

DC: And how do you frame that?

RH: Well, first of all we make the distinction between lies and being mistaken. Suppose you ask me if my car is in the parking lot and I say, “Yes, it’s down there.” Now, suppose it’s been stolen. Well, you lied to me. No, wait a second, I was mistaken. I thought it was there. So a lie is a statement that you know is untrue that you’re telling with the purpose of deceiving.

Then we talk about what kind of lies, right? A famous one we talk about is the white lie. Is there such a thing as a white lie? Or are they just lies? Turns out they’re just lies. (laughter)

DC: A white lie has a certain connotation to it, I guess, in people’s minds, about the seriousness of the lie, the consequences of the lie.

RH: Well, do you want to be a 90% truth-teller? Imagine you wear a button that says, “I tell the truth 90% of the time. Sometimes I lie and I decide when.” That would be a truthful button, right? And you go to the mechanic and he’s wearing a button like that and the doctor’s got one – you’re feeling good, right? I’m feeling not so good ‘cause I never know whether …

DC: You never know how reliable the information is that 10% of the time.

RH: And especially with lying, it means they’re trying to deceive me. I know they’re going to make mistakes; that’s not the issue.

DC: It’s interesting, though, because a lot of people do use that phrase, “white lies.” It’s a very popular perspective.

RH: Yeah, but popularity’s not test of truth. The classic example is you have a new friend and your friend says, “How would you like to go to the movies tonight?” And what you’d really like to do is kick back and watch television in your room. But what you say is, “Gee, I really have a lot of homework to do” – which is true – “so I’m going to have to say no.” Now, that’s deception. We make the distinction between a lie and not telling the whole truth.

So what’s the problem with that? The problem is once you start to deceive you now have to maintain that whole enterprise for the rest of your life. In other words, the next morning you see the guy at breakfast and he says, “Did you get your homework done?”
“Not as much as I had hoped.”

You see, you’re on this narrow walk that you’ve prepared for yourself and it hasn’t advanced your relationship at all. So, our advice is always tell the truth but think very carefully about what the truth is. And the truth might be, in this case, “Well, look, I really just want to kick back in my room tonight, but I’m afraid that when I say that, since we just met each other, that you’ll think I don’t want to spend time with you. But, really, it’s not that. I just want to spend time in the room tonight, so I’m going to do that and I hope you’ll have a good time at the movie, and I’d like to go with you some other time.” If that’s the truth.

And then think about the next morning. “How’d you like the movie?” “It was great.”
“Well, I really got a lot of good relaxation.” And now your relationship is at a different level from what it would have been if you’d been deceptive. It’s hard work to know what the truth is, and white lies are a way of avoiding that thinking.

DC: Exactly. But you have to see the nuances of the context that you’re operating in to talk that way. That’s part of what you’re teaching here.

RH: But it’s really about you. It’s not that in this setting this is what I really know to be true and I’m going to say it.

DC: I can see that’s a whole school in itself.

RH: We pointed this out. The problem with telling the whole truth isn’t making your mouth move; it’s in knowing what the whole truth is. And that takes a little bit of introspection to figure out what the hell is the whole truth here. “Do I really not want to spend any time with this person?” In which case you might say, “Look, we’ve been talking and it’s been okay but I don’t think we’re really cut out to be bosom buddies.” Or whatever the truth is, right?

DC: This is an interesting topic.

RH: That’s why I teach it. (laughter).

DC: I do communication skills training, so this is one of the things I run into often. There are competing inner assumptions or commitments that people have in terms of their own intentions. On the one hand I’d like to be self-disclosing. On the other hand, if I was that self-disclosing I have a belief that I would expose myself. I’d be too self-disclosing and I might cast the wrong image of who I am.

RH: We have lots of interesting discussions in all of our classes about things like this. Like I can’t be insulted and embarrassed.

DC: At the same time?

RH: No. Period. In other words, somebody comes in here and says, “You’re a fat, ignorant son-of-a-bitch.” And I say, “I wonder why you said that. You see that’s strange because no one’s ever opened that door and said that before. That’s kind of interesting.” I don’t have to engage…

DC: I don’t have to paint it as a problem; instead I can answer with curiosity.

RH: Right. And that’s just this person’s opinion. “I’m kind of curious, why do you have that opinion? Why do you think I’m ignorant? Let’s look into that?”

JE: As you’re saying that, I want to hear more about the relationship between thinking and feeling, the head and the heart distinctions that people make. Because if somebody came through the door like that there’s maybe that immediate fight or flight response.

RH: Absolutely, but that’s like the kid who has to kill somebody because they insulted his mother. I’m pretty much a philosophical Buddhist. And, to me, what I get from that is in the West we think we’re our thoughts. And the Buddhist says the mind is a drunken monkey. You know you’re lying awake at night and all these things come into your head and most people think that’s that.

Well, the next evolution is to say I’m having these thoughts. They are not me. I am me. And then there’s these thoughts I have, they’re like clouds in the sky. And the next one is thoughts are having me. So if somebody does that and says, “I’m mad at you,” then I’d say, “Well, I’m having the thought mad.” And then the thought mad is having me, which now gives me all kinds of “how am I going to respond to that?” Right? So to a Buddhist the feelings are just other thoughts. Right? They’re just other thoughts.

DC: And they’re information in that way.

RH: Except they may be based on nothing. In other words, the value of your thoughts may be just like the shapes of the clouds in the sky, like, “that’s beautiful,” that’s all in your thinking. But if you don’t have this separation then you put an extra weight on your feelings. “You made me unhappy. You made me sad.” You get into all kinds of, well, almost pathologies of behavior because you are thinking that other people have control of your feelings.

DC: The misplaced idea about cause and effect.

RH: Right. Right.

DC: You assume that it’s linear.

RH: Right. And not only that but you realize that these feelings are just thoughts and you can always manufacture one. If you want one you can have it. Because they’re not you. Because you are neither good nor bad. Remember in Hamlet there’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “there’s nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”

DC: Well, maybe that’s a more sophisticated cognitive stance to be able to shift from being…

RH: …I like the word sophisticated, but it also sounds attainable for only a few or after a lot of education. And I think it’s really the stance you’d have if you hadn’t been miseducated …kids are very transparent. And then we teach them “Oh, you can’t say that.” Mrs. Brown was fat but you can’t say that, and so forth. And so we beat them up, not literally, but we shape them to get rid of this transparency.

JE: To educate people about decision making throughout society, there would need to be some awareness of how ethics enters into your deliberations.

RH: As a matter of fact, the fundamental schools of thought in ethics are what I call “action based” and “consequence based”. If you want to follow either, you can do it using our decision principles. The consequence based ethic says you are going to choose an action based on its consequences. The action based ethic says we’re going to rule out certain alternatives, period.

So if somebody says to me, “How much do I have to pay you to murder John here?” If I am action based, I say, “I don’t murder people,” that’s it. Then I just cut that alternative out of my tree.

If I am consequence based. I would have to say, “What did you have in mind?” “A million dollars? I’d never do that.” But then he throws things in like how about a cure for cancer, getting rid of mosquitoes, etc. At a certain point, I might say, “Well, there’s only one John, but a lot of people get cancer.” If I’m consequence-based, I’m utilitarian, and I might say, “Gee, you know, it might be a good idea. Let’s see there’s one John and 100 million people with cancer. Sorry, John.” (laughter) The consequence-based school would be the greatest good for the greatest number, so you’re history.

DC: A lot of people have that consequence-based perspective.

RH: I am not saying they can’t have it. Of course, they can have anything they like, but they have to realize they’re having it.

DC: You’d like them to recognize that’s their perspective?

RH: Yes. But there’s no absolute ethic for them; it’s all a matter of trade-offs. It’s a hedonistic kind of ethic: “What do I like? Which way is up for me?” And I’m going to value people not as ends but as means, and so forth.


“Little D” and “Big D” Decisions

DC: One thing I’m curious about is how you, in your own life, work with, or struggle with, decisions. Knowing what you know and having been in the field in the way that you have, what’s a cutting-edge quality of decision-making in your own experience?

RH: Well, you’re really getting to the heart of the matter. As a philosophical Buddhist, one of the Buddhist principles is right action. You just do the right action. You don’t need ethics and you don’t need decision-making unless you’re puzzled. So one of the jokes is, here’s Christ thinking of going to Jerusalem and they’re saying, “Gee, you might get crucified.” And he says, “What’s the chance of that?” And he draws a big decision tree. And it’s a joke, right? Because he was doing – I mean, I never met the man – but he was doing right action, right? So these tools that we have, even ethics itself, is just a crutch till you know, you automatically know, what to do. You see if everybody literally saw other people the way they see their own arm – “Gee, I’d just as soon cut off my own arm as hurt this person” – we don’t need ethics anymore. You’d say, “Why would I do that?” That would be like pounding my thumb with a hammer. That would be silly. Not wrong, but silly. That’s why there are no laws against hitting your thumb with a hammer, right? Because you’d be silly to hit your thumb with a hammer on purpose. So these are thoughts we need until we become enlightened.

DC: So, for yourself then, these tools are helpful, kind of guiding notions that help you in areas where right action is not clear.

RH: Well, we also have to make another distinction. We talk about “little d” and “big D” decisions.” A little d decision is the kind of decision we make about our money and how we spend it and even our medical treatment. And we can think of that as resource allocations. And all the stuff we teach is just great for that. But then there are what I call big D decisions which are decisions where you as someone experiencing the consequence will not be the same as the one who’s making the decision.

In other words, getting married, for example. If you’re thinking of getting married like a small d decision, you’re thinking of it like choosing a roommate. You know, will they keep the house tidy and all this kind of stuff. And if you’re thinking of getting married, at least in the classical sense, you’re making a contract with promises that any lawyer will tell you, “You’re silly – for better for worse, for richer or poorer -- I mean, this is stupid. You need an option here, a way to get out.”

DC: A pre-nup.

RH: And that’s exactly the difference between little d and big D marriages. If you see a pre-nup it’s a little d marriage. See, getting married, if you’re doing it right, is transforming, because the you that will result from that is not the same you as before you entered into that new state. Having children, I’d say, is the same thing.

DC: The person who’s entering into it will not be the same as before they made that decision.

RH: Yeah, when they make that transformation they’re not the same person anymore.
And you see that in women and men when they become parents. Before, they’re thinking, “Oh God, college education, can’t go on vacations,” and all of this. But my daughter was a manager in a software company and she got pregnant and had all these plans for how she was going to telecommute. You know, she was going to have the baby and be up in Boulder Creek and telecommute. Well, after she had the baby she came back, and they had Friday afternoon beer bashes in the company with all the gossip and so forth. She went to two of them and she just couldn’t get interested anymore once she had her son. I mean it just didn’t compete. So it was transforming for her. She didn’t have any thought beforehand about what it would be like to be a mother, with all the joys and unexpected experiences that come with it. But now my grandson just entered Princeton as a freshman, so all is well. She’s teaching kindergarten and loves it. But these were not thoughts she ever had when she was a graduate student.

DC: That seems like a useful distinction.

RH: It comes up in class because people say, “Gee, I’m getting serious with this girl –can I use all this stuff?” “Nope.” And they’re a little disappointed, right? I had a student who said to me once, “I can understand what you’re talking about here and it sounds like a great way to make decisions about investments and things like that, but surely you wouldn’t use it for decisions about the health of family.” And I said, “Au contraire. If I had to choose I’d just hire a financial advisor because I want to use the best decision methods I know in making decisions about the health of my family.”

DC: I’m very curious, though, about the big D decision tools that you would use.

RH: There aren’t any.

DC: You’re saying there aren’t any because …

RH: Because you’re not a resource.

DC: Because you can’t anticipate what the consequences of a decision will be?

RH: This is an analogy, not a perfect one, but when I graduated from high school and went to college I thought, “Oh this is great – I have all these bowls that are half full and I’ve got to get them full.” What turned out at college was they had bowls I’d never even see before that were much more interesting that these half-full bowls I had been carrying around. Some of them I filled up and a lot of them ended up being completely different bowls. And some of the ones I thought were half full really should have just been emptied out and thrown away.

DC: How has being in this field and doing what you do transformed your own life?

RH: Well, it’s mainly the people I get to talk to. To me that’s the measure of my life. At the end of each day I’d say, “Well, how did I spend my time today? With whom?” And if I don’t value those experiences it doesn’t matter how much money I’m paid or anything like it, it was a bad day. So, I’ve enjoyed this. It’s been fun.

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