“I got a lot of feedback from people I trusted — and they all pretty much had the same general advice, but when the time came for a decision, I just couldn’t do what they’d suggested,” I told my friend Dave at the gym.
“Yeah, well that’s why I don’t ask anybody for advice on anything,” he said, completely missing my point.
“No, Dave. I’m not saying I made a mistake by getting advice. I think that’s a really critical part of making a good decision. What I am saying is that even if every person you talk to tells you to do A and you don’t want to do A, you don’t feel that A is right for you, then you shouldn’t do it,” I said.
“Well, I still don’t ask anyone for advice,” he replied.
And that was the end of my conversation with Dave on that topic.
Good decision making starts with understand the choices or opportunities on the table, for only with clarity can you weigh one option against the other. After that, I think it’s critical, and it’s certainly my method, to analyze the damn thing to death — do all the research you can, and talk to everyone with general knowledge of the topic, as well as those with no knowledge of it whose general common sense and thoughtfulness impress you.
But when I say analyze to death, I mean do so within a deadline. Sometimes this deadline will be imposed from outside (“We need to know by Friday.”) but sometimes it must be self-imposed. Perhaps a good way to go about this is to estimate a reasonable amount of time for doing your research, gathering your advice, and then letting it all stew or ferment (or whatever you want to call it), in your brain. But having a decision deadline, and taking it seriously, is very important — for a final few moments in the pressure cooker can really concentrate the mind on finding the right path forward.
Now, back to advice and its value. Advice is absolutely critical for having confidence in your decision. You don’t know everything and neither does anyone else, but everyone has a different perspective, so everyone sees your issue differently. What you hope for from each person you speak with is not the grand answer, but a little nugget of wisdom or clarity on a small piece of the puzzle — clarity you would not have attained on your own. If you walk away with just that, they’ve done you a great service.
But no matter how much insight each person has on your situation, and no matter how much they all seem to agree, be like President Lincoln was when instructing General US Grant on his surrender communications with Robert E. Lee:
WASHINGTON, March 3, 1865 — 12 P.M.
The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen. LEE unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. LEE’s army or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.
EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.
You are the one who has to live with the decision, you are the only one who knows the totality of what matters to you, the implications of any one path you might take, and what will truly make you happy. You must always hold the final decision in your own hands.
And remember this — though I understand things are not quite so simple — on some level, happiness should be the goal of any decision, for choosing a path that will likely reduce your happiness in exchange for other benefits (money, power, etc) is a dangerous bargain, especially if you are the kind of person who doesn’t directly equate happiness with that which you’ve acquired. Think about it — if you forfeit happiness for something else, what have you really gained?
So unlike my friend Dave, don’t be afraid that the possibility of receiving advice contrary to your inclinations means you’re better off getting none at all. Talk to those you respect and hear them out, take some time — but not too much — to ponder and then move forward. I’m not mystical, but I do believe if you arrive at the right place, something akin to a mental click happens — everything feels right and all the stress associated with the selection process melts away. And when that click happens, you’ll know it, because you’ll suddenly and unmistakably be quite happy.