Rachel Taylor

Taking the pressure out of decision making

10th May 2018

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” Nelson Mandela.

We’ve all been there – can’t make a decision because we’re too scared of making the wrong one, particularly when the stakes are high.

This was me recently when trying to decide whether to resign from my secure job to become a freelance coach and writer. Would I dare to pursue this long-held dream which would also give me a break from 35 years burn-out in the public sector? I’d worked out it was financially do-able to take six months to build the business. And I was also okay with going back to a “normal” job and the ‘9-5’ if it didn’t work out.

However, despite sensible planning and supposedly ready to take a risk, for months I was frustratingly paralysed. But why was I so stuck? Basically, because I wanted to be 100% sure it was going to work out – knowing that if it didn’t, I would blame myself and feel a failure.

I finally moved on after reading “Thinking in Bets: Making smarter decisions when you don’t have all the facts” by Annie Duke. Duke uses her professional poker player experience of making speedy decisions in the context of lucky or unlucky cards to offer a compassionately dispassionate approach for decision making. The three wisdoms that helped me take the plunge are all obvious in a way. But they are packaged in a way that helped me look at things with a new perspective:

Our fate is and isn’t in our hands

The mistake we often make is assume if things work out well, it was all down to a good decision – and if things go wrong, it was a bad decision.
However decisions and outcomes aren’t necessarily correlated. We might make a sound decision on the basis of what we know at that time but the outcome isn’t good because of any number of “unforeseens” or bad luck. So, all we can do is make a decision on the balance of probabilities. Duke explains that “a best bet” is actually how we make all our decisions – from choosing a meal on a menu to a school for our children.

Thinking like this both gives us a sense of mastery and responsibility for making a considered decision. It also means we get away from blaming ourselves if things don’t turn out well.

It also helps us to reappraise decisions we thought were wrong in a more kindly light – giving us confidence in our decision making. An example for me is that “terrible” decision to sell my London flat in the ‘80s for 40K (since when prices have soared by 750% – ouch). Afterwards, I struggled for years to get back on the property ladder. But now I can see that the decision was actually sound, given a and a new job in another city, a series of unreliable tenants, falling house prices and sky high interest rates. So selling up was actually a pretty good decision that resulted in a not so good result (bad luck).

And on the flip side, Duke says we can all stop being so smug about those great decisions we’ve made. Let’s remember that good luck probably played a bit part in things turning out so well.

Uncertainty is the one certainty

Often a decision is a choice between moving from the status quo to the unknown which can be scary. “Better the devil you know” is oft quoted by scaremongers to the brave. But why the assumption that the status quo will always be the same? We know that’s not realistic. Life has a way of taking unexpected turns whether we stay on the same path or take a different one.

So, following the old adage of “take control of what you can influence rather than craving control over what you don’t” we need to direct our energy toward the things we can do something about. This – of course – increases the chances of a positive outcome while recognising the future’s inevitable uncertainty. For me, this was all about developing a robust financial plan for my first year, formulating the vision for my business, having a clear set of aims and a fall-back plan if things didn’t work out.

Us humans hate letting go

Any choice results in loss, whether it be the loss of what we know or the loss of what might have been. The concept of “loss aversion” helps explain why we find it so hard. Humans are wired to avoid loss (it’s a survival instinct) and so feel much worse when we lose something than we feel good about a gain.

This “negativity bias” helped our ancestors to survive as it ensured constant alertness (e.g. to the danger of tiger) and results in us naturally focusing on the negativity of the loss rather than the positivity of the gain. In modern life, we have to work to shift focus towards the positives – Rick Hanson’s work is help here.

Along with Duke’s great advice, I love Nelson Mandela’s words “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears”. Things may not work out for me and I may need to go back to the ‘9-5’ it won’t be without feeling I have won anyway. I’ll know that giving my dream a go was a best bet – and that’s the most any of us can do.

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