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Category: Thought Soup

Insights about life, useful skills, and a few about life in general

Choosing to Choose

Choosing to Choose

I am writing this as Election Day looms—a time when we make some very significant choices. These are big, important decisions, and we need to respect them enough to do them well. But there’s an entire realm of choices we make on automatic pilot day after day that it might be good to think about, too. What better time than this—when we are focused on “choosing”–to take a look at those.

We make a lot of choices by default because we assume there really isn’t a choice. We assume we have to keep this job because we need a job. We assume we must stay where we are geographically simply because it is where we are.

Making choices this way is the meek way to live .It means you never consider anything beyond what you already know, what you already do, what you are already comfortable with .It also means that you feel “stuck” with what you are doing—a “victim of circumstance” rather than captain of your own destiny.

The truth of the matter is there are always alternatives. Much of the time, they’re so unappealing we never consider them .To be sure, there are some choices where the alternatives are unthinkable and making the choice again and again would be silly. I choose to breathe. Not breathing doesn’t look like a real good idea to me. I also choose to rest, eat, and drive with care (mostly). I don’t need to decide to do these things every time I do them. But letting your entire life run on autopilot is cheating yourself.

Decades ago, I was involved in a company program that encouraged women to get into nontraditional careers within the organization. We offered an all-day seminar called “How to Decide.” I wish that class were mandatory in every high school in the country today. Since it isn’t, here are the basics of making good choices:

  • Recognize you have a choice.The first step in making a good choice is acknowledging you have a choice. Instead of assuming that what is going on is the only thing that could be going on, make a conscious effort to assess the situation. Ask yourself “Is this the way I want my life to go?” often.
  • Generate a wide range of potential alternatives.When you create the list, put down everything you think of, even if it seems silly or unthinkable. Sometimes those “frivolous answers” hold the kernel of a really great alternative.

Here’s anexample. Many of us are rethinking whether we can retire because of the rollercoaster ride the financial markets are on. But there are a whole lot of alternatives beyond “doing what I am doing now” and “traditional retirement.” Exploring that broader range of alternatives can offer far more appealing course of action.

  • Gather the information you need to make an informed decision. When we do make an effort to consciously choose, this is where we tend to blow it. It’s easy to buy in on information from some website or a friend without assessing the quality of that information. Is it accurate?  Is it current?  Is it relevant?  There are TWO pieces to this step–getting a realistic sense of what the alternatives will and won’t provide AND a defining clearly what you need. Do you need to buy that great but expensive jacket because clothes are terribly important to you? Or are you looking for ways to be properly clothed without wacking out your budget?
  • Decide.Too often, we do this “naked”—without a clear idea of what we are deciding and without anywhere close to enough information. And we do it without thinking about the consequences of choosing this particular alternative. A friend bought a dishwasher he hates—because he daughter told him it was the greatest. She’s good in the kitchen, and he believed her rather than thinking about what he really needed himself. Now he’s stuck with that dishwasher. That’s small potatoes compared to the career choices that are sometimes made the same way.

Taking the time to choose is usually a time saver, too. The easy way usually ends up costing you a lot more—in time, in money and definitely in personal satisfaction.  Choose to choose.  Even when your choice is just to keep doing what you’ve been doing, the consequences are dramatic.  Making good choices reinforces your sense of controlling your own life.     

Retaining Your Emotional Agility

Retaining Your Emotional Agility

At the moment, I’m working with my publisher on the title for a book. They have great ideas and know the business. I know what I said in the book. They are good people, and I want to believe what they say about what will work. But I am the one who knows what doesn’t as “retirement.” I know “not working” doesn’t work. They love that title.

They’re in the prime of their careers. “Retirement” hasn’t even hit their radars yet. They are sure “not working” is the coolest thing you could ever do. How do I mesh my truth with theirs to the greatest benefit–of our working relationship and what we ultimately get out to the public?

This is just an example of the challenge that’s often cast as “keeping an open mind.” Sometimes, it’s not as simple as it seems like it should be.

So what do I do to honor and get the most from what this enthusiastic, young team is doing to help me? And how does that relate to what you are trying to do? We deal with this so many different ways. How can we be true to ourselves and easy to work with?

  • In every instance it’s good to revisit the priority list when you hit an impasse. How important is the sticking point? Is what they want to do more workable than you are telling yourself?
  • Then it wouldn’t hurt to just stop thinking about it for a few hours. The more pressure you put on trying to get to the solution, the harder it is for the easy breezy brilliant ideas to push their way in the door.
  • And above all, believe there’s an answer and trust that all involved are looking for it. They usually are.

These are good people and what we are trying to do is good work. The right title will come. Once we use it, you won’t have any idea how many e-mails we spent trying to hammer it out.

But to get to that answer, I need to keep my emotional agility. To let the new ideas have the full floor. To not cling to a favorite just because it worked for me. I need to let go of what I already decided. Nobody likes a stubborn grump–young or old. Keeping an open mind may not always be easy, but it’s the only way to go.

Saying “No” when you need to

Saying “No” when you need to

As two-year olds, “no” was our favorite word, and we pronounced it with great confidence. What happened? As adults we take a two-week guilt trip every time we say it in any meaningful conversation. It’s an important word to use, yet we avoid it like lima beans.

A big piece of the problem lies in the idea that saying “no” is not nice. When you get to be a big kid, you learn it’s important to be nice. Nice is more important than honest, fair, or reasonable once we move into adulthood. Nice can be deadly if you’re doing too much.

Being effective with how to say “no” is essential. Life is more vibrant when we don’t take on things that aren’t ours to carry. Saying “yes” to the wrong things doesn’t do right by the people making the requests either. Agreeing to do it because someone else asked you to–when a different approach is needed–is a lie. Lies complicate relationships. This particular lie also takes away that person’s chance to learn to achieve whatever the real solution was. They rely on you instead. You lose. They lose.

The saddest part is that when we do say “no,” it tends to be to those who don’t deserve it, especially ourselves. We say “no” to the fun and “yes” to the work. “No” to what we like and “yes” to what others prefer. (And then we wonder why we are stressed!) We say “no” to the people who deserve our time and “yes” to chores no one else wants to do. We need a better set of rules for this.

Here they are:

Rule #1. Be honest.

Is this really yours to do? If not, who should be doing it? Is that person available? If not, why are you the one asked to handle it? And then there’s the biggie: Is this important enough that anyone should be doing it?

Rule #2. Be authentic.

Do you believe in what you are being asked to do? Do you really want to do it? Is it truly your responsibility? Or is “yes” just easier? “No” takes more courage up front but “yes” takes a lot more time to be finished with the request.

Rule #3. Stay the course.

Even when you know you need to say “no” it’s easy to be derailed by sweet talk. Be alert to the folks who tell you how great you are at whatever they need done. A lot of us believe we HAVE to say “yes” to anyone who asks nicely. Not really. We just need to say “no” nicely.

And that’s the other part of this.The courage to say “no” often doesn’t come until we are at the boiling point.  Then “no” is lobbed like a hand grenade. Saying it as “the last straw’” often has catastrophic results. The big fight that results just isn’t worth it.  Too long delayed,“no’” is almost always part of a major explosion. Not pretty. Not good. But instead of learning how to use the word at the right time, we decide not to use it at all.

Say “no” when you first become aware it’s the right answer. Be specific.“No.I can’t take on the fundraising chairmanship.” (You can add “Sorry” if you want.) Say it gently. “I’d love to do something with you, but not that movie.” And particularly, with kids and teenagers, you have to say it clearly or they will still hear “yes.” “No, you can’t do that” is more effective than “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

What about the situations where the person you have to refuse is difficult? You still have to say it. And you have to learn to say it calmly and with confidence again and again—even if that person is verbally abusive. Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Connection is a great resource for these situations.(The subtitle is “How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate.”  That pretty much covers the bases.)

Do say “yes” to what’s important. Say “yes” when it makes your heart sing. But “no” is a good answer, too. Believe it and mean it and say it with grace.