Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

November 8, 2009
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by Peter Bennettimg_05081

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.’” Abraham Lincoln

“I asked my client if he had trouble making decisions and he said, ‘Well, yes and no.” Anonymous

If the past few years have taught us anything, we’ve learned how dangerous it is when we stop making decisions and surrender that freedom to others. Avoiding the responsibility of making decisions set us up for all kinds of catastrophes – Ponzi schemes, crashing financial institutions, unresponsive, out-of-control car companies, gridlocked political systems, arrogant health care providers, sinking standards in our schools … well, you get the idea. By blowing with the wind, we got blown away. By standing for nothing, we got even less in return. By trusting the herd instinct, we plunged off a cliff. Groupthink stinks.

To reclaim your freedom of decision-making, first resolve to stop handing over your decision-making power to others – not to your financial expert,  doctor, minister, rabbi, guru, celebrity endorser, or college counselor who thinks he or she knows what you should be doing with your life. Instead of seeking consensus, seek conviction. Listen to others, comb for facts, weigh consequences, but never ever forget that only your vote counts in your decision!

This business of making decisions – of choosing distinction over extinction – is not easy, but you can do it. Start by making decisions a habit again. Start small and work your way up the decision-making ladder. First, strike the phrases “I don’t mind” and “I don’t care” from your vocabulary because, yes, you do mind, and yes, you do care. Vow never again to give up your most precious right – the freedom to choose. Paper or plastic, aisle or window seat, tattoo or an ear piercing, small stuff perhaps, but not to you! When you wake up in the morning, when your first foot touches the floor, say “Thank” and when the second touches, say “You” (“Thank You”) Right away, you’ve decided to get your day off on the right foot. When legendary IBM founder Thomas Watson was asked how long it took to achieve excellence, he replied, “One minute.” He was wrong. It takes only an instant, the second it takes to give gratitude.

Sally Ride

Sally Ride

Next, put your monumental problems into their proper perspective. Coming up with the rent check is not the same as storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. Instead of viewing every choice as a right or wrong one, think only of the consequences of each decision. Either this will happen or that will happen. Making one decision might lead you to a better second (or third) one, anyway. If you can’t be a concert pianist, be a physicist. If the tennis gig doesn’t work out, get your Ph.D. and became an astronaut, as Sally Ride did. Tennis’s loss was astrophysics’ gain. If you think you want to be a doctor (to please your parents), first work in a morgue. If the sight and smell of working around cold, stiff, dead bodies all day makes you queasy or uneasy, decide to do something else with your life.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra expressed this “lean into it” approach best when he said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”
Boost your decision-making by weighing your choices against your values. When you have strong values and principles guiding you, your choices become clearer and more confident. Without values to direct you, you risk becoming a bundle of unpredictable responses every time a problem arises — and a decision has to be made. 

As you develop your decision-making skills — as they become more of a habit — add to your list of things you want to be, do and have. Start with a handful and keep building. Develop a desire to acquire: love, health, wealth, knowledge. With each decision, you will feel more alive with possibilities. When you get off the fence — when you choose engagement over estrangement — you come alive again. 

Your decisions should get faster with experience. When you don’t make speedy decisions, you can sometimes drop the ball. University of Minnesota officials had vacillated on whether to offer their open basketball job to a young coach who wanted to bring in his own coaching staff. They told him the offer would come by 6 p.m., but when a freak April snow storm knocked out all communications, the job offer didn’t come through until 7:15  p.m. Fifteen minutes earlier, John Wooden signed with UCLA, a decision that changed the course of basketball history as the Wizard of Westwood went on to win an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships.

John Wooden

John Wooden

As you’ll learn, some decisions will go your way and others won’t. When trainer Tom Smith first saw Seabiscuit, an undersized, knobby-kneed loser of his first 10 races, he told his boss, “Get me that horse. I can improve him. I’m positive.” Seabiscuit proved him right, developing into a giant killer, defeating War Admiral and winning Horse of the Year honors in 1938. Mark Twain was just as cocksure about a new typesetting machine that he was convinced would revolutionize the printing industry and make him a fortune. Instead, he lost millions and spent the remainder of his life lecturing around the world to pay off his debts.
Some of your decisions will take you to the edge, no question. They will expose your courage or your cowardice. I hope the former. Management guru Peter Drucker said, “Wherever you see a successful business, someone made a courageous decision.” Examples abound:
Over the objections of his parents, Joyce C. Hall dropped out of high school and boarded a train from Norfolk, Nebraska for Kansas City, where his brother had started a post card company. Five years later their store burned down, so they got a loan and bought an engraving firm. J.C. also changed the name of their line of cards from Hall Brothers Company to “A Hallmark Card” “Everybody in the place was against it,” J.C. recalled. Later when everyone told him that advertising their cards was a waste of money, he didn’t listen and established Hallmark as the most recognizable brand name in the industry.” He was also warned against sponsoring classics on television. “Go for the mass audience,” he was advised. He launched the “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” which for more than a half century has showcased the great works of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Shaw on television, earning the company a cache full of Emmys. “I’d rather make eight million good impressions,” he said, “than 28 million bad ones.” A good decision!
Another courageous decision-maker was Soichiro Honda. When Toyota called the young entrepreneur’s piston rings substandard, he returned to school for two years to help refine his manufacturing processes. In World War II after his factory was bombed twice and leveled by an earthquake, he rebuilt each time. After the war, he couldn’t drive to get food for his family because of gasoline shortages. Desperate, he attached a small motor to his bicycle. Others wanted one. He decided to build a motorized cycle plant and sent 18,000 letters to bicycle owners, asking them to invest. Five-thousand did.

Dan Brown

Dan Brown

If you think you can write better than Sydney Sheldon, as Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown believed, you quit your teaching job, take up writing and don’t give up when your first three books sell a total of 20,000 copies.

Innovators like Hall, Honda and Brown used each obstacle, each decision, as a lifting, not a limiting experience. Don’t let your ego, however, get in the way of making good decisions. Upset by a Chicago Tribune editorial calling him an “ignorant idealist” for his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I, automaker Henry Ford sued the paper in 1916. Although he won his suit three years later, the jury awarded him a grand total of six cents. Worse for Ford, prosecutors exposed his educational shortcomings on the witness stand. He didn’t know, for example, there was an American revolution in 1776. In his defense, Ford said that “History is more or less bunk,” and he could hire experts to look up such information for him.
No one at the trial, however, doubted that Ford was a decision-maker. He was the father of the assembly line and mass production, instituted the first $5 a day workday and told customers they could have their own Model T in any color – “so long as it’s black.”
Even when you can’t take back a bad decision, you can sometimes be ennobled by the experience – a gift from the law of unintended consequences. Ford’s decision to slug it out in court might have been a tactical blunder, but the experience ironically laid the groundwork for his founding the Henry Ford Museum and Greenberg Village, the world’s largest indoor-outdoor history museum. Over 13 acres, the accomplishments of American innovators such as Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, George Washington Carver, Noah Webster and, of course, Ford, too, are honored. Ford had learned his lesson, and more: “Any decision you make isn’t worth a tinkers damn until you have formed the habit of making and keeping it,” he said. Even Twain’s bad choice had a silver lining. By speaking around the world, he became more famous and earned a place in the hearts of literature lovers forever.

You get what you’re committed to, and commitment starts with a decision. Despite the loss of all his children and possessions, Job remained a man of God. Despite withering criticism and war that was going badly, Lincoln remained a man of the Union. Despite the fire-bombing on his home and almost daily threats on his life, King stayed the course of the civil rights struggle.

Determination starts with a decision. When you decide something, someone can’t take it away. After imprisonment in 12 different concentration camps and five death camps in World War II, Simon Wiesenthal decided to forgo his career as an architectural engineer in an effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Well into his 90s, he operated out of a tiny Viennese office with a rotary phone and a clunker for a car. Architecture would have paid him far better, but he decided to keep his covenant with himself and his people. He and wife lost almost 90 relatives in the Holocaust. Some of Wiesenthal’s tactics were heavily questioned, but he didn’t easily cow to criticism. His decision to hunt Nazi war criminals had become his life’s mission and purpose.viktor-frankl

Another World War II concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, described in Man’s Search for Meaning how the power of choice ultimately triumphs over our conditions and circumstances: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey, Lt. Col. Leo Thorseness described how one of his cellmates in a Hanoi prison camp, Mark Christian, made a small American flag from scraps of dyed cloth that he stitched together, only to have it discovered by guards, who then beat him senseless. As soon as Christian recovered from the beating, he started on another flag. He had chosen the best way he knew how to survive.

When you choose your own way, you start living again. It’s your decision, for better or worse.

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One Response to “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions”

  1. Pete, I love this article. Very well written. Kudos to you!

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