Then things got interesting.
A year later, big news. My company announced it would merge with the company I had rejected!
I suddenly felt anxious again. How would I be received by our new colleagues? Was my career in trouble because of this unexpected twist of fate?
In fact, I got very lucky. Andreas, our current Managing Director, was selected to become the Managing Director of the new, merged entity.
Jim, the old Managing Director, left the new company to pursue other opportunities. I met him years later in another country and in very different circumstances. He remembered me and gave me a meaningful smile.
Recently, I read a book by Leonard Mlodinow about decision-making called “The Drunkards Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.” It’s one of a number of interesting new books that come out of the groundbreaking behavioral economics work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Mlodinow, like Kahneman and Tversky, explain how and why we make decisions when — like my job choice — information is incomplete or there is uncertainty involved.
The short answer is: we’re a lot worse at it than we realize.
As Mlodinow says,
“when chance is involved, people’s thought processes are often seriously flawed.”
Our gut decisions based on intuition may feel right, but they are actually highly biased and based on faulty assumptions. We do a little better when we think through rationally, but even then we’re not as good at seeing patterns and connections as we realize.
To Mlodinow, the best solution is to understand the role of randomness better. He says,
“A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness, and hard work.”
As he puts it,
“the connections between actions and results is not as direct as we might like to believe. Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict…”
A Lucky Break
That rang true for me in my big job decision. I couldn’t possibly have predicted that my old company would merge with my competitor, nor that my old MD would stay and the other MD would leave.
Lots of things could have gone wrong. I could have joined the competitor and been in big trouble after the merger.
Or, I could have stayed at the old company and ended up getting fired by the new MD if Jim rather than Andreas had taken over.
No one can tell. If you select a branch in the tree, you can never figure out how it would be if you have made a different choice.
In the end, it worked out really well for me, better than I could have hoped. Did my decisions lead me to that?
No way. I just got lucky.
What’s Luck Got to Do with It?
I’ve experienced other moments like that in the years since. I’ve learned how to handle them a little better. Unlike Mlodinow, I don’t believe the outcomes are completely random. Or, more importantly, I do believe it’s important to try and make the best decision possible.
I tell myself to:
· Stay calm — don’t rush into a decision in the heat of the moment. Breathe.
· Stay present — rely on your body to help you decide. Become aware. Observe the atmosphere around you, seek out signals. Information is important but feeling helps you decide what’s right for you.
· Seek out advice — if you can, get the perspective of people you trust.
· Maximize your Return on Luck — as Jim Collins says, be prepared, be ready to take advantage of your lucky breaks, and don’t rely on luck for life or death moments.
Some people believe in fate. They think their lives are ruled by an external force — whether God or the Universe. They may seek guidance through prayer or spirituality to make their decisions, and they accept what happens to them and don’t stress too much about it.
Other people think life is absolutely random and there’s no reason why one thing happens over another. Rather than being completely hopeless, however, this attitude makes it even more necessary to be active and deliberate about your choices. This forces you to think more deeply about why you’re doing something. It can even help you make decisions that are more aligned with your inner sense of Purpose.
Me? I don’t believe in fate. WE shape our own lives, with our luck or with no luck, with some help or with no help, with our brains and skills, and — at the deepest level — by aligning our choices with our sense of purpose.
The most important thing is to not be afraid. In life, we need to take chances, try new things, appreciate the good and the bad, and live with less stress and worry.
It all works out in the end. That’s the story I tell myself. It’s what we do with our opportunities and how we feel about life that matters most.