Some decisions are much more difficult than others. There are
important but moderate decisions such as which college to attend,
which car to buy, or where to take your next vacation. These
decisions can be made with pro-and-con comparison lists or other
techniques. But what about decisions having a right or wrong
quality, or involving serious gains and losses? Some decisions
can have a political impact, capture a historical moment, or
create a personal legacy. These decisions can never be taken back
after the action is implemented. For better or worse, the result
is either beneficial or damaging. Below is my personal guideline
for these types of difficult decisions.
Step 1: Think
through the situation
Difficult decisions can involve
numerous and complicated factors. You need to be able to sort
through all the factors and to predict the Double-O's:
obstacles and outcomes. You have to plan how you will overcome
the obstacles if encountered, or how to avoid the obstacles
without diminishing your goal. Likewise, you need to be able to
predict both favorable and unfavorable outcomes, and be prepared
to justify your actions and cope with others' reactions.
For example, when I
began writing essays, I predicted that many of my professional
peers would disagree with my ideas because I tend to be more
conservative than most social workers. I tried to overcome this
obstacle by developing multiple entry points into my essays. That
is, my goal was to reach beyond a singular audience by also
addressing teachers, students, the religious, the political, and
other writers. These are all people with whom I share concerns
and who might be interested in what I have to say.
In addition, I
realized that opening my essays to the public might affect my
ability to get jobs in the future. I knew that if any prospective
employer did a background check on me by googling me on the
internet, then my essays would be discovered. A politically
liberal employer might not want to hire me. However, writing and
publishing seemed essential to my psychological wellbeing. In our
post-9/11 world, I concluded that freedom of speech meant more to
me than the possible loss of jobs.
Step 2: Know
your own limitations
Everybody has strengths and
weaknesses. You need to utilize your strengths and be aware of
your weaknesses. On the one hand, lack of confidence in your
strengths can cause you to under-estimate your potential to do
good in the world. This can have lifelong repercussions for
yourself and others. On the other hand, failure to assess to
your weaknesses can result in a big mess which somebody else will
have to clean up. This could damage your reputation and create
burdens for the very people who counted on you to do good.
Step 3: Know
when to ask for help, and whom to ask
Develop a network
of trusted friends or, at least, acquire one confidant to whom you
can turn in stressful times. Not only is this necessary in order
to compensate for weaknesses, but it is also a wise practice to
discuss your situation and get another's viewpoint. In our
internet age, it is easy to make a list of favorite websites which
provide the same kind of informational help that a friend might
provide. Doing some research on the internet is a safe and
private way to get help.
Find out if anyone
else was ever in a situation similar to yours. What decisions did
they make? What process did they go through? What were the
results? What can you learn from them? Browse current events,
and also dig back into history.
Step 4: Detect
any outside pressure
Overcoming negative outside
pressure requires courage when you are in a financially dependent
situation. If your employer, for example, expects you to do
something against your will, then you might have to choose between
what is right and what is expedient. If you decide not to do the
right thing, then your self-respect as well as your ultimate goal
is lost. You might seem to gain personal survival through
expediency, but it will only be temporary until the next time when
your employer (or other abusive authority) expects your submission
again. Not only do you make life emotionally miserable for
yourself, but you make life troublesome for any co-worker who is
trying to resist the same kind of pressure.
Step 5: Know
when to say "no"
Unless you have the ability
to say "no" when appropriate, then you will spend your
life enabling others' inappropriate behavior.
Step 6: Trust
At the risk of sounding kooky, I think
we all have an inner voice that tells us when something is not
right. We can feel when something is wrong for us. When
physical danger lurks, there just seems to be a certain
vibration in the air that tells us to get out of there.
The presence of danger, evil, mischief, etc., can often be sensed
before it manifests actual harm. Personally, I have always
suffered and regretted each time that I did not trust my
instincts, but chose instead to proceed on illusive or misleading
In a similar manner,
when making ethical decisions, I think most of us have a
conscience that signals to us, even though we may not be able to
get an immediate cognitive grip on all the dynamics of the
situation. We often know, instinctively, what is right and what
is wrong. It just takes a while to sort the factors rationally
and align them into an ethical decision.
Consider how others perceive you
decision-making might involve others' perception of what you stand
for. Of course, this is not to suggest that you appease people or
act like a phony. On the contrary, this is to make it impossible
for others to manipulate your intentions or to trap you in your
own value system. For example, if someone needed your permission
to do something, they might try to twist your understanding of
right and wrong to permit their agenda of evil.
Try to imagine that
you are a university president, and a cruel dictator wants to give
a speech at your university. This dictator also happens to be
supplying weapons to the enemies who are killing your country's
soldiers. Should you allow the dictator to speak because you
value the academic exchange of ideas? In other words, freedom of
speech is right and censorship is wrong. Or, should you refuse
the dictator because you are certain the dictator will manipulate
the university's educational status to spread his lies farther
into the world? The trap: a warping of academic discourse and
free speech. The reality: a prestigious podium for an agent of
destruction and death.
As the saying goes
since 9/11: freedom is not free. It seems that all good
things come with price tags, standards, and limits. If you lessen
or remove the standards and limits, then the price gets steeper.
Decision-makers need to remember this, or else their refusal to
exercise legitimate authority and proper judgment will extinguish
civilization's values and accomplishments.
Step 8: Find
alternate courses of action
Situations of right and
wrong do not always involve an either/or or yes/no
decision. Try to be resourceful and creative. Use the common
decision-making techniques to stimulate thought: brainstorming,
visualization, list-making; as well as the gathering of
information, facts, and others' suggestions.
Step 9: What
are you really trying to accomplish?
No matter what the
external complications of any decision-making situation, you must
understand your own internal motives. Are you trying to make the
best decision regarding the dynamics of people and places, ethics
and values? Or, are you are attempting subterfuge? Are your own
psychodynamics interfering with a rational thought process? Are
you blinded by your own unfulfilled desires?
Understand that the results of your decision will necessitate a
re-appraisal of the future
Decisions are not made in
a vacuum. What you accomplish or fail to accomplish can have an
impact on the quality of your life, and on other people and the
environment in which they live. In other words, life will never
be the same again. The outcome(s) of difficult decisions alter
the future. An altered future yields a new base from which to
work and love, and this demands assessment and adjustment.
Maintain the option to change your mind
finalizing your decision--especially if you have nagging
doubts--give yourself time to change your mind. If possible, do
not take any action until you are absolutely sure. There is
nothing wrong with changing your mind. This is not the same as
procrastination, hypocrisy, or promise-breaking. This is a
willingness to renounce a decision that seems wrong upon further
reflection. Then, you can start the decision-making process
again with the advantage of one wrong direction having been
Step 12: Are
you engaged in self-sabotage?
Do you have a pattern of
poor decision-making? Do your decisions inflict personal
disappointment? Do you reject help? Do you always fail to
realize your dreams? There might be a self-defeating component to
your personality. You probably do not commit self-sabotage
intentionally, but are engaged in a deeply embedded psychodynamic
of which you are unaware. Getting some psychotherapy might be the
best way to change the course of your decision-making.
Step 13: Are
you engaged in self-importance?
If you lust for power
and fame, then you probably will not heed this paragraph. Some
people make decisions in order bring attention to themselves,
using other people as objects in a self-serving drama. The
decision is simply the vehicle by which to gain notoriety.
Getting married, getting divorced, filing lawsuits, protesting in
the streets, appearing on T.V. for a cause, donating money: all of
these situations can be abused to promote vain self-importance.
The only real antidote is for everyone around you to watch out.
Until we meet