Ahead of me was a valley full of low stratus and, above me, solid weather that extended up to 20,000 feet. The tops of the cavernous walls faded into grey as they were consumed by the low cloud and there was no way that I could be sure that we would make it through.
The alternative was to climb out of low-level now but then the sortie would have to be repeated as I wouldn't be able to get back down to hit my target.
I didn't know what to do.
I was a student pilot flying a military fast jet at a height of 250 ft and covering 7 miles every minute - I had to think fast.
If I pushed us into the valley, I might get just get through but if the cloud became too low then I wouldn't be able to turn around - I would be committed.
And there was every chance that I might not be able to out climb the valley walls either which would mean certain death for both of us.
'Arrgghh!' I thought, 'Which decision do I take?'
Thousands of them in fact, from what to wear to what to eat to who to talk to.
These decisions determine the overall quality of our lives and we are all expert at criticising other people's decisions; in many cases their choices are often a source of healthy gossip and amusement.
- The executive who trades her children's birthdays in an attempt to impress the boss with her dedication for working late.
- The supermarket employee who buys the open-top sports car on an unaffordable finance plan to impress his girlfriend.
- The wealthy husband who trades in his long-term partner for a younger model.
The word 'decision', closely related to 'incision', derives from the Latin dēcīsiō which literally means a 'cutting off'.
When we make a decision that is exactly what we do; we remove all other options, we 'cut them away' until we are left with only one possibility - a decision. We have made the rational choice of removing all surplus things which will lead to one thing remaining.
To do this takes courage.
It takes courage because we have to assure ourselves that the choice we have made surpasses all of the other possible options.
The alternative is to not decide, to not cut away the other options but to leave them still on the table. This does not take courage and tends to be the path taken by the fickle and the undecided but it is still a conscious choice.
'Courage doesn’t happen when you have all the answers. It happens when you are ready to face the questions you have been avoiding your whole life.'
- Shannon L. Alder
I had a friend who was in her late-thirties and used to work in the high tempo London finance sector.
She once told me that many of her male friends had made an active decision to not physically look after themselves anymore.
I thought this was odd so she explained.
The effort that these men would have to put in to maintain a healthy waistline, whilst working such long hours and in such a high-stress environment, meant that they had to make a choice. The choice was either to stay healthy, which would mean finding a less stressful job paying less money but with more free time, or to keep earning the 'big' money but with little time for exercise and considerably more stress.
Her friends had chosen the money.
Be careful not to put a decision off because you don't want a bad conversation.
My wife and I get asked to dinner a lot but we often both work late into the evenings. Eating with people is a pleasure but sometimes we just don't have the time to commit to a whole evening.
In the past, when we were asked to dinner, we would always say 'yes', even if we weren't sure - I mean, it was the polite thing to do! Then we'd question whether it was the right thing to do and deliberate over our decision. Nearer to the evening my wife and I would have to plan to leave work early and because the dinner would normally drag on into the small hours as 'el vino did flow', we would have to book taxis and then work out how to get the car back the next morning.
We would rarely enjoy the evening as we would always have other things that we felt we should be doing or be worried about work the next day.
As we grew older we learnt to say 'no'. And to not wait a week to do it.
It wasn't that we didn't want to socialise but that we couldn't always afford to do it mid-week and especially for it to take up the whole evening.
Instead of saying 'We're not sure of our diary. Can we let you know next week?', we learnt to say 'Thanks, but we can't make it at the moment as we are both working long hours - let's push it to the weekend, perhaps.'
Learning to say 'no' can make both parties happier.
'If you always make the right decision, the safe decision, the one most people make, you will be the same as everyone else.' - Paul Arden
Recently a local restaurateur spoke at a TEDx event near my city. A few years back he had opened a restaurant with his brother and it was now very popular but, as he explained, when they first opened they had absolutely no idea it would be popular because they had no experience whatsoever.
'The journey had to be worth something. If it could fail, the lessons and experiences that had been learnt on the way had to be worthwhile.' Liam - The Marram Grass Cafe, Anglesey.
He went on to say that this realisation gave them a bit of a chance to explore; it made the decision to open the restaurant less of a critical one as they knew that, even if it failed, they would still have learnt something from it.
They didn't know whether it would succeed but instead of doing significant market analysis and dwelling on the decision, they started it anyway.
Procrastination can be a huge problem and stops decisions being made.
This is because sometimes decisions can seem to be insurmountable but only when you've made a decision can you ever move forward.
I've written about using the Pomodoro Technique before - the problem is that often people bite off more than they can chew and this technique allows you to just start to get into a problem by allocating small amounts of time to it.
'The hardest thing about the road not taken is that you never know where it might have led.' - Lisa Wingate, A Month of Summer
Minimise the choices you have.
Too many choices can be overwhelming, can hamper productivity and can reduce the appreciation you might have in the eventual choice you make.
Take buying a new car, for example.
Let's say that you have a large selection of models to choose from, maybe ten. Any one of those ten would do, so now you have to get into the detail and that is going to take time; you might feel snowed under - wouldn't it be easier if you just had a choice of two?
Because of the number of cars you have to assess, you might find yourself reading the various brochures in the evening when you should be spending time with your family or watching some sport on TV.
When you do eventually buy the car, you might spend some time thinking about whether the choice you made was the right one, maybe the other cars had a better stereo, resale value or performance so you run the risk or appreciating it less than if you had less of a selection to choose from in the first place.
I remember that I once saw an advertisement for Mercedes that stated that they had over 73 different model specs to choose from.
Then Lexus entered the luxury car arena bringing with them just 3.
It's why people buy Apple products - you just have to choose between a phone, music player or computer and that makes your decision to buy one of their products easier.
Minimising your choices makes making a decision easier.
Don't make decisions based solely on the advice of other people.
Recently my wife and I decided to buy a house.
We knew that we needed to be near a population centre and not in a remote location that tends to be the preferred home of fast jet bases. Also, if I leave the military I will find it hard to get a mortgage so it was best to get one now.
But whenever we spoke to people about our plans they would always offer their advice. That's the great thing about opinions, everyone can have one but they don't necessarily have to be listened to.
People who lived in the wilds said that we must move to the country. Those in towns said to buy in a city.
Everybody had an opinion.
In the end we knew that whatever house we bought, compromises would have to be made so we drew up lists of 'must haves' and 'nice to have'.
This helped us to decide on the house we eventually bought - I mean a helipad and underground lair is a 'must have', right?
But, what you are actually saying is 'What would you do, considering all of your personal experiences, likes, dislikes, hopes and dreams?'
People will default the decision to their own experiences the majority of the time - this is because they can never truly know you like you know you.
When Michael Dell dropped out of the University of Texas to start Dell Computers he asked for a leave of absence so that, if things didn't work out and his start-up failed, he could always return to his studies.
You see, making a bad decision in the world today is not actually that easy.
Normally a bad decision is just 90% of a good one.
We have people to advise us, books that will guide us and the internet to find answers on any subject we desire. In fact, many decisions we make are reversible - if you buy a car you don't like you can sell it again, move to a bad area you can always move to somewhere else; the acceptance of a small financial loss is normally the only obvious downside.
And, remember - not only was that bad decision you took made with the very best information you had at the time, you can learn from it which will help you to make better decisions in the future.
Anyway, bad decisions always make for better stories!
The best opportunities are frequently the ones with the most risk - You can never be 100% certain about anything, else you'd wait forever.
When making a decision always have a Plan B that is accessible, very few decisions in life are final.
When you make a decision, don't just consider what the outcome looks like - Consider what your life would be like if you didn't make a decision.
What would the outcome be like if you didn't make the decision?
Because this was exactly what I had failed to consider on my low-level sortie when I faced some entirely unpalatable options.
As I stared at the impenetrable valley ahead of me I stuttered some unintelligible gibberish in an vain attempt to persuade my instructor that I did indeed have some sort of a plan.
But then I heard the words no student ever wants to hear.
'I have control.'
And with that my instructor took the aircraft from me and pulled a hard 4g's skywards into cloud to escape the danger ahead.
And that was it.
I knew in that moment that my indecision had failed me the sortie. By not making a decision I was allowing the environment, in this case the weather, to dictate my fate.
If making a good decision brings value into your life and making a bad one is acceptable as it creates a learning opportunity, then what was the lesson that I learnt from my failed sortie?
The one that my instructor explained to me in the debrief and the same one that I teach to my students today.
'I don't care what decision you make...But you absolutely must make a decision.'
'In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.' - Theodore Roosevelt