By Robert L. Heilbroner
MOST OF US have marched up to some crossroad in our lives: whether or not to get married, to change jobs, to choose this or that career-and have experienced the awful feeling of not knowing which route to take. Worse yet, many of us have known what it is lie, after a paralyzing wait, to start down one road with the sinking sensation that we’ve picked the wrong one.
What makes us decide things badly, when we “know better”? What is it that sometimes stalls our decision-making machinery entirely? The high-school senior who sits with his pencil wavering between True and False on an examination may be baffled by the difficulty of the question; or he may simply be reduced to a blue funk by the pressure of taking an exam. A young woman in the throes of indecision over a marriage proposal may be trying to weigh the pros and cons of a tangled life situation; or she may be panicked by the thought of marriage itself. Foolish decisions and indecision are the consequence not only of the complexity of the world about us but of the complicated crosscurrents of the world within us.
There is, then, no ABC for decision-making, or we would all be executive. But there are a few guidelines that have helped others and can help us.
Marshal the Facts. A lot of mental anguish can be avoided if we do what a good executive does with a problem that can’t be settled: send it back for more data. Dale Camegie once quoted a distinguished university dean as saying “if I have a problem that has to be faced at three o’clock next Tuesday, I refuse to try to make a decision about it until Tuesday arrives. In the meantime I concentrate on getting all the facts that bear on the problem. And by Tuesday, if I’ve got all the facts, the problem usually solves itself.”
Just gathering facts won’t solve hard problems, however. “The point is to marshal them in good order,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas L. Harold, former commandant of the National War College. “In the Army we train our leaders to draw up what we call an Estimate of the Situation. First, they must know their objective. Unless you know what you want, you can’t possibly decide how to get it. Second, we teach them to consider alternative means of attaining that objective. It’s not often that a goal, military or any other, can be realized in only one way. Next we line up the pros and cons of each alternative as far as we can see them. Then we choose the course that appears most likely to achieve the results we want. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it does prevent us from going off on a half-bade hunch that may turn out to be disastrous.”
Meanwhile, beware of misusing the fact-collecting process. Sometimes we o on getting advice, assembling more and more facts without coming to any clear conclusion. We may merely be waiting for the “right” fact to rationalize a decision that we have already made. An executive of a New York placement agency told of a young man who couldn’t make up his mind whether or not to take a job that involved a move out of town. He kept coming back for more and more information until one day he learned that the company had had tough sledding during the ‘30s and nearly closed down. That clinched it. With obvious relief the young man “reluctantly” turned the job down.
“Actually,” the placement official commented, “it was clear that he didn’t want to move. But he had to find a ‘fact’ to make his decision respectable in his own eyes.” When we reach this point, it is time to stop fact-collecting.
Consult Your Feelings. Psychiatrist Theodore Reik once asked Sigmund Freud about an important decision he had to make. “I can only tell you of my personal experience,” Freud replied. “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however such as the choice of a mate or a profession the decision should come from within ourselves. In the important decisions of our personal life, we should be governed, I think by the deep inner needs of our nature.”
We can usually tell when a decision accords with our inner nature: it brings an enormous sense of relief. Good decisions are the best tranquilizers ever invented; bad ones often increase our mental tension. When we have decided something against the grain, there is a nagging sense of incompletion, a feeling that the last knot has not been pulled out of the string.
The right time. The old maxim that we should sleep on big decisions is based on the fact that our behavior is affected by our passing moods. Everyone knows that the boss is more likely to make lenient decisions when he’s in a good mood, and that it’s no time to as hi for a raise when he comes into the office glowering. We do well to take account of our emotional temperatures before we put important decisions on our own desks.
We should know when not to make a decision. “In surgery,” said Dr. Abram Abeloff surgeon at New York’s Lenox Hill hospital “a doctor often studies a situation for days or even weeks until he feels reasonably confident to go ahead. Time itself is an essential component of any decisions. It brings uncertain situations to a head. Premature decisions are the most dangerous a person can make.”
Consciously postponing a decision-deciding not to decide-is not the same as indecision. As Chester I. Barnard, the first president of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Co., put it in a book on business leadership, “the fine art of executive decision consists in not deciding questions that are not how pertinent, in not deciding prematurely, in not making decisions that cannot be made effective and in not making decisions that others should make.”
Many of the most involved and difficult decisions are best not “made,” but allowed to ripen. Facts accumulate, feelings gradually jell and other people take a hand in the situation. By holding ourselves back we give complicated situations a chance to work themselves out-and sometimes we save ourselves a great deal of exhausting and useless brain cudgeling.
You Can Make It Flexible. Too many of us find decisions painful because we regard them as final and irrevocable. “Half the difficulties of man,” Somerset Maugham wrote, “lie in his desire to answer every question with yes or no. Yes or no may neither of them be the answer; each side may have in it in some. Yes and some no.”
There is much more “give” in most decisions than we are aware of Franklin D. Roosevelt was a great believer in making flexible decisions. “He rarely got himself sewed tight to a program from which there was o turning back, “his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, once said. “We have to do the best we know how at the moment,” he told an aide. “If it doesn’t turn out all right we can modify it as we go along.”
The Final Ingredient. In making genuinely big decisions, we must be prepared to stand a sense of loss as well as gain. A student who hesitates between a lifetime as a teacher or as a businessman, a talented young woman trying to make up her mind between marriage and a career-both face choices in which sacrifice is involved no matter what they do.
It helps to talk such decisions over with others-not only because another person’s opinion may illumine aspects of the dilemma that we may have missed but because in the process of talking we sort out and clarify our own thoughts and feelings.
After this, meditation, reflection-letting the problem stew in its own juice-can also help. But in the end, after talk and thought, one final ingredient is essential. It is courage. “One man with courage makes a majority,” said Andrew Jackson and this was never more true than in the election of our minds where the one vote we cast is the deciding one.
By Robert L. Heilbroner