"In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing."
When faced with choices in work and in life, few of us set out on the path with the idea that doing nothing is a legitimate pick among our choices.
We are more binary and bold in our thinking when a decision is still an abstraction. For instance: "Should I leave a job that makes me unhappy, or should I just persevere? Should I write a book? Should I put my career on hold and travel?"
Here, picking a yes or a no is a relatively easy exercise because neither one carries an immediate price.
We've not yet owned a choice. It's essentially just daydreaming.
The trouble starts when that decision becomes a matter of acting on a real choice that has measurable consequences. That's whenâ€”far too oftenâ€”so many of us end up choosing to do...nothing.
Why is that, gentle reader?
Often, it's because we've given in to negative thinking. That's a way of being that tricks us on two levels.
First, it misleads us into the belief we've made a legitimate choice, when in fact all we've done is found comforting excuses instead of a commitment to action.
Second, negative thinking distorts a hard-wired trait in humansâ€”the exercise of general cautionâ€”and turns it into a learned behavioural pattern: the engagement of intense self criticism. Or as Steven Pressfield says, it takes a force that is "universal and impersonal" and turns it into one that's "individual and personal."
Negative thinking says the worst will happen to you. It says yes to fear. It says run. It says hide.
Define your fears, not your goals.
As a reader of CreativeBoost, you know I've shared my thoughts on why goals aren't a great way of getting anything done as far as decision making is concerned.
Instead, get to know what really scares the heck out of you, and why.
One of the reasons why I've grown so fond of reading books from the classical era is that they remind us that most of the problems we have in life today have happened over and over to others in the past. And many of those smart people wrote down what they did to overcome those problems.
Take Seneca, for example. Whether you see him as a shrewd political operator or a tragic figure (I see truth in both of these assessments), he was someone who struggled with decisions until he found an operating system to make those choices.
His advice: prove to yourself what it's like to live your fears. The Stoics took to calling this "the premeditation of evils." But I don't care much for that expression. It assigns a character to fears, when in fact what the exercise does is prove that we're being driven by dark fictions.
That's not a matter of good or evil. It's a matter of distinguishing what we feel is true from what we know is true.
Until you do that, these are all just thoughts: constructions in your head until you make them real.
So make them real.
Don't just let them hide in your basement or under your bed. Drag them out into daylight. Examine them.
Turn fiction into fact.
Here's Seneca's prescription for negative thinking: make a three-column list.
In the first column, identify all the bad things that could happen as a direct result of a decision.
Second, make a list of what you can do to prevent those bad things from happening.
In the third column, show what you can do to recover if those bad things were to happen.
This creates a dry rehearsal for you to see just how much you are in control of your choices as you are of the consequences. This also gives you the opportunity to answer the big question that Seneca poses to himself and to all of us: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
Four years ago (roughly a third of a lifetime ago in the age of my career as a business owner), I wrote fear is fire. It took me a long time to learn that this meant something more than "hot flames burn."
Eventually I leaned how to start to cooking with it, too.
I won't kid you, I still struggle with tough decisions. It's hard to make choices where you own the consequences.
But more often than not, the force that compels you to avoid making a choice is rooted in a fictional understanding of what those consequences are.
It doesn't matter how long you've been settling for doing nothing or running instead of acting, doing the right thing starts with the choice you make today to try a different path.
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