Decisions, Decisions, Decisions: Crisis, Free Will and Artificial Intelligence?

I was once recruited by some founders of Enron several years after it’s demise to be the face and life force of a new venture with somewhat the same aspiring, smart culture. Once I clearly saw the play on my senses and ego, I ran. In fact it helped me make the decision to summon my gut for a new way of living. The capitalist, aspiring oil man character had repeatedly failed to create sustainable relationships for me. I had in fact been making decisions from my mind and the patterns I’d picked up from mentors in the business that were in deep conflict with the sensibility and practicality I had learned from my father in particular. I was not particularly interested in wealth and power or beautiful women or even a posh home in the suburbs.

The day I was driving home from an 18 hour work day in Houston, I can remember saying to myself, “screw this goal setting business”. The Tony Robbin’s approach (sorry Tony, no offense, but it’s not for everyone) was effective for me to some degree, but my bigger, more fundamental problem was wanting the right thing, finding the right direction, the aligned message and the appropriate group of allies, relationships, etc.

I’ve worked with a lot of people to straighten out their lives and assist them in improving themselves over the years. For some reason I’ve attracted these circumstances since I was in my 20’s. I can recall the first most blatant presentation of this phenomenon was when I was 25 years old and super successful engineer in his early 40’s called me into office when I was visiting an affiliate of Mobil Oil in Dallas, Texas. He closed the door and asked me to sit down. I got nervous as I picked up his deep disturbance.

This man had been instrumental in hiring me a couple years earlier straight out of engineering school, Missouri-Rolla School of Mines. In fact, he was the one who called me when I was a senior in college to offer me a job. It was 1986. I was married. I didn’t really care much for the schooling or the industry, truth be known, but that was another matter. I was talented and good at it and capable of doing the work quite well. 

So as the story goes, back in the day this man, let’s call him Duane, called me and made the offer. I immediately declined. I thanked him. Somehow my gut pushed out this answer which felt true to myself. It felt much like the answer I gave the legendary Jimmy Johnson when I was only 17. I was good at football. I was good at the oil business. Life was pulling me forward and I loved my wife and father who were both strong advocates of both the NFL and the oil business.

Well as you might imagine, after telling my wife what happened, she through a hug fit and about an hour later I had Duane back on the phone telling him I did indeed want the job. I couldn’t see him, but I could just feel the broad smile across his face as he watch the young man in me squirm with an early lesson in life. The job paid great and my wife was ecstatic. She’d grown up dirt poor and without the social graces this new world would afford. I was always up for an adventure.

Well, back on Duane’s couch in Dallas about two and half years later, I’m sitting there asking myself what’s going on. Mobil was a brutal and political quagmire to me. Engineers were super competitive. Every year the arrogant claims of their contributions of cost savings and profit improvements exceeded the total gross revenue of the affiliate, which happened to be the crown jewel of the corporation at that time. Anyway, Duane was sitting on top of all these engineers and I’m starting to sweat bullets because he was a “real” engineer’s engineer, known to have a practical but aggressive style that didn’t pull any punches.

So he’s a heavy, stocky man. He settles into his chair and there’s a long stare into the nowhere space, somewhere between he and I. He was suffering with something. As I reflect back now, I know he wanted to cry but didn’t know how. He’s one of a hundred men who would sit in my office over the next two decades who’d be struggling to make sense of emotions, circumstance and make some decision that seemed to be looming over them.

Duane had good reason to be stiff. His daughter had been struggling for some time and finally committed suicide. The shock had paralyzed him. His wife was in the process of leaving him. All he felt he had left was his profession. He was devastated. The best I can recall, all I did was listen and as some natural questions that seemed to stem from his body, his posture, his holding back, his suppression – the words just came out of me. There was no preparation in me. Of course I’d been through a thousand psychology and self help books for myself by this point in time trying to sort out my own personal dilemma. And during the two hours I sat there with Duane, not once did I ever find myself reaching back to those books or quote an affirmation from any of them. I didn’t find any structure coming from my mind. But I do recall feeling like I was on the basketball court or the football field, or maybe even in the church pew as a little kid in awe.

So Duane probably recalls that day better than I. Or not. So often these tragedies create blurry memories that sometimes fall to the wayside. I do recall checking up on Duane a few years ago and I’d learned he’d had a long, successful career with the company, later Exxon-Mobil and was instrumental in designing some international field development operations. 

But today I’m overwhelmed with how people are making decisions. I also see some fear among some for how artificial intelligence is becoming more prevalent in our lives. The idea that robotic operations could replace repetitive human movement and clone their thought patterns is kind of impressive if your a sci-fi buff. But it’s scary if you’re seeing blue collar jobs being eliminated or some purpose or meaning that someone used to feel at the end of the day, pride in a job well done, being taken out off the table for that person or the next generation. 

The cold scientist or economist may say we’ll find new meaning and new opportunities with the advancement. Some of us hold that although the AI may be powerful, it’s still unable to connect the dots where true human ingenuity is required. For example, I attended an AI symposium in Houston for oil and gas software. It was impressive. The AI could create some beautiful maps. I interviewed the salesman who had a geoscience degree, although he’d never practiced using it in a real oil discovery environment. I went on to challenge the salesman to use the AI to pick a location to drill a $10 million oil well. To know fault of the man, or his female supervisor who came along to buffer, none of them had the actual depth of experience to “spin” the AI to the confidence level that was required. But this fact really seems to be overshadowed by the mass application for the low hanging fruit in society.

I can’t wrap up this article without mentioning the work of Moran Cerf, the French-Israeli Ted-Talker/neuroscientist/hacker/biz-school lecturer (Kellogg School of Management), who has cracked the code on how social media has profiled all of our online patterns to exploit them for social media marketing. In our zoom call the other day he had the nerve to tell me that I had a fascinating background that spanned about everything in life (that’s kind of the kettle calling kettle black). But it was a respectful discussion that somehow felt circular. It seemed we were searching for something solid to connect over. It puzzled me since and I think I’m just now figuring out the missing piece.

The literature is deep around decision making. So are the courses and the sermons. The massive and growing amount of behavioral data and research is growing exponentially, just as the population seem thrusting forward faster than we can feed and offer medicine to them. 

But what stands out to me now in Duane’s despair, his was clear about seeking comfort from a fellow man who would make himself available. I take some pride in being that guy. In being there for him and for others who would reach out to me over the years that followed in the oil business and even more so as my life has continued to unfold as I’ve continued to pursue creative outlets, but keeping tuned to the needs that present themself to me every day here in Austin, Texas – still with a reach through Zoom, to work with others around the globe.

Now the punchline to this long essay is to take note of how, if any decision, you made in a time of crisis in your life. It’s not about outcomes. It’s about process. It’s about whether you isolated and found a solution or if you found a trusted friend, connected authentically and allowed yourself to be transformed. Or maybe transform the person you reached out to in that need. I know I was touched by Duane and ever since I’ve thought of him from time to time as the next person comes along needing an ear or a shoulder.

In one of my recent sessions with a young man, it came out that the connection we shared was of great comfort. It was in our understanding and some kind of zen, eastern style connection that had a touch of synchronicity. It was far beyond liking the brand of jeans, designer fashion hat he wore, or his cool rugged Jeep – it was a deep level of understanding. I continually steer him from the trail of mental thoughts and pattern of thinking he falls into and remind him to breath and connect with his gut, his body, where his real intelligence and guidance lives. 

The gut bypasses the mind and even the sexy trend of emotional intelligence. It works different in different types of human beings, but it can be delineated and harvested for direction, guidance as well as wisdom in various circumstance. It seems to be something of a lost art, but it is foundational to our human experience. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to hone this process with fasting, celibacy, breathwork, poverty and taking alternative or counter-culture approaches to lean into blindly accepted practices, dogmas and traditions to see deep below the surface most operate in life. I don’t recommend any of these to people I work with, but I will say they are confirming daily some rewarding feedback reflected back to me as we work through some difficult issues they have faced in their lives.

We can do that for each other, that is to find rewards in our support and being there for one another. It’s easier than we make make things out to be – but maybe as one who’s been near death and come back, it just seems simple now. But if you just start and take a small risk with someone in need, you might just find the cheapest, most satisfying thrill on the planet – just being there for your fellow man. It might just put a genuine grin on your face and warm your heart. They may recognize you or not, but that’s not the point. Of course, your mind will kick in and pull you away, look for a way to make a formula or a sermon or a book out of the process. But with some humility, time and practice, you can see how powerful transformations are possible in yourself and follow those transformations as they emerge in others.

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