“Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. If you want a different result, make a different choice.”
Life is all about choice. Think deeply about any aspect of your life—your job, your wellness, your relationships—and you’ll find you’ve chosen to be where you are. Each day, you’re faced with decisions—some huge, many miniscule—and over time, these millions of choices result in where you are right now.
This can be hard to swallow, especially when you’re in an unfortunate situation and see yourself as a victim of circumstance. But you must understand that your current position is of your own design.
Over the course of your life, every choice you’ve made was to achieve something you wanted at the time. The problem is, while making many of those choices, you were distracted by short-term rewards and didn’t fully contemplate the long-term consequences. It turns out, our brains are wired for this. A Princeton study found short-term gains are fueled by the emotional part of our brains, while long-term gains stem from the logical part. The difference? Short-term rewards come with an instant shot of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, which explains why it’s so challenging to resist the glazed donut even when you know it will undermine your diet.
The same principle applies at work. Consider how you respond when an employee asks for help to complete a task. You’re probably working on something else, and they likely interrupted you. As a result, you contemplate the effort behind their request before you answer them. You might rationalize that explaining how to do it could take 20 minutes but doing it yourself will only take five, so you tell the employee not to worry and you’ll complete the task for them. You made the choice because, in that moment, you wanted to save time, get the job done, and ensure it was done right.
Thousands of choices later, you wonder why you’re working long days handling minutia for others. Here’s why: because time after time, teaching someone how to do something seemed unreasonable. You failed to see that investing time in the moment would pay dividends over the long run.
Luckily, there’s an alternative. With awareness, you can consciously choose to delay gratification for long term gain. It requires you to act against your brain’s natural instincts, but when you understand both your propensity to choose instant gratification and your power to defer it, you can start thinking differently about daily choices and actions.
There’s an invisible three-pronged fork in the road that precedes every choice and decision you make. The key to more productive outcomes is to acknowledge and master it.
“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
— William Jennings Bryan
About a year into my relationship with a client in the technology sector, we assessed their employees’ performance and cultural fit using a methodology called Topgrading. Through this rigorous process, and somewhat to their surprise, it became clear that to fulfill their commitment to continue growing, they needed to replace some of their staff.
Unbeknownst to these executives, they were standing at the invisible three-pronged fork in the road, unconsciously contemplating their options. They could:
The first thing that emerged from our conversation about upgrading their staff was fear and worry. They wondered: Would the terminated staff walk out the door with important institutional knowledge? Would they take other employees or customers with them? Would they criticize the company online? And more.
As the “what if” scenarios progressed, the executives realized their fears only applied to a small subset of staff. They also determined that the cost associated with retaining those individuals was far greater than the fear of what could happen if they were let go. In the end, they chose to do the hard, right thing for the future of the firm; they chose the right path to maximize their long-term aspirations.
Since the fork in the road is invisible, it’s difficult to recognize which path you’re on until it’s too late. As such, it’s critical to learn the distinctions and symptoms. Here are some characteristics of each:
Denial involves consciously or unconsciously ignoring facts and evidence that would lead to a logical decision.
The largest motivating factor pushing us down this path is fear. Fear affects all of us—and likely more than you think. Acknowledging that the majority of our thoughts and behaviors stem from fear requires no stretch of the imagination, particularly in light of how our brains and biochemistry evolved. A 2009 study found that fear often overtakes the decision-making process, leading individuals to make choices based solely on the POTENTIAL of catastrophic events, no matter how unlikely.
Most fears originate in one of three areas: ego, scarcity, or failure. Ego is all about the need to judge and compare and often leads to risk avoidance for fear of negatively affecting your status, your position, and what others may think of you. Scarcity is the notion that there’s never enough. A CEO operating from fear of scarcity may be unwilling to define an explicit and precise strategy because they worry they’ll miss out on opportunities that fall just to the left or right of their chosen path. And while all leaders have failed transactionally in one way or another, losing a sale, a customer, or a valuable employee, the fear of failure becomes inhibitive more existentially: failing to provide for your family, to have time to do the things you want to do, and to place big bets and reap the rewards.
All three fears lead to risk aversion—keeping your head in the sand when you should be standing tall. This might cause you to deny clear facts or logic, or it might lead you to delay action. If you seek freedom and abundance and hope to leave a meaningful legacy, it’s crucial to understand that the fears of ego, scarcity, and failure directly limit your potential. Ego-related fear is a bottleneck to freedom, scarcity-related fear is a bottleneck to abundance, and fear of existential failure is a bottleneck to leaving your legacy.
Management thinker Judith Barwick first coined the term “comfort zone” in the early ‘90s. She described it as “a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a set of risk.”
We LOVE our comfort zone, but it gives us a false sense of security. It feels like we’re doing “something” and making meaningful progress, but it’s an illusion: we do just enough to feel good, but never what’s required to have a meaningful impact. This reminds me of the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic:” the deck would surely look neater, but in reality the ship is still sinking.
Unsurprisingly, fear is a significant contributing factor leading to comfort zone choices.
The most common comfort zone actions I see relate to employees and customers. Fear, emotional entanglements, and conflict-avoidance keep you from being able to address these issues decisively and meaningfully.
For example, many leaders have dealt with a toxic high performer. You know that the individual needs to be removed, but since they bring value to the business—perhaps sales or certain know-how—you fear loss and retribution. So, you stop short of letting them go, instead hoping they will turn themselves around. The conversation with them will certainly ease your mind—after all, you’ve taken ACTION! —and it might even change the employee’s behavior in the short term. But because you were unwilling to make the hard choice, you’re instead spending your time rearranging deck chairs and hoping for the best.
This path from the invisible fork in the road sums up your job as a leader. Effective leaders actively, consciously, and routinely trade off short-term costs for long-term rewards. This entails not just making the right choices, but also following through with directed action. If you make the choice but hesitate to act, you’re procrastinating, which brings you back to denial and inaction!
Think back to the example of my technology client’s struggle to upgrade their staff. When I stepped into the conversation, they were at the invisible fork in the road multiplying the complexity of their situation with each “what if” scenario. They were unintentionally conflating the “what will we do?” decision of letting team members go with other components of acting like “when” and “how” should we do it (here’s an article that goes deeper into leadership decision-making). They were setting themselves up to embark on one of the two weaker paths: denial and inaction or the comfort zone.
To take the third, less-traveled path of doing the hard, right things, the team needed to compartmentalize the “why,” “what,” “how,” and “when” of their decision. I guided the conversation to clarify why they needed to take action. From there, we focused on what would be done, which identified the staff to be let go. Finally, we tackled the when and how of executing on their plan. By defining the “what” of the decision without regard to how or when to act, it became much easier for the team to see the right path and commit to it.
As the team talked it out that day, they named their fears and considered all their options. They actively contemplated each of the three paths, and by doing so brought their choice to full consciousness.
This is the key to mastery.
“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
EVERY choice you make shapes who you are and your future state. You are in control of your path and your progress, but this requires making productive choices. Don’t be the leader who hides their head in the sand or lives in their comfort zone! Rather, identify and confront your fears, get comfortable being uncomfortable, and make the hard decisions. It might not feel great in the moment, but over the long term, you’ll be far more successful.
There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Albus Dumbledore puts his hands on the young Harry Potter’s shoulders and says: “There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
That time is now, for you and for anyone seeking freedom, abundance, and legacy.
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