Tag Archives | decision making

There Are No Right or Wrong Decisions

Fork in the Path

photo: mcmac_70 (flickr)

Every single day, we’re confronted with countless choices. Many are routine or seemingly trivial.

Some of my own frequent decisions go like this:

Which pants should I wear (should I even wear pants today)?

Do I feel like listening to Black Sabbath, Al Green, or some Claude Debussy on my commute?

Now that my day is ending, am I in the mood for a Scotch or a Kentucky bourbon?

The outcomes of these daily decisions are not going to change my world. It’s not like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are going to gallop to my front door if I choose that silky Evan Williams single barrel over the peaty Laphroaig next to it.

Yet, there are some choices that confront us where we might have this unmistakeable feeling that doom awaits if we choose wrong.

For much of my life, I always imagined it like a fork in a wooded trail with no signposts or blazes. If I choose to go left, will it be so full of peril that I’ll come to regret that choice? Perhaps I should go right. But what if that leads to some terrible reckoning and regret? Shit. Maybe I should just have a sit down at this fork and not decide until I know for certain which one will lead to the perfectly perfect choice.

If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
Rush – Freewill

Great. Thanks, Rush. (I’m not your biggest fan anyway so take that.)

But the older I get and the more mileage I put on the odometer, the more decisions I’ve had to make. Many simple. Some profound. A few life-altering.

Here are some of the not-so-secret secrets that I have come to understand about choices.

When it comes to choices, there are no right ones or wrong ones.

Contrary to what we might have been taught, there are only choices, each one with its own potential merit and consequences. It’s not Choose Right or Choose Wrong. It’s Choice A and Choice B and Choice C, etc. We make the best decision we can at the time based on what we think and what we feel. Simple. But really damn hard to accept.

In 2006, my wife and I decided to move our two young daughters away from our familiar but increasingly discontent life in Washington, DC to explore life in Austin, TX. Neither of us had jobs there, but we had hope and excitement and enough belief in each other that we would find a way to make it work.

As you might imagine, it appeared to some folks as a wrong, unstable, and irresponsible decision. Frankly, we too questioned whether we were making the wrong decision at times. However, would choosing to stay with unhappy comfort in DC be wrong?

Turns out, that decision to move 1500 miles to Texas led to adventures, friendships, and experiences that contributed to the development of who I am today, the person who is writing to you.

I also feel like the move not only saved my marriage, but helped strengthen it in ways that may never have happened if we remained on the East Coast. And if you ask either of my girls where they grew up, they’d tell you, rather fondly, in Austin.

So right choice or wrong choice? Neither. Again, it was a choice.

When it comes to choices, it’s 100% okay to choose again, and again, and again…

It’s amazing how this fundamental truth where we are free in our choices can so easily be forgotten.

Somewhere around the midway point of our eight years in Austin, I slowly found myself in a dark place. It’s the kind of glacial slide that you don’t realize is happening until too late. During this period, I couldn’t quite figure out where I fit as a professional marketer but I firmly believed I was ultimately trapped by this career choice. And with every job, I felt an increasingly unbearable pressure to prove that our move to Austin and my desire to be a high-powered corporate marketer was the right decision.

Deep down, however, my decisions felt not only wrong but unforgivable. And so the lie I told myself became all the more convincing.

That lie was this: I was the pathetic, weak little loser I have always been. How could I not be if I kept making such horrible choices, one on top of the other? Sure I was choosing again, but every terrible choice was evidence pointing back to me, the shitty husband and father and person making shitty decisions.

Funny how lies provide a convenient and credible reason to self-flagellate and torture ourselves. I felt that since my decisions turned out wrong, it was my solemn duty to suffer for it.

That’s until I hit what was pretty damn close to rock bottom and made the choice to get the psychological help that I was choosing to ignore for so long. (It’s also here that I really must gratefully acknowledge that it was my wife, Carrie, who was instrumental in helping me climb out of that dark place of severe depression.)

That choice led to recovery of some of what I misplaced: my strength, courage, humor, and hope. It also led me to understand that I was no longer pursuing my truth, my voice, my values. I hadn’t for a very long time.

Once again, there was no right or wrong choice. Just choices. So I chose again.

Or more accurately, Carrie and I chose again. After days of talking about what we really wanted, we decided to pick up and move back to the East Coast, this time settling around Atlanta, GA where we had family and job prospects.

When it comes to choices, we are always free.

In the four years since being in my dark place, I’ve managed to stumble across an ancient truth. And I work my ass off every day to put it into actual practice.

We always have choice.

This remains true even when we don’t feel like we have any choice. Perhaps we feel stuck in a career that brings us no fulfillment. Or a relationship where there is no longer any love. Or a life that is not at all what we expected. We may feel trapped in a cycle of hate, sorrow, anger.

Each of these may appear very real, feel very real. And yet we still have the ability to choose how we experience each moment of our day. I know it’s not easy. Like I said, I work my ass off to change the way I view my choices. And every day, I get a little better at how I choose to experience whatever it is that happens in the world around me.

And I have to tell you, when I fully and intentionally choose my experience, that Evan Williams tastes even better.

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Creating Great Ands – Your Opposable Mind At Work

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Moe, Larry and Curly

And so on, and so on…

Each of these are fine on their own. However, when one is added to another, a great alchemical melding occurs. It’s the integration of unique things into something quite different.

Too many times we limit ourselves and our choices by placing an ‘or’ between our options. Why not choose an ‘and’ instead? Because it’s just not that easy to do, particularly in the world of management and business. We like our options to be neat, our decisions to be orderly, our outcomes to be quick and well-defined. Yet this more logical and rational preference costs us more than we realize. It cheats us of our potential. Do you think Moe would be half as hilarious if Curly wasn’t there? And while chocolate is very good, the addition of peanut butter takes it to a whole other level (okay, that may just be for me).

I used to be an ‘or’ kind of guy. If someone gave me a choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, I’d make a rational choice between the two options. Then my dear wife entered my life and introduced the power of ‘and.’ When presented the same choices, she’d always reply, “Both.” The first few times she did it, I would say, “Wait, you have to make a decision.” Her response? “Why should I? I like both and they taste better together.” Guess what? She’s right. And by choosing an integrative solution she’s modeling a process that is essential in today’s business world.

One of the most influential articles I’ve read in Harvard Business Review was titled How Successful Leaders Think by Roger Martin. The article is a prelude to his book, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. His primary argument is built around the idea of an opposable mind. Like the genetic advantages we gain through our opposable thumbs (like holding a pencil, lifting large stone blocks, and catching a ride with strangers), we have an immense capacity to create new options through an opposable mind. Yet, we often veer toward the shallow compromises of an ‘or’ decision because of the mirage of comfort it yields. Martin writes:

We often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.” We may even take sides and try to prove that our chosen model is better than the other one. But in rejecting one model out of hand, we miss out on all the value that we could have realized by considering the opposing two at the same time and finding in the tension clues to a superior model. By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.

The next time you’re presented with two or more options, don’t be too quick in choosing one over all the others. Take a bit more time to play with the healthy tension between the ideas and follow the steps that Martin offers:

  1. Start by acknowledging that everything is relevant at the beginning. Rather than quickly dismissing what seems trivial or unnecessary, welcome the complexity of the situation. It’s from this place that the best answers will emerge.
  2. Consider how things are connected. Instead of choosing a path and immediately racing in one direction, take a step back and look at the whole situation. Find relationships, question assumptions, get curious about other possibilities.
  3. Take a systemic approach to making a decision. Martin suggests that we see “the entire architecture of the problem – how the various parts of it fit together, how one decision will affect another…The order in which you make these decisions will affect the outcome.”
  4. Achieve resolution by refusing the simple and segmented “either/or” model which only leads to compromised trade-offs and conventional options. Appreciate the natural tensions between conflicting ideas and seek a solution that creatively assembles the best of each option.

Yes, this might appear to be more difficult and more time-consuming. But if you truly want to differentiate yourself, your team, or your organization, then do something that few others are willing to do. When a problem arises today, get curious and wonder, “Wow! what would it be like if we put these different things together?” Don’t be surprised if it leads to some interesting solutions.

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