To Be Or Not to Be …

A few days back I was talking to a friend who is on the threshold of making a significant career choice. In her own words, it is as significant, she said, as her choice of choosing whom to spend her life with. I know this person for a long, long time and I know that if she puts her mind to it, she is capable of accomplishing almost anything. What was holding her back was the seed of doubt that every one of us probably has while making any significant choice. Should I go ahead? What if things don’t turn out as expected? What trade offs does this involve? In situations, like these, while we can all speak to our friend(s), family, mentors, we find that we ultimately need — and do — make our own choices. We can hear out opinions, we can lap up words of encouragement, dismiss notes of caution, but each one of us, when faced with a situation like this, rolls our own dice. Getting back to this friend, I know her well enough to know that she will back her own beliefs and convictions, and I wished her well and told her to follow her heart.

Our conversation put some thoughts swirling through my own mind, however. Is there a framework for approaching these situations where we feel we feel confused, in doubt (self-doubt or a reflection of others doubting our abilities or our attitude)? I am a big believer in frameworks — they are to day-to-day life what maps are to explorers. While an explorer will always encounter uncharted territory, a map tells her the North; maps of travellers before them serve as invaluable guides in an expedition. Frameworks do that in life from time to time. I dig frameworks because they give us a set of thumb rules that we can turn to in sticky situations. They leave enough leeway to treat each situation differently — they are not rigid, they don’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s — they serve as the North Star. Without them, we’d have to to derive everything from first principles, every single time.

So anyway I found myself reflecting and thinking on a framework — essentially a reasonably small set of concepts — that can serve as a guidepost when making significant choices. What follows is an attempt to quickly jot down my thoughts on that.

Before I elaborate, here is the gist: we have a certain goal or target that we’re chasing; in the pursuit of that from time to time we are presented with a choice or a set of choices and we gotta pick from one of those. Every choice has a consequence — or consequences. Every choice also has one or more outcomes. While we can see — or predict with reasonable accuracy the consequence(s) — or well, most of them, anyway, we may or may not able to predict or foresee — all or even any of the outcomes. A consequence is also an outcome, but not necessarily the other way round. So how does one make a choice? How does one deal with the outcome or consequences of that choice? An effective framework helps us answer these — and may be some other — questions. In what follows, I’ll try and use a simple — though hopefully, not trivial — example that should help illustrate my thoughts.

Goals

A goal is an aim or a target that we want to shoot for. We have complete control over this — in the sense, that more often than not we set this goal for ourselves. Sometimes, the goal is influenced or chosen by another set of choices we may have made in the past. For example, I to make it to work for a meeting that starts at 10:00. This, then, is my goal.

Choices

On the path to our goal, we will be presented with a set of choices. The key part to always keep sight of here, I feel, is that we always, always make our own choices. Even when we do not realize we’re making a choice. Well, there are the so-called pathological cases — for example, I cannot choose a sunny day because I have a meeting at 10:00; or I cannot choose for the drive to work to take less than half the average time it usually takes me. But I can choose to get up early and prepare for the meeting, if it needs preparation.

Consequences

A consequence — or consequences — is usually an event borne out of a choice that we can predict or foresee with reasonable accuracy. For example, if I were to choose to dive into an empty pool, I’d almost certainly crack a few bones — or at least sustain heavy bruises. That’s a consequence of choosing to dive into an empty pool. If I choose to be a jerk — even if I’m unaware that I’m being one — I’d probably not have people wanting to have me around. Getting to the example I started with; if my usual commute takes about 40 minutes, and if I choose to stay late in bed and start out at 9:30, I’d probably be late for the meeting.

Outcomes

An outcome — or outcomes — is an event that is also borne out of a choice that we make, but we may usually not have the ability to foresee all — or most — of the outcomes with a high degree of accuracy. Well, experience, insights; these may help us predict certain outcomes with a high probability of being correct, but again, there are certain rolls of the dice that we cannot predict. A choice will inevitably have more than one outcome. Continuing with the example above, an outcome of leaving at 9:30 may be that I drive more aggressively to try and make it to the meeting at 10:00. While doing so, I might get pulled over by a traffic cop, or worse. Conversely, even if I leave at 9:00 or a little before that, I might run into heavier than usual traffic because of overnight rain, and I might still find myself stressed when I come in to work.

How then does one fit these four legs to form a table that can serve as a framework? To me, the key is to realize:

  1. You always, always have a choice. Well, other than in cases like choosing for it to rain today — or not. You can choose to be aware that you have a choice — or not.
  2. You can mostly tell with reasonable certainty the consequences of a choice. May be sometimes not, but more so than not, you can tell.
  3. With outcomes, the key is to focus on the “right outcome”; or more precisely, the significant outcome. What is significant will be different for different people, and even for the same person, will depend on what there goal was, to begin with.

That last bit is the key; the focus on the significant outcome. And that takes wisdom, experience, being in touch with your inner self, whatever you call it. Continuing with the example of the meeting at 10:00, it may happen that I left with time to spare, I made it on time, but it didn’t go too well. Why did it not? May be because I did not consider my audience while preparing for the meet. Or may be I missed the metrics that were key to the meeting. I can either choose to be pissed that it didn’t go well — that is, after all the outcome that stares me in the face, or I can choose to dwell on what I missed. If I do the latter, then the next opportunity that I have, I’ll make a better impact. If I choose to sulk that it didn’t go well, I’d have missed the point, made my day miserable and have the same fate — or something similar — await me the next time I was preparing for a similar meeting.

Reflecting on this, I felt that often times we find ourselves miserable or unhappy because we either:

  1. Made the “wrong” choice. A wrong choice is something of a contradiction, really. We made a choice. What made is wrong — or right — was the particular outcome(s) that manifested out of it.
  2. We chose to focus on insignificant outcomes. We focused on the outcomes which were probably misguided. We focused on them because we didn’t know better, or we let ourselves be blindsided, or may be even because of our conviction at the time. Either ways, what outcome we choose to focus on, depends on how we feel about the choice we made.

How we feel about the choice we made is critical, because in the long run, along all the choices that we made, it decides whether we feel bitter — or better! People who feel bitter about choices they made often ended up focusing on the wrong — or insignificant, or less significant, outcomes. Had they focused on — had they been able to, or gently prodded to — focus on the significant one, they’d probably be feeling better. They’d be feeling better not because they’d be in a better position; no, if the outcome was inimical, it sucks, but they’d probably be still getting a good night’s sleep, and wake up fresh to take on the next day as it comes!