When I was working, I taught leadership classes and helped people develop their resumes for management positions. I learned a lot about the qualities and skills needed to be a great leader. My agency evaluated twenty-one “core competencies” when considering a person’s leadership potential. Two of these core competencies were decision-making and decisiveness.
When I first learned about this competency model, I was confused as to the difference between decision-making and decisiveness. I always thought they were the same thing. Not so. Decision-making has to do with weighing the options and assessing the relative risks and rewards to make a sound decision. Decisiveness means creating a viable strategy to implement your decision and acting on it. In a perfect world, leaders would be good at both competencies. They would be able to use good judgment in coming to a conclusion, figuring out what to do about a problem, and acting to enable the outcome they seek. You don’t want to place your trust in someone who goes off half-cocked at the firing range, but you also don’t want someone who is the victim of paralysis by analysis. You want to follow someone who is thoughtful and wise and who also has the courage of her convictions to actually act on what she decides is right.
I don’t know that I am very good at either competency. I’m an excellent ditherer. I can cover the same mental territory over and over again in my attempts to make the perfect decision. It doesn’t seem to matter if the decision involves the fate of the nation or the fate of my breakfast cereal. I can entertain myself endlessly with improbable scenarios until I’ve “what iffed” myself into a fight or flight neurological response. I key myself up so much trying to make a decision, I can’t stop making it. Max is the same way, except perhaps worse. He is an impressive purveyor of unlikely scenarios, even by my standards. On the other hand, once he has made a decision, he is the most decisive person I have ever met. He plunges ahead in action, absolutely convinced that he is doing the right thing and never looks back.
Me, I can’t ever stop looking back. In fact, I rarely get to the point where I have anything to look back to. I find that avoiding any action at all is often the most comfortable psychic state. Even when I finally believe I have considered all the data that is likely to EVER be available and make a decision, I often back pedal or couch what I do to allow for an escape hatch. Or maybe it is just that I am constantly looking for deniability. If I do actually act, I spend a lot of mental energy considering the road less traveled. Often, it isn’t that I sit around mired in regret, it is just that I seem to be incapable of detaching from the mental process of making a decision. Mulling the “might have beens” is a kind of hobby.
I spent a lot of effort working on my decision-making and decisiveness when I worked as a leader in my agency. I knew it had to be frustrating for my employees, customers, and senior managers to have to deal with my eye-crossing lack of commitment. People did like me and respect me, but it was not uncommon for someone to look at me in despair and sigh, “can’t you just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?” Yes. No, I mean no. Well, sometimes.
You get the idea.
In looking back over my life, I do see why it can be so hard to make and act on decisions. They are often so complex and fraught. I sometimes think about roads I took that maybe were not the most satisfying. It strikes me that I’ve experienced wonderful offshoots of those roads that I would never have seen if I had not been going down that particular less-than-satisfying path. For instance, I don’t know that becoming a tax auditor at age 21 was the career of my dreams. Nor do I think I was very good at it. It might not have been the best fit for me- a person who ponders over what color of thumb drive to purchase from Amazon- to take a job that required me to make decisions about what people deducted on their tax returns 20-25 times a day. If you consider my introversion and my inborn tendency to want to make people happy along with my issues with decisions, it is remarkable that I survived six months on the job, much less a successful 30+ year career in the tax field.
Still, I marvel at the ways God blessed me that I would have missed had I taken another path. Some of the best people I have ever known came into my life through work. My much-loved friend Judy may have actually saved my life. If she didn’t actually save it, she certainly provided a spark of motivation for me to continue living and trying to find my way out of the shadows. I never would have met her and we never would have become sisters by selection if I had been in a different job. Knowing her is one of the most satisfying experiences in my life, born out of a work experience that…wasn’t.
My marriage is another example. For reasons too melodramatic to go into, I decided it was a good idea to marry before I ever had a chance to live my own life or see what the world had to offer me. Both my husband and I were ill-suited to the partnership and I ended up very miserable. I was scared a lot of the time. I was financially vulnerable. My heart was broken and scarred beyond recognition before our first wedding anniversary. Let’s just say that things did not get better. We stayed married for another six years of so. Finally, my husband, seemingly out of nowhere, left me. I dithered my way through months of waiting for him to figure out what to do. Finally, he told me he wasn’t coming back and I decided to file for divorce. The fact that I waited five months for him to declare his intentions before doing anything shows you just how slow my decision-making transmission is. When people asked what was going on during those five months, I kept saying I didn’t know because my husband hadn’t told me what he wanted to do. They all seemed baffled, as I am now, as to why it never occurred to me to decide what I wanted to do. At any rate, both the decision to marry and the decision to divorce seemed to be imbued with pain, heartbreak, and tragedy. I was sure my life was effectively over.
Still, when I think back to my marriage, separation, and divorce, I have to admit that I gained some things I never would have if I had never gone down the aisle. I became smarter, stronger, and more self-reliant. I became a better judge of other people. I became a better judge of myself. I learned how to indulge my potential for joy in a way that I would never have been able to accomplish without going through this crucible time in my life. I discovered that I was stuck in a sort of arrested development. I gave myself permission to grow up at my own pace, with my own interests at the center of my growth. It wasn’t easy and it has taken many, many years, but I am convinced that I am a much better person than I would have been if I have never married my ex-husband or if we had stayed together.
So, it is understandable that decisions are difficult. There is so much at stake. On the other hand, maybe there really isn’t all that much at stake. There may not be all that much point in stewing over decisions. No matter which decision we make and no matter how boldly we implement it, life will go where it wills. And wherever our decisions lead our lives, there is always the potential for both pain and joy.
I hope that I look for the joy, even in the pain. I believe God can make spaghetti sauce even out of over-simmered tomato soup.
Do you have trouble making decisions? Is it more difficult to come to a decision once you are retired and don’t necessarily have the same pressure to move through the decision-making process? How do you make a decision and not dwell on the “might have beens?” Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Decide to have a great day!