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Deciding, fast and slow

Posted on:February 23, 2020 at 12:00 AM

I have made a decision. It is interesting, not only because of the result, but also because it took six years. Why did it take me that long? Does this teach me something to making better, higher-quality decisions?

Stop eating animals

The decision that I’ve made is to live a vegan life henceforth. Or maybe I should call it an AVAP life (as vegan as possible) since I don’t want to make a big fuss or lose friends about dietary choices. In this post, I’ll explain (1) how this decision came to be, (2) what I have learned for future decisions, and (3) what the implications are for my life to come.

Feel free to jump directly to part 2 if you’re not interested in my personal journey :)

My journey to a vegan lifestyle

Back in 2015, I wrote the story of Blackie on the day when I became a vegetarian. At the end of that post, I wrote:

This is the end of the story. For the man, it is the end of a cognitive dissonance. He’d remember that burger, the last meat he ate before becoming a vegetarian.

Becoming vegetarian had felt good because it had indeed ended one of my cognitive dissonances; a nagging feeling in my consciousness that maybe eating an animal wasn’t right. Interestingly, becoming vegan has felt much the same. Behind that first step toward a more ethical life has awaited a next step. And I am now convinced that I am still far from being a virtuous person. There will forever be aspects of my character that I must improve. My decision to be vegan feels like a step in the right direction… but I realize now that it is a small step in a lifelong journey.

The journey is, most of all, a journey shaped by people around me. It began in 2014 when a friend invited me to a hackathon. We built the first version of a web app that would become Veganaut, a community-driven guide for vegan restaurants and shops. During the days of the hackathon, my friends would cook for the group — it was delicious (except maybe the Pizza without cheese :-P). I learned a lot during that hackathon, from setting up MongoDB over tasting nutritional yeast all the way to discussing the ethics of cow milk production. I’m very thankful for the friends who invited me, and hope that they will some day find out about the impact that they had.

Cows with bells, grazing

I remember thinking back then that veganism was too extreme. I felt that veganism excludes too many things that I like. Cheese for example, but also the picturesque presence of cows on the Swiss hills around me, filling the air with the sound of their bells. Even today, I believe that some human-animal relationships are truly symbiotic and should be encouraged.

In the years that followed, I’ve been in touch with many vegan people: I remember my guitar teacher. He always brought some fruit with him. And he told me with sadness that he compromised on lute frets, because there was no better material than sheep gut for making these. I also remember a friend who wrote a list of all food they threw away, publicly visible on their fridge, in order to combat food waste. I remember other friends who impressed me because they lived vegan for 40 days before Easter and Christmas, as is the tradition in the Romanian Orthodox Church to which they belong.

Amazing vegan Christmas dinner

When I joined Google as a software engineer, I entered a vegan land of plenty. The company made it super easy to try out a vegan life rather than just observing it. Which other company would stock their fridges with five different types of milk? I have the privilege to work with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A surprisingly high number of them are vegan. One of my colleagues invited me to the Christmas dinner pictured on the right — it was one of the best dinners I’d had in months.

Veganuary website screenshot

The last step in my learning process was Veganuary. Veganuary is a non-profit organization as well as a challenge to live a plant-based life during January. Another colleague from work talked me into it. During January, she went above and beyond, organizing movie screenings and sending out restaurant recommendations… During this month, I tried more different foods and cooked more varied meals than ever before. And when the end of the month came, my wife and I decided to continue.

What have I learned about decisions?

Looking back at my decision to become vegan, I was puzzled: why did this decision take so long to make? Here’s one way to think about this:

Decisions, shown as bubble chart of impact vs decision time

The graph shows various decisions, each as a bubble. Bubbles on the left are decisions that I took quickly, and bubbles on the right are decisions about which I thought for a long time.

The y axis represents the decisions’ impact: decisions near the top of the graph are important and affect me every day. Decisions at the bottom are no big deal.

I conclude that my best decisions are those where the decision time roughly corresponds to the decision’s impact. In other words, it has probably been OK to think long and carefully about what I eat, since that decision changes my life every single day. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t fret half as much as I have over buying an e-book reader.

Drawing this chart also made me realize that I should think more deliberately about my work. I’m very happy in my current job… but joining Google had been a decision made quickly, without evaluating too many alternatives. Have I been too eager to join the tech giant?

Where to go now

Looking forward… I will eat differently. But more importantly, I want to think more actively about ethics and my choices. In the past, I did not always believe that I really, truly, had choices. I did not always have the self-confidence to make my own decisions. I would worry a lot about what my family, my friends, and my role models said. Taking the step to a vegan life has, in fact, boosted my self-confidence ;-)

I want to thank all the friends and people whom I’ve mentioned in this blog post. And I’d like to thank my wife, who made this step together with me, and without whom I could not have done it (so much for self-confidence :-P). And thanks to my family, who accepted the news with kindness and grace.

Photo credits