Who anoints you with decision-making power?

Yesterday was the monthly meeting of a “boss book club” that I’m a part of.

(For reference, this is not a book club comprised of “bosses.” It’s more like an analysis on the workplace term “boss,” in which some ladies and I read business books, then discuss how to apply these tactics to our lives and careers.)

As is I’m sure the case with many book clubs, it’s 25% discussion on the book, 75% real world stories and tangential topics. Which is, of course, the best part.

Yesterday, we discussed the book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.” While somewhat outdated in some of their references (the book is more than a decade old and doesn’t address much, at all, about the new world order of the Internet), it’s peppered with vignettes and anecdotes that help drive the point home. We spent a lot of our time dissecting these examples.

“What I want to know,” I interjected, “Is how these people came up with these crazy audacious goals and numbers to set in the first place. Say, the guy who said he wanted to save 100,000 lives in 18 months by instigating safer procedures in hospitals all over the country. How did he really know that 100,000 was the right number? Or that those new safety procedures he outlined would actually get him there?”

This spiraled into a long conversation around decision-making in general. While we all agreed that making any decision was preferred to waffling indefinitely for ages, this in itself can often feel scary. And then my friend Alyssa, the special projects editor at Vanity Fair, said this:

“The hardest part is recognizing when you’re empowered to make a decision. It’s not like somebody comes along and suddenly ‘anoints’ you with the power to decide certain issues. The more senior you become, the less guidance you have. And no matter how much you wanted to get there or how worried you are about not doing a good job, you have to just own it completely — all yourself.”

I thought this was one of the most astute comments made all night.

When you get a new job or a new title, sure, you might read the job description, but you don’t get a special, magical handoff from the senior person one rung above you. Nobody says to you, “Okay, so with this shiny new title, here are the things you should decide. And here are the things I will decide. Stay within these boundaries and run forth!”

And for those of us who may have been a bit more achievement motivated throughout our academic careers, maybe this is part of the same problem. We’re paralyzed with indecision because we don’t know where the lines are.

They’ve said that valedictorians and salutatorians are rarely among “the most successful” in their work careers. In fact, a study of 700 millionaires found that the average GPA was just 2.9.

In order to succeed academically, you need to know the rules (so you know how to hit all the high marks). But in order to succeed in business, you need to not care about the rules (so you know where to push boundaries).

This is why deciding things is hard for people like me who like putting things in neat little boxes. It’s why learning to write is different from learning the rules of grammar. It’s why startups are rocket ships on the outside but sloppy on the inside.

And it’s why it’s so important to not wait for anyone to anoint you with decision-making power. Because that’s just not how things things go.


Originally published at Dry Erase.