How to Choose in Life Decisions

Crossroads? A fork in the path of life…

I was with a 65 year old successful entrepreneur at a direct marketing conference on Wednesday. I had given a speech and he came up and began to chat over coffee. He finished an MBA at Harvard 30 years ago. I asked him what was going on, what were the challenges in his life 10 years after the MBA?

Fork in the path. Which do you take? Photo Credit: simonsterg

This is a common question that I ask of people.  What was their biggest challenge when they were my age? This is somewhat of a selfish, self-serving question for me… but I find that those that I ask enjoy the reminiscing about their own life.

He said that he faced a challenging decision.  He had 2 job offers.  The safe, stable option; and the risky, adventurous option.

The Safe Option or the Adventure?

He had the choice to go to London with a solid job with Time Life, perfect MBA career, job security, and London was a city he had always dreamt of living in.  He could see that the rest of his MBA class would be impressed if he told them that he had this position.

On the other side, he had the option of going to South Africa to set up Ogilvy. This would be setting up a business from nothing, in a country still under apartheid, where he knew nobody and was a little disgusted by the political situation.

The London option was strong on a financial basis.  It was stable.  It was an impressive job title.  However, he found himself stuck and unable to decide.

He told me that after a few days of trying to decide, he realised he couldn’t.  In a sort of desperation, he even came to ask his mum what she thought.

His mum said “Take a paper and do a pros and contras of each option, London or South Africa. Work on the criteria, which is best for each… And then sum up the pros and contras.”

At this point I was thinking “duh. Of course.” but his mum’s answer had something else.

She said “now, when you have the answer, how do you really feel about it? If you want to go back and adjust some of the numbers then you have your answer. The other one.”

He said that he did the analysis. London won. By miles. But when he had this answer he realised he didn’t want it. He went to South Africa.

The Mind Reflects, The Heart Decides

The rational process is important in facing decisions. It makes sure I understand truly the consequences or sacrifices that are required. But, in the end the heart has to decide.

This bears repeating.  Intuitive decisions without doing the work of thinking through the criteria and the consequences are not good decisions.  You must do the thinking work.

In all my life I have only taken one decision that forced the rational answer over the heart answer. I still regret it. The rest of my life has been quite easy – because my heart has always been so clear.

Now, I find that I am not so clear anymore. A lot more decisions are not clear. I end up choosing to not take the decision. Sometimes this allows me to decide later when I am clear. However sometimes, I end up saying “No” by proxy… Because the delay is really the same consequences as a “no”.

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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