The Subtle Art of...

June 27, 2022
The Subtle Art of...

In the past few blogs, we have looked at the process of making good decisions, the ways our decision-making can become stuck, and even some of our own personality traits that may stand in the way of us making good decisions. But even if you know how to make decisions and when to make decisions, there is still one missing piece of the puzzle; knowing what you want to choose!

Let’s take a moment to think of a decision many of us have faced. I want you to imagine you have been offered your dream job. Everything is perfect about the offer. It is the role you have been training, building, and working towards for the past ten years. The salary is great, the benefits are brilliant, and you would be doing something you truly love every day of the week (and no work on weekends!) Sounds great right? A no brainer.

But there is a catch. The job is in another country (or even state). Far away from friends and family.

Now in this decision we can imagine three different decision-makers – and you are likely to be one of them.

  1. Someone who finds this decision easy and takes the job.
  2. Someone who finds this decision easy and stays close to family and friends
  3. Someone who finds this decision very difficult– they cannot decide between these two, equally appealing offers; the job of their dreams, and living close to their family and friends.

For person 1 and 2, the answer is clear and obvious to them. They instinctively know what their decision is. But for person 3, they will find this decision agonizingly difficult. They will spend days, weeks, even months agonizing over what they want. One day they will be sure they want to take the job. The next day they are convinced they want to be close to family. They will agonize over the many known (and unknown) details – their finances, future, and current plans for children, mortgage rates, the cost of living, the preferences of their partners and families. Before you know it, they are stuck in a cycle of decision avoidance, or redundant deliberation we described in our earlier blog.

Now, we can all hope for a life of being person 1, and 2, and knowing instinctively what the right decision for us is. But what do we do when we find ourselves like person 3 – stuck in a difficult decision where both options offer us something we want (and also something we do not want)? In this case how do we decide what the right decision for us is?

A few years ago, this was something we tackled studying soldiers and police officers, and one of the approaches we found very helpful came from, surprisingly, Mark Manson’s bestselling book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.” What he preached was that the key to good decision-making was not to “not give a f*ck,” because, as he outlines “there is a name for a person who finds no emotion in anything: a psychopath. [and] why would you want to emulate a psychopath?” Instead, “not giving a f*ck” means caring about something so much that we do not “give a f*ck” about adversity that comes with choosing to follow something that you really care about.

In our own work, we often use the frame of sacred values to help us explain this idea. This allows us to use some well establish psychology around the importance of values, as well as minimize our use of expletives. Sacred values are those that we cannot think to violate, that the mere process of even considering making a concession on would cause us psychological discomfort.

So how can we measure sacred values? Often you may know what these are; you may feel it in your gut. If not, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to help identify what you hold sacred:

  1. Is my stance on this issue likely to change over time?
  2. Would I ever change my opinion on this, even if the costs of following this value were incredibly high?
  3. Would I be willing to make any concessions on this topic?
  4. Would I defend the principles of this topic under any circumstances, to anyone, no matter what the consequences?

Take the decision above, for example, there are two predominant values at play here – progressing in our career and being close to our families. Take a few minutes to answer the questions above about each of these values. Maybe even score each question on a scale of 1 – 5 and add them up. Often the value with the highest score is the one that is the most sacred to us, and we should make every effort we can to avoid making any concessions on this.

This guideline is not black and white. Sometimes every value involved in a decision is sacred (these are called “tragic tradeoffs” because there is no way to avoid sacrificing a sacred value), sometimes our sacred values change after defining life events (falling in love, or having children), and sometimes we do not know how important something is until we have made the sacrifice and regret it. But in all decisions just taking the time to think about the values involved, and how much you really care about each one can be a really helpful step in making sure you make the decisions that are right for you.


- Neil Shortland and Laurence Alison, author of Decision Time

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