In difficult times life seems to be full of risks and attempting to avoid threats is the only strategy anyone seems to follow. We fear worst-case scenarios, and almost automatically worst-case scenarios become a habitual way of looking at the world. No matter how much you try to avoid risks, however, and minimize threats, happiness is degraded by anxiety. If you grow old and look back on your life saying, “I was extremely careful,” that’s not the same as looking back and saying, “I created a happy life for myself.”
What’s needed is a path of happiness that avoids risks without fixating on them. It is possible to be free of anxiety on a path to fulfillment. The key lies in the decisions you make from day to day, both large and small. If your decision-making promotes happiness, you have found the right strategy, not only from day to day but for a lifetime.
At the place where decision-making is seriously studied – mostly at business schools and departments of government, risk and reward are the dominant factors. To reach a rational decision, both sides are calculated mathematically, and the result gives you the ratio of risk to reward (in simple terms, this is like calculating the odds of winning at a Las Vegas casino). This approach ignores the fact that all decisions are human. There’s no machine that can be programmed to make only right decisions for us. History tells us that the greatest decisions always involved a combination of human genius, passion, determination, unforeseen consequences, and human foibles.
But what does this mean for you and the decisions you must make? It means that if you want to make good decisions, you should make them with full awareness of the human situation. If instead you try to reduce every big decision to a dry, rational computation, you will shut out the very things that go into a good decision.
So, what makes a decision good? There are four human elements that go beyond simple rational thinking (rational thinking still counts for a lot, of course).
Emotions – Your choice must fit in with your most positive emotions and avoid negative ones.
Self – Your decision must match who you are as a person.
Vision – Your decision must accord with your long-term goals.
Surroundings – Your decision must be compatible with the situation you find yourself in.
These are the ingredients present in great leaders, and it’s ironic that the human factor is almost completely ignored when case studies focus so much on risk versus reward, flow charts, statistical trends, market movement, etc. The obvious lesson is to welcome the human element. It can’t be eliminated anyway, not in the real world. If you embrace your human side with total awareness, your decisions will turn out to be win-win. Either you will make the right decision, or if something goes wrong, you will learn from your mistakes and march forward to make better decisions in the future. This is the attitude that highly successful people generally adopt.
The four human elements require you to be self-aware, alert, and flexible.
Emotions: Good decisions feel optimistic. They aren’t based on fear, rivalry, anger, or greed. They express positive emotions, while bad decisions express negative emotions. People tend to deny this simple truth, but denial is a negative emotion also. When a situation is rife with tension, decision-making become clouded. Even so, it’s the person who can feel his (or her) way forward without panic, who can stay centered emotionally, who will inevitably find the best solution. There is a level where solutions exist inside us, and it is blocked by negative emotions. This level is open when a person is quietly centered without emotional drama.
Self: Success in life depends much more on who you are than what you do. If you keep building a sense of self based on expanded awareness, moving steadily toward maturity, self-confidence, self-reliance, and knowing your own truth, you will make better and better decisions as your path unfolds. Self isn’t ego. It is the calm, secure core of who you are. Ego is the drive to satisfy the demands of “I, me, and mine.” We all have egos, but highly successful people have learned to act from their true selves.
Vision: Vision is the captain of the ship of life. Everyone experiences a host of shifting emotions, thoughts, and desires. These form the daily jumble that occupies our minds, and quite a lot of the time a single strong impulse influences the next decision we make. Vision turns the jumble into a coherent perspective, turning chaos into order. “I know who I am” goes with “I know where I’m going.” You know what you’re passionate about. You follow your highest aspirations. When successful people have survived immense crisis and challenge, what got them through was their vision. They learned somewhere along the line to favor the decisions that promote their vision. Daily ups and downs do not deter the person who holds the highest vision of possibilities.
Surroundings: All decisions are made in a context. You can’t reduce decisions to a formula that fits every circumstance. Most people try to do just that, however. They are always fighters or always compromisers. They always embrace risk or always avoid it. Like the proverbial stopped clock that is right two times a day, if you follow a fixed formula in your decision-making, you aren’t fated always to meet with failure, but you won’t be flexible, dynamic, and adaptable either. Good decisions require you to assess the situation you find yourself in. This is one area where rationality actually gives you an advantage as you gather information, study the variables that must be considered, and perform in-depth analysis. Yet even here, the best decisions are made by someone who can feel their way along, not by someone who relies entirely on data.
All of these elements teach the same thing: If you commit yourself as completely as possible to making your decisions human, in the best sense of the word, you will be using the secret ingredient that too many others have ignored but which has created greatness in some. Without aspiring to greatness, you should aspire to the goal of a fulfilled and happy life that you yourself created.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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