Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deciding: To Kill or Create

I must admit that I enjoy making decisions. I enjoy committing to a way ahead. I enjoy turning idle chatter into deliberate action. As much as I enjoy doing those things, I enjoy empowering and observing others doing the same. In fact, one of the characteristics I respect most in people is a bias for action. I have little patience for people who talk themselves out of doing, who let themselves get stuck in the observe phase of the OODA loop, who err on the side of the status quo. Observing others has helped me to realize there is another side of decision-making that I had not considered. That is the idea that decisions kill.

The latin root of the verb decide (cid) means to cut down, to cut off, to kill. This is a concept I began thinking about while helping my 8 year old son to make what might seem trivial decisions. The decisions we were contemplating are not of importance to this stream of consciousness (though I will share one), but my "a-ha" moment is (at least to me). I finally came to realize that for many the challenge in making a decision is the idea that they are deciding what NOT to do as opposed to what to DO. They are more concerned about the possibilities that they decide against pursuing, or kill, with their decision. If we paint the wall green, we kill the idea of having a red room. If we purchase a new sports car, we kill the idea of carpooling with our neighbors. And in my son's case, if he signs up to play competitive soccer, we kill the idea of experiencing his first season of lacrosse, enjoying our already planned family vacations, and maximizing our time on the beach for the next year.

Decisions regarding time are the most difficult of all, as we can't spend the same time in more than one way. In essence, we can't do two things at once. When I was my son's age, I knew soccer was my thing. That is what made me smile most, that was where my friends were, and that is what I wanted to work hard at to reach my full potential. The time I spent on the soccer pitch was time I wasn't camping, time I wasn't studying, time I wasn't playing with the neighbor kids. I have absolutely no regrets, but my decision to play soccer killed opportunities to experience other things that may or may not have brought me equal or greater joy.

As parents, my wife and I see it as our responsibility to expose our son to as many experiences as possible. In time, some experiences prove to be of great value to him, while others give the appearance of being time not so well spent. This week, we considered the opportunity costs associated with a decision that would have lead him down the path of a specialization in soccer. We discussed the experiences he would unknowingly deny himself (i.e. kill) by choosing competitive soccer and he decided against dedicating so much time and energy to kicking a black and white ball. Just as I made a very different decision without regret, I am certain that in years to come he will be able to say the same. Though he considered the options his decision would kill, he made a decision before all options disappeared.

Making a decision is easy when we have a clear understanding of what we are attempting to accomplish, a strong commitment to our personal values, and an ability to focus on the opportunity we choose without regard to any potential regret for the path(s) not chosen. Language aside, I'll continue to believe deciding is less about killing and more about creating. Decisions are made as much by our actions as they are by our inaction. Truth is, when we are hesitant to decide, the only thing we kill is our opportunity to actively influence the outcome.


  1. Justin Rogers ENS, USN (1170)December 19, 2011 at 11:02 PM

    Decisions to me do create and build my personal and professional life, ie. applying for a certain program at the Academy, choosing to go against the grain and call out a LT, choosing to comment on blogs even! Yes, these are all weighty decisions where decisions actually create and do not kill. At work today, we had a command climate survey to take, and in every way, it just did not settle well with me. And I hate to say it, but let's say at least a few answers on there were driven by that fear of the decision "killing" us...

  2. There's another form of killing that goes on with making a decision - and that's causing the end of the productive collaboration that comes out of doing analysis as a team and considering the options.

    When you are brainstorming options, or mapping out a solution, and someone in a leadership position says "OK, we'll do option (X)" too early, it can completely kill the sense of collaboration for a team that up until that moment was brought together to solve a problem.

    But I'm completely with you on the bias for action. Being stuck in analysis paralysis is something I don't enjoy at all.

  3. This is a great post, let me start there. It could even be called "Regret". I started reading thinking you were going the route of decisions could kill people, but your angle of decisions killing possibilities...very thought provoking. In this age of video games, people are used to "save points". The level of risk the gamer is willing to take is drastically different depending on the time from the save point and the before / after status. In life, there are no save points. As you stated, you can't be in two different places at once. Acceptable risk and opportunity cost must be applied. If I never learn to play the oboe, I am OK with that.