“I don’t know if I can.”
I hear those words all the time, in my work and from friends. They often come as the person is feeling challenged to take a step in a new direction, to make a hard decision. And by “hard” I mean a decision that feels necessary to take and impossible to follow through.
And too often I have seen people walk back from it.
“It’s too hard. I can’t.”
Uncertainty settles into certitude.
You’ve been there, right? No judgment, me too. We all have.
I’m not here to motivate you, though. I’m not going to tell you that you can. In fact, I’m going to tell you quite the opposite…
We don’t really know what we can or can’t do
A decision is, in a sense, an act of humility and honesty.
Humility: To say “I can’t” is to claim far greater confidence about an outcome than we have a right to. But I’m willing to bet there’s lots you didn’t think you could, either, and yet here you are. It’s human to feel inadequate, and healthy to acknowledge that. It’s also worth reminding yourself you’re very possibly wrong—and there’s only one way to find out for sure.
Honesty: While you may not know what you can or can’t do, I hope you do know one thing: what you want. To make a decision is to declare that you care enough to commit. Conversely, to hold back is to deny your own desire. And sure, that’s a choice you can make, but even then it’s worth deciding to actually make it rather than let it “make itself”. That’s the other way decisions keep you honest: to decide is to take responsibility for the choices you make. To avoid making decisions is to avoid owning your own life.
And yet, decisions are hard. That’s inevitable, since the more you care about a situation, the more you care about getting the outcome right. Which makes you, paradoxically, that much more likely to aim at the wrong outcome.
Which brings me to my next bit.
Decisions are better with fewer variables
I said just now that caring deeply about situations leads us to want to get the outcome just right. That’s a problem, because you’re not in control of outcomes—only of the process.
You know that already, of course. But how to practically enact it?
I think it helps to limit the variables.
Think of it this way. The typical thing is to try to line up every variable: everything we want to achieve. Say, for instance, the decision is between two jobs. To keep it simple, imagine one job offers good money, a top position and a quick commute. The other job would be close to family and comes with a great team and sweet perks. All six of those variables might be important, but they’re spread over two different jobs. Do I go with either or none?
That depends which variables I care about the most. It wouldn’t help to focus overly on their not being all lined up in one job. I think it helps to decide upfront on a few variables (3 is a good number), to try and line up. Decisions are suddenly easier to make when you’re only trying to line up only a few variables.
But what about all the others? Am I saying to ignore them?
No, that’s not the idea. What you want to do is use those in the plan. Say I decide being close to family and with a great team are more important to me. Then I can start thinking about dealing with the commute and how I might negotiate for more money or find some way around either or both.
I didn’t say making a decision makes the rest easier—only that making the decision could be easier.
That said, making a decision can make the rest easier for one reason…
Decisions shift the question
Picture two paths. I’m trying to decide which to go on. If I go down either without having decided for sure, every obstacle I face will have me wondering if I shouldn’t just go back.
If I’d made up your mind, however, the question shifts from “Should I keep on this path?” to “How do I get past this?”
It’s much easier to focus on one question than to try to answer two pulling in opposite directions.
That doesn’t mean I never question your path: it makes sense to do that from time to time. But not every single time something comes up.
It all comes down to simplifying.
And that’s the real power of decisions: they simplify.
That’s how decisions help light our way.