My husband recently interviewed for a new role and one of the questions he was asked by the interviewer was “tell me about your best decision and your worst decision.” He wisely said his best decision was marrying me. But I was really intrigued by his answer to the second part of the question. He said that he thinks there is a big difference between bad decisions and undesired outcomes. I thought that was one of the most self-aware and insightful things he had ever said.
We can all agree that some decisions are just bad. We all know what those look like, because we've all been there. But putting aside the obvious bad decisions, it is interesting to think about how we frame the choices we have made. And so often, we decide we have made a bad decision when in fact, we made a good decision, but had an undesired outcome.
Let’s face it, no one gets up in the morning and says, “today I want to make a lot of bad decisions.” If that were our goal, life would be so easy. We would rock the world with our selfish decisions, without ever pausing to acknowledge the harm we have caused others and ourselves. In fact, one of the reasons we struggle is not because we fear making the decisions, it is because we are afraid of undesired outcomes. I think back on some of the “big” decisions I’ve made and think “how could I have been so foolish – I should have known that would turn out badly.” And admittedly, sometimes I should have made a different choice. But not always. Sometimes, even when I considered all the information available and chose the seemingly “right” course of action things turned out badly.
I am a big fan of decision trees. In that form of analysis, you lay out the various choices and the potential outcomes – both positive and negative, and work through various scenarios to decide the course of action that is most likely to yield the desired outcome. The tricky thing about using a decision tree is assigning the chance of risk and reward and then finding the outcome that optimizes your chance of a reward that you desire with a risk you can accept. In a good decision tree, there is always one little branch hanging out there where the outcome, basically, is “everything goes to hell and all our planning was for nothing.” No one, in business or in our personal lives, wants to acknowledge that little branch. I have been in countless meetings where it was my job to keep pointing out that little branch. Not because I thought it was the most likely outcome, but because I wanted to make sure people understood that no amount of planning and good intentions will matter in some circumstances. There are always variables we cannot control that can take all our plans and decisions and turn them upside down. Think about, oh, I don’t know, Covid-19? So many of us made decisions that seemed perfectly rational. To leave a safe but unsatisfying job to pursue a passion project. To delay the “once in a lifetime” trip to a later date because you were too busy to get away. To purchase a house or car because you finally had a job you thought was secure. But circumstances changed and some of our decisions did not turn out as intended. Does that mean we made a bad decision, or did we experience undesired outcomes?
And while Covid is an easy target of our blame, there are so many other decisions that we make where we take on the blame ourselves. “I should have known. . ..” That is when the spiral of negative self-talk begins. And if we are not careful, it can quickly poison our lives. We lose sight of the good things we have accomplished, and we fail to look at the situation rationally. It can be hard to sit back and just experience the emotions that come with undesired outcomes. It can be painful and uncomfortable. But acknowledging where we are, and then feeling those emotions is how we start to turn down the volume on self-blame and turn up the volume on self- awareness. To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, you were the man in the arena striving valiantly. And you came up short. Maybe several times. The point is you tried, and you learned, and you got up to do it again. I do not believe that the worst things that happen to us always turn out to be gifts in disguise. I do believe that we can take something away from every negative experience. Something that will inform and shape us into more resilient and authentic beings.
I know how easy it is to be consumed with regret over our bad decisions. Do you ever wake up in the night and start that litany of memories that you just cannot let go? We ask ourselves over and over “Who did I think I was to venture on that path”? “Did I really think I had what it took to be successful in that new role”? “Why did I chase that opportunity, when I should have known it would turn out badly”? “Why did I trust him”?
Letting go of that behavior is a learned process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens step by step, as we learn to trust ourselves and the universe, and to acknowledge that control is often an illusion. And most importantly, it happens when we can sit with our feelings and separate bad decisions from undesired outcomes.
There is no escape from undesired outcomes, but there is an escape from the oppressive feelings of guilt and shame. We find our way to that place by accepting, forgiving, and finding the moments of grace and gratitude that are embedded in every decision, every outcome, every breath.
I will leave you with this thought, one of my husband’s favorites, courtesy of the very wise Captain Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.”
Decision trees are most often used in business. As a small business owner, I find the form helpful. It organizes my thinking and helps me avoid the pitfalls of being overly optimistic and overly pessimistic. You can learn more about the tool here!