Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books)

Steven Johnson has written a trove of amazing and thought-provoking books. I first picked up one of his books to learn why Everything Bad is Good For You. I have been reading his subsequent explorations for many years since. Especially excellent are Johnson’s more recent Future Perfect and How We Got to Now.

In his equally fascinating Farsighted Johnson examines the sometimes inscrutable ways we make decisions. He parses the spectacular success of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound by looking at the complex nine months of decision making that preceded the raid. In a rare example of learning from mistakes, President Obama and his leaders looked at prior failures: Jimmy Carter’s failed helicopter rescue of Iranian hostages and John F. Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Johnson points out that the public could learn much more about the decision making process than the actual success of the raid on bin Laden.

The two phases of the ideal decision making process are divergence and consensus. In the former, all perspectives and variables are considered. In the latter, the process reverses course and the group narrows its path to a decision. Most folks never separate the two phases.

Johnson also jumps gingerly across time to examine George Washington’s battle strategy defending New York City. By never completing his analysis in one section, Johnson makes the reader savor each page in anticipation.

By the middle of the book Johnson turns from the various ways to optimize the process of predicting to the act of deciding.

He returns to Obama’s decision to green light the raid on bin Laden, noting that the decision had far more foresight than prior strategic raids. In contrast, the earlier Administration’s decision to go after elusive (and eventually non-existent) weapons of mass destruction had far less contemplation and disastrous results. When Obama presented General William McRaven a plaque commemorating the success of the raid, the plaque included a tape measure. The only detail overlooked was a way to measure the height of bin Laden’s body to ensure the right guy was captured. The US team had one of its soldiers also 6’4” (who laid down next to the dead body to confirm it was bin Laden).

McRaven’s team had already measured and recreated bin Laden’s compound down to the inch.

Steven Johnson

Johnson also illuminates the importance of computer simulations in aiding major decisions. He cites the Paris climate accord as “one of the most global agreements ever reached in the history of our species.” He also points out that “So far, the Paris Agreement story is really the story of two distinct decisions: 198 nations signing the accord itself, and one temperamental leader promising to withdraw in a huff.”

Neither a computer nor Johnson was apparently available to predict Trump’s trashing of the accord. Fortunately, the US is a party to the accord until at least November 2020, giving us time to avert Trump’s disastrous decision.

Late in the book Johnson leverages his collegiate English literature studies to provide a discourse on George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, explaining the multifaceted decision making process that made the novel so rich and still relevant to decision-making in general: “wait, and think anew.”

And most intriguingly for one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Johnson concludes with a pretty strong argument for reading fiction. Not only is fiction generally preferred by more people (whether in books or film), we seem as a species hard-wired to use what is patently labeled as false as a means by which for us to determine and model truth…an important step in making decisions.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.