When I did one of my first college internships, I worked with a man who had a poster over his desk that showed a person sitting on a rock looking into the ocean, with a quotation in the lower corner: “No one can share the weight of the decisions you make.”
Being all of about 20 back then, I considered the decisions I had to make. They were fairly limited. Something like, “Do I want to play racquet ball after work or go swimming?” The fellow who sat at that desk had a family though. He was older and had different decisions to make. As we worked together, I often found those decisions put us in different places. He refused to miss anything like his daughter’s school play or an opportunity to meet his wife for lunch.
Across the hall was another worker who attended every conference and seminar available, who came in early and left late most days. He rarely stopped for lunch and had a Rolodex full of contacts and associates. He too had a family but their activities were very independent. When time allowed, he stopped by their games on the way home from whatever meeting he had to attend. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good provider and a solid father, but he had made different decisions about what was important.
Learning To Decide
Probably greater than any skill one can learn or develop is the art of making decisions. It starts at an early age. The decisions you make as you begin to toddle include whether or not you can get up on that tall step. You are at first reckless. You have not learned to identify risk so you attempt most anything. You leap off the couch, you fall down the steps when you try coming down, you burn your hand on things that are hot.
But slowly, logic comes into play and things like gravity start to become clear. From that point forward, you begin to back off and consider risk, the main component of decision-making.
As you grow, it is the risk that changes form. You go from risk of personal injury to risk of embarrassment to risk of reputation. It is the avoidance of that embarrassment that becomes the main driver in decision-making. I am not talking about simply being embarrassed by making a mistake, like the embarrassment of being second-guessed because you didn’t catch on quickly enough or didn’t handle something the right way. Now here’s something important. When someone makes a decision and performs a task that goes badly and is even met with hostility, sometimes the decision maker is prone to lie about his responsibility for the decision. I give you the two boys standing outside the broken window pointing at each other, telling the homeowner holding the baseball, “He did it.”
The Cookie Jar
Watch this scenario play out. For example, let’s say it’s 40 years ago, and a seven-year-old named Ron, on his way into the cookie jar, drops the glass lid and it breaks in two pieces. Well, if this kid who might one day be a future writer and purchasing manager, carefully put the pieces back, the next person into the cookie jar would think he perhaps broke it, and Ron would be off the hook. However, if Ron was a notorious storyteller, his mother would immediately figure out he was lying and he had made a rather immoral decision about covering it up. That lesson might carry into life later, and this fine, respected young man might now be first to take the blame for something going wrong because his decision tree proved the results of being deceptive.
When I set out to write this essay, I thought I would tackle the subject in a scientific way, but the truth is, decision-making is an art and the way it is handled by each individual becomes a personal primer for what to do when confronted with a similar problem.
Learning By Example
Here are some examples in my lifetime that shaped my decision-making:
* I watched my dad reject a huge promotion at Ford Motor Company because it required the family to move, and he didn’t want to do that to his wife and kids who were happy where they were. His decision was about priorities and character.
* I saw my dad and uncle break up a fight when two guys were robbing another in a parking lot of a department store. They decided not to look the other way.
* I recall the look on an aging professor’s face when I saw him after class and told him he had inspired me. That decision was about coming forward. Years later I received a letter from him, telling me that my visit had encouraged him to stay at the university another five years until he reached his full retirement. I learned that not holding back and telling someone how you really feel is always a good decision.
* In speaking with a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer, I created a story about someone who had gone through the same malady years before and was now fine. My friend believed me, and it gave him hope when he had little else. He has fully recovered. My decision to lie was the only device I could come up with to alleviate his depression, and I learned that sometimes a little deception may be excused.
* I watched my mother take the time to treat every person she met with the same grace and interest. As a piano teacher, music director and church organist, she was constantly listening as people went on and on about how they always wanted to play the piano. She would smile week after week, lesson after lesson, and then eventually mention that the students should begin to evaluate their progress and decide if that was something they really wanted to pursue. By then they were usually so frustrated they gladly accepted her nudge and quit altogether. The finesse of creating and building the case before delivering the final closing argument was not lost on me, and it too is one of the sharpest tools in my box. Leading people to make their own decisions has much more staying power than telling them what to do (or not to do).
Being a life observer, I guess there is no one example that is greater than any other, but my point is that every moment of life involves decisions, and the art of decision-making can only come from the very core of what you hold dear and who you are. As decisions are made about you, your reaction to them determines the maturity with how you navigate your life.
Much like my mom letting students discover their own skill level or lack thereof, you now stand at a crossroad to review the life you have led, which is the sum of all the decisions you have made, and decide if those brought you to a good place or one that needs adjustment. If the answer is the latter, your next decision may be the biggest of your life.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org