You may notice that as you go about your day, at some point your brain offers you a story of “right vs. wrong” to give meaning to what is happening in that moment.
Example #1: I go to a coffee shop and stand in line to order a coffee. Seeing at least ten people in front of me, I pull out my phone and start to browse my e-mails and social media. After a few minutes I look up, and a new person has just stepped in front me… Well, actually, I’d more likely think “they cut in front of me.” In my mind there is a rule that people shouldn’t skip other people in line. My brain says they did something wrong.
(Interestingly, the flip of this story may be discovered if we imagine what was going in the other person’s mind. Perhaps they looked at me, and said, “She obviously isn’t paying attention, and if she wants to get coffee, it’s her job to keep moving with the line. There’s no problem with me jumping in now. I’m going to keep the service moving.” He/she/they may think I did something wrong.)
We create stories of “right vs. wrong” all the time. There could have originally been a social or survival advantage to doing this; it is definitely one way in which we communicate, create groups, and move our causes forward. But sometimes this specific binary approach to looking at the world can hold us back.
Creating a judgment of right vs. wrong may be helpful in some instances, and not helpful in others. When it comes to decision-making, I think we’re often misplacing this judgment.
Here’s a simple description of what making a decision may commonly look like given the above framework:
Life happens. –>
We identify an opportunity or a problem. –>
We engage in decision-making, often wanting to make the “right” decision (or not make the “wrong” decision). –>
Feeling uncertain, we become stuck, stall, and ruminate. –>
Ultimately, we make a decision and observe its impact.
Example #2: I’m currently an employee with a moderately enjoyable job. I’m used to the routine I’ve created. One day my friend tell me that there is an interesting job opportunity at their company. In that moment I’m faced with an option – to either pursue that opportunity, or not. I spend days thinking about what to do, not wanting to make the “wrong” decision and end up in a job that I don’t enjoy.
Notice how we aim to make the “right” decision. The truth is, there really is no right or wrong decision. (Who determines that?) There are only desirable or less desirable outcomes.
However, the outcomes we think we care about are not always the outcomes that truly matter most to us.
Take the last example: I think that one of the jobs, either my current job or the opportunity at that company, will make me happier. The truth is, neither of those jobs determine my happiness – my thoughts do. If so, then solving for my happiness by selecting the “right” job will be frustrating and possibly never-ending, because I’ll find reasons to like and dislike both options.
If our goal in making a decision is to increase our likelihood of a certain outcome, we need to very clearly distinguish between the emotional outcome and the experience we want to have. The way we will feel may be influenced by the consequences of our choices, but not necessarily dependent on it.
We can acknowledge that certain situations may contribute to an easier time being happy – but that’s not usually because of the situation itself, but because we were able to get something that we wanted.
So, if you’re facing a tough decision, take time to write down:
- the deeper wants or needs that you want fulfilled
- the most important immediate outcomes you predict, as well as some of the downstream effects for each choice you have
Intuitively, in which of your choices do you think your needs or wants will be best met? What do you most want to experience?
If it’s difficult to decide, you’ve probably got a good chance of being happy either way. In this case, if it’s difficult to move forward, pick a priority or a value that is important to you. See if honoring that helps you make a decision.
We also misplace the “right” vs. “wrong” label in decision-making in the following way:
We are often so focused on taking action and finding a right solution that we don’t stop to ask ourselves if we are solving the right problem in the first place.
Here’s a simple example to illustrate this point: If a patient seeking care presented with hypokalemia (low potassium) on their labs, the clinical team would likely not just treat the low potassium without addressing the root cause (e.g. some syndrome of diarrhea and vomiting). Addressing the symptom alone would be an incorrect approach and harmful to the patient. Instead, the clinical team will look at that problem of hypokalemia as a symptom of the deeper problem.
In the same way, if you’re faced with an opportunity to apply for a new job, instead of deciding whether you should take that job or not, ask yourself why you’re thinking of making that decision in the first place. Is there something that you’re not currently satisfied with in your current job? What is it? Are there other ways of relieving that dissatisfaction without having to find a new job?
What I’ve described is a core part of doing a Root Cause Analysis (RCA), which is used in various fields for process and quality improvement. You can use this concept in your personal and professional decision-making to find practical solutions. This also relates to the “thought-work” we do too, because ultimately the root cause of any problem is a set of limiting thoughts or beliefs.