Simple Decisions in a Complicated World

There are so many decisions in one’s life that are made alone. You ask others – a friend, relative, coach, partner or a neighbor – to weigh in; but when the decision has to be truly executed – it is your name that’s etched on paper.

Having migrated to the US as a student, I was suddenly face-to-face with life decisions, during a very early stage of my life. Whether to move to an apartment from the dormitories, which roommates to pick, location of an apartment or what furniture one may need – are all simple, yet building-block decisions in one’s life. Growing up, my parents like many others, made most decisions; I was not necessarily prepared to have a “judgment call” on topics like these.

When you are nineteen or twenty, you don’t always understand the gravity of these decisions; there is a need to make a decision– so you make it; sometimes your roommate turns out to be a person who doesn’t share the chores or pay the bills on time – another time, the furniture you buy (from a garage sale) just collapses within a couple of weeks. However simple or mundane, the outcome of such decisions sometimes makes you the person who you are.

I have a childhood friend, who is paralyzed in front of the frozen food section, picking the brand of yogurt that he may want. To me it’s a simple decision; to my friend it’s complicated.  It requires one to make a choice – and to live with that choice – maybe for a day – or maybe a lifetime.

As one grows older, and realizes that the number of decisions we make, during our lifetime, may be growing smaller by the day; however, they may actually have greater impact on more people – and we may have to live with them for a very long time – if not, forever; now, it takes on a whole new dynamic of thinking.  

Today, when decisions have to made, I think of all the different stakeholders in the process – how will my decision affect all of them; I worry about the different outcomes, think of counterpoints – and strategies to balance the potential negative outcomes. I am not certain if the process is complicated – or I make it more so.

Few years ago, at a life-intersection, I had the opportunity to pick from three very exciting career opportunities. Each role was interesting and held the merit on its own. One would allow me to be an entrepreneur in a foreign land – another one would allow me the helm of a multi-billion dollar division of major US corporation; all with handsome packages – required relocation to a different city – and sometimes to different region, altogether.

After talking to a series of people and getting the pros and cons from friends and family, I came to the conclusion that whatever the outcome, the decision has to answer the following:

  1. Is the decision right? Does it feel right for where I want to go in life? Does it feel ethically and morally justified? 
  2. Is the decision fair to everyone involved? To my family, their needs? To my own aspirations?
  3. Is the decision beautiful? Elegant in nature or contrived to fit the needs of a certain time? Does it feel like I am trying to force it – or is it flowing naturally?

I realize that not all decisions require such philosophical pondering; however, there does come times, when it’s important to give the decision-making a due process. I have also found that when I use these guidelines, and, at least one of these criteria is negative, it’s much better to not make the decision.

Not making a decision, often, is a major decision.

Sometimes we get caught in a “false choice” of trying to rationalize that some criteria are met – so we should go ahead with the decision. I have found that, in the long run, with rationalization, I have regretted making those decisions.

I try to imagine where my decision-making skills originated; are they genetically pre-ordained– or did I learn them over time, through many different experiences? One is never certain if Gladwell’s “thin slicing” of decision-making (Blink) is innate or learnt over time.

It’s easy to digress and think how to help my teenager to make the right decisions every time.

The best I can do is to teach her to understand right/wrong in our world view, understand fairness – to consider others around her, and, finally, appreciate the beauty and flow of a river – natural and serene. I also want her to understand the contrast of difficult, contrived decision – that creates conflict, chaos and heartache.

Ultimately, she has to learn from her own mistakes and build her own decision framework. However much I try to protect her from her own circumstances, if I don’t let her graduate into decision-making, she can only make more mistakes.

After all the pondering, some decisions still go wrong – or not exactly as we intended. Like a complex, multivariate, calculation, life takes its own twists and turns and we are left wondering where things exactly went wrong. That’s the time faith comes to our rescue – whatever has happened, has happened for the best.

One can only make decisions about tomorrow. So, we move forward. Learn from our decisions and ardently hope and pray that the decisions we make tomorrow, are slightly better than the one’s made, the day before.

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Experiencing Adversity as a Source of Competitive Advantage

a racing yach sailing in the whitsundays, australia

Is this person strategic?

Do they deliver results?

Can they develop other leaders?

How do they work in leadership teams?

Do they build customer loyalty?

When recruiting leadership talent, these are the top 5 questions we ask about potential candidates. However, in addition to these key skills, one of the more subtle areas worth probing, is to see how an individual deals with adversity.

Death or acute sickness of a family member, working to pay for college, experiencing a civil war or national tumult, immigration to a different country, are all examples of different forms of personal adversity that each of us deal with differently.

Those who face adversity, where they have little/no control of the difficult external environment, truly understand the sense of abject helplessness in such circumstances. However, once you navigate out of such a situation, and are able to “re-ground and re-orient” yourself to what needs to be accomplished, this new found reality makes us stronger and much more determined than where we started off.

Such personal adversity injects both humility and entrepreneurial spirit in a person, which maybe a very valuable source of competitive advantage in the workplace.

 Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart grew up during the depression as a teenager in high school, milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver newspapers on a paper route. He worked through his entire college life and worked to pay for his own meals. His experiences during the Great Depression as a teenager, and later in the military, shaped his core values and played a strong role in building one of the most successful corporations in the world.

 Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, mentions in a speech at Stanford (http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die.html) about how getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that happened to him. It helped him re-focus on what he really wanted to do and what was important to him. it’s that “hunger” that made him successful in thinking through new solutions in all his future endeavors. This is what, Jobs believes, is at the root of the recent renaissance of Apple.

People like Walton and Jobs are iconic examples of how people deal with adversity and make difficult circumstances the source of their own personal strength– which ultimately translates to organizational competitive advantage. 

 Having worked with a wide variety of people over the last twenty five years, I have noticed that  folks who may have experienced a bout with cancer or significant trauma from an accident, or lived through a tumultuous time, e.g. a civil war or wartime military engagement,  have a different disposition when it comes to both creative decision-making and action orientation.

The style is typically “no-nonsense”; they appear to be invigorated by a level of versatility and “hunger” that is non-bureaucratic and refreshing. It’s as if, nothing really matters (for them) any more.  They want to do the right things, the right way – in the right amount of time.

As we emerge from yet another economic downturn,  leaders look at their organizations building them with talent that provides both, immediate results and long term competitive advantage. The key characteristics desired  to shape our organizations are: creative problem solving, with speed, which can provide a significant source of competitive advantage in organizations, big and small.

The competitive dynamics that are core to any business environment, stem from either dramatic cost reduction (example: Wal-Mart) or new “leap frog” solutions (think IPods from Apple) – in either case, if you are not way ahead of the competition, someone’s most likely to “eat your lunch”. To win in atypical competitive battles, and duel with inevitable economic downturns, we need to have in our teams, folks who have couragously dealt with signficant adversity in their personal or professional lives. 

It’s not that, only experiences in adversity makes one a strong leader; however,  strong leaders, with the experience of adversity, turn out to be exceptional leaders when things go wrong in our complicated and constantly changing world. Adverse personal conditions can be a source of both personal strength and organizational competitive advantage.