“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” – Yogi Berra
Yikes, what a crazy month it’s been! Somewhere between aggravating an old back injury and agonizing over making important life (and work) related decisions, my riding time has been diminished to a much lower level than what I’d like. The choices we’re forced to make when wrestling with this thing called “life”, huh? But lately the wheels have been rolling again which is great as it’s while sitting in the saddle of my bike pedaling that I tend to do my best thinking – or so I tell myself (you may also question the truth of that statement after reading this post).
Anyway, during the course of a ride this past weekend I found myself spinning up and down the beautiful back roads of the North County San Diego countryside. These are truly some incredible roads to explore by bike and can be tailored to provide whatever workout I’m looking for that day: from short punchy climbs to long grinds, both paved and unpaved. It’s an area untouched by the scourge of the walled cul-de-sac communities that litter so much of the Socal landscape. A place where you can still let your mind roam free, unburdened by stoplights and traffic.
Of course being free involves making certain decisions, and as if I didn’t have enough on my mind of late I once again found myself confronted by another fork in the road. The ride had been long and hot and I was feeling a little dehydrated (or maybe it had something to do with all the feel-good chemicals pumping through my system) so I paused in the middle of the road when met with this latest cutlery conundrum. My brain immediately began considering the field of Quantum Mechanics.
Note that I use the word “considering” to describe my forking situation (and quantum state) while standing beside the road. Much as with life in general, the choice of this word is meant to imply that I don’t really know what I’m talking about much beyond an elementary Wikipedia level. I’m no physicist and my understanding of Quantum Mechanics is rudimentary at best. At worst it’s what I’ve absorbed through watching endless episodes of The Big Bang Theory on television. But it is a fascinating topic nonetheless, especially when considering the topic of decisions and outcomes.
Keep with me, this is going somewhere.
Standing in the road staring at the fork, Quantum Theory tells us that we can predict the odds of attaining one outcome. We can also predict the odds of another, but we generally can’t predict which will actually happen. In other words, my chance of getting run over by a truck loaded with avacados while taking a photo of a fork in the road on this low-traffic road may be relatively low while the odds of a deathly silent Toyota Prius running on electric power alone rounding the bend unheard and squashing me may be higher. I also might just hop on my bike and pedal away with yet another foolish bike-related photo saved as a pile of zeroes and ones in a jpeg file in my phone. But there is uncertainty in the final outcome until we observe what actually happens.
Of course I’m COMPLETELY ignoring all of the math involved that backs up many of these principles as it is well over my head, but there are manyother intriguing aspects of Quantum Theory to consider. In addition, we also influence what may actually happen just by observing the experiment, the famous “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” wherein (in Werner Heisenberg’s own words) “science no longer is in the position of observer of nature, but rather recognizes itself as part of the interplay between man and nature. The scientific method … changes and transforms its object: the procedure can no longer keep its distance from the object”. By merely observing the experiment we affect the final outcome.
Perhaps that begins to explain why it’s so easy to look at someone else’s life and say “wow, why doesn’t that guy just do ____ already, the choice is pretty clear” yet we tend to be more cautious when making decisions affecting our own lives and livelihoods. Some of us even freeze when confronting such important decisions. I know this from experience as a classical overthinker.
I find it impossible to not second-guess a decision even before I make it. I do this to myself constantly. Pros, cons, points, counterpoints… sometimes I find myself overanalyzing a situation to the point of talking myself out of ever taking action. Without realizing it quantum states abound in my line of reasoning. The more I discuss it the more I can convince myself that doing nothing at all may the best solution, to wait until the time is right. When probability reigns supreme you can’t rule out a bad outcome. I can even convince myself that having this ability is great as I’m never wrong about any decision that I have to make. I simply choose not to decide and let whatever is going to happen, happen.
But is that really a choice? Is that free will? Is the time ever right to take a chance? Is allowing probability to dictate a situation always the correct decision? The danger of debating yourself to a standstill is the chance of never truly making any decision (or this case, non-decision). Excuse my retreating into the realm of classical mechanics (more to my speed since it deals with our observable universe), but this is throwing yourself on the floor like water from a glass and letting gravity take you wherever it will even if it means you wind up as a disjointed puddle unsure of nothing but the skill of a whomever poured the concrete of your flooring. This is standing on the sidelines watching events unfold while playing with probabilities like a scientist with a stopwatch and a clipboard instead of being an active participant in life. It’s just not a healthy way to live.
Maybe that’s why I like being out riding my bike. When there’s a rock in the trail I’m forced to figure out a way around it or I crash. Sure, I might pause and linger over a fork in the road for a while at times, but eventually I’m forced to make a decision and go with it lest I be splattered by some ecologically minded, joy-riding wannabe Formula 1 racer driving a Prius. During the course of a long race or multi-day ride choices and consequences are made clear. If you let your mind wander for a second on a technical trail you fall. If the trail runs along a cliff and you let your mind wander you die. Fail to keep up with nutrition and hydration? You bonk. Sit at home on the couch eating yogurt covered pretzels instead of riding your bike and you get fat and out of shape. The causal link is clear, unlike with many of life’s decisions over which I’ve been agonizing lately.
But now that I’m back out there participating in my universe biking has returned to being a positive force in helping me to make some important decisions. I’m no longer a passive participant in the events of the world but am influencing the outcome of my reality by making choices. Heisenberg would be proud. In addition to being therapeutic, it has also helped me to formulate my own principle for which I’m sure to win acclaim and wealth beyond belief. I’ll provide rigorous mathematical proof at a later date, but for now I give you the Doughboy Certainty Principle: The indecisive fork laying in the middle of the road eventually gets run over. No decision is without consequences but taking control of your life is better than being flattened through indecision.