Be careful what you wish for

Box man hands in pockets

He couldn’t wait to retire. He had been planning for it for years. He had places to go and projects to complete. The day after he retired, he was on a plane. In between trips he tackled projects that he hadn’t had time to do when he was working. But then one day, about a year or two later, he found he had already done everything and been everywhere that he had planned for. His days had no structure or purpose. He missed the camaraderie of the office. He often went back to his former office building and stood in the parking lot, waiting for his colleagues to happen by and say hello. He missed getting a steady paycheck. His 401(k) was not big enough to support his chosen life style for more than a couple of years. What went wrong?

It’s human nature, when making a decision, to focus on what is lacking. We tend to focus on problems (lack of time and freedom) and ignore the non-problems (structure, social contacts, cash flow). This is true for decisions of all sizes. The Aswan Dam in Egypt was built to solve a single problem—insufficient energy—with no regard for what was then not a problem but would become one—the ecology of the lower Nile. People often give up something—a product, job, or relationship—in search of something better, only later to realize what they had lost.

Here’s a simple technique to help you avoid this trap. The third step in making a decision is to list your goals. Naturally, you will start by asking, “What do I want to happen?” Then avoid the trap by asking:

  • What do I want to avoid?
  • What do I want to maintain?
  • What constraints do I need to stay within?

Have you ever fallen into this trap? Any more ideas on how to avoid it?

Bad decision? A hippie walks into your office…

Flushing Money Down the Toilet

A smelly hippie walks into your office. He has started a company with a friend of his, a hacker who likes to give away his creations. Now they’re starting production on a product for the hobbyist market, but they need cash. He asks you for $50,000 and tells you he will give you a one-third share of the business in exchange. Do you take his offer? I didn’t think so.

Steve Jobs walks into the office of Nolan Bushnell of Atari. He and Steve Wozniak have started Apple Computer and are starting production on the Apple II, but they need cash. Jobs asks Bushnell for $50,000 and tells him he will give him a one-third share of Apple in exchange. Should he take this offer? Of course! Apple is now worth billions. Did he take the offer? No. Did he make a bad decision? No. The decision he made was the one above.

You can base a decision only on what you know at the time. The problem is that we often look back on what might have been and say, “That was a bad decision.” This thinking has an inhibiting effect on our future decision-making. I’ve seen this myself. I often become overly cautious following a decision that turned out badly due to an unforeseen turn of events. I need to remind myself that it was the best decision I could have made at the time. A missed opportunity like this one, on the other hand, may make me recklessly chase risky ventures with little chance of paying off. We tend to abandon our decision-making capabilities in a futile attempt to make up for bad outcomes.  How do you keep yourself moving ahead instead of kicking yourself for missing opportunities?