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May 2014: Making Good Decisions

For most, major decisions are a fact of life.

Impactful life decisions include the following:

  1. Do I want to pursue college education or beyond?

  2. What major or academic focus makes the most sense for me?

  3. What kind of work do I want to do?

  4. How will I manage the sometimes competing values of meaningfulness and financial security?

  5. Do I want to find a life partner?

  6. What’s important to me in a life partner?

  7. Beyond love and work, what life pursuits most fascinate me?

  8. Do I want to produce and raise children? If so, how many?

  9. What beliefs and values will govern my relationships with my life partner and children?

  10. How will I respond to “undesirable surprises” affecting me and my family, such as physical illness, a sudden death, addictions, divorce or loss of a job?

  11. What do I want to do with the last half of my life?

  12. How will I face and experience my own mortality?

Maturity differences and decision-making

Less mature individuals view big decisions as sources of anxiety: “I want an unpressured life with freedom from responsibilities. The more I think about the work, sacrifice and discipline required for a college degree, a committed relationship and a steady job, the more nervous I get. I don’t think I can do it.”

Usually, those who are allergic to responsibility find places to hide: an unchallenging job, a caretaking spouse, a focus on directing and controlling others, or a string of “trivial pursuits.”

More mature individuals view decisions as pathways to opportunity. They accept responsibility for their life decisions, without blaming others or “the circumstances.” They are more likely to view decision-making as freeing instead of restricting. An attitude of determination is cultivated:

“This is my life, and I am responsible for how I live it. Although I cannot change the hand of cards I was dealt, I can study and more deeply understand myself. How I play my hand – for better or worse – is up to me.”

Decision-making capacities

Like other complex skills, decision-making involves a combination of variables. By cultivating the capacities that contribute to good decisions, individuals can become better deciders over time. In my view, five capacities are particularly deserving of attention:

  1. Learning about self: I gather information about myself that enlightens and expands my understanding about where I come from, what’s important to me, and who I want to become. I acquire accurate information about my family history and upbringing. I begin to accept the gifts and burdens of who I am, and gradually let go of my judgments about others. My focus becomes my own maturity.

  2. Feedback about self: As part of #1 above, I solicit views, and observe cues and messages about how others experience me. I listen openly to the unflattering as well as the positive. I discover personal assets, liabilities and vulnerabilities. I come to understand what others are up against trying to connect, work and live with me. This enables me to see myself as I really am, warts and all. A balanced and accurate understanding of myself enables me to function with honesty and integrity in relationships and work.

  3. Learning about the external world: I acquire knowledge about how best to get along in and influence society. I gain exposure to cultures, human variations and the natural world, enabling the formulation of a wider and deeper perspective about my own existence. I grow increasingly intolerant of superficiality. I seek exposure to human suffering, mystery, contradiction and complexity. Confronting my own small place in a vast universe instigates humility and wisdom.

  4. Sacrifice: Over time, I develop a willingness to give up certain wants and needs for the sake of a greater good. I accept that I cannot have it all, that a move in one direction shuts a door in another direction. I learn that some goals and relationships warrant extraordinary persistence and stamina. Sacrifice calls forth discipline. I am better able to delete superfluous information and delay gratification to reach a valuable goal.

  5. Reflection: I establish routines that enable me to think about and feel what I am experiencing, so that my learning can be continual and my decision-making more clear and courageous. Growing suspect of hurrying and worrying, I develop a commitment to working smarter, with breaks from busyness. I grant myself the permission to savor, to notice, and to respond thoughtfully instead of automatically.

The challenge of discernment

These five capacities strengthen one’s discernment. Discerning individuals are able to look beneath the surface for cues that enable a higher degree of clarity. Discernment includes everything that leads up to the point where a good decision is made, including the ability to:

  • Separate fiction from reality

  • Choose the best from among many good options

  • Eliminate choices that are inconsistent with self

  • Discriminate between attraction and substance

  • Tell the difference between noise and music

One quandary facing modern society is the tension between the time required to become a good decision-maker, and the life-defining decisions that are often made before age 30.

That gets me thinking about the possibility that parents who make decisions for their children, leave them ill-equipped to make good decisions as young adults and beyond. A different way would be to help children develop the discernment capacities mentioned above.

This same idea applies to mentoring and succession planning in organizations.

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