Overcoming the hard decisions – what to do

The hardest decision I ever had to make came about in the summer of 2007.  At the time, I was a PhD student at Auburn University, working as a graduate assistant teaching 2 courses a year.  I was just entering the job market and hunting furiously for a position for my eminent graduation that next spring.  When out of the blue, Louisiana Tech (one of the locations where I had sent my resume) called me and asked if I could come for a 1 year appointment, starting in 3 weeks.  On the upside, I would be making over 4 times my salary as a GA, I would only have to teach one course above and beyond my current teaching load at Auburn with no additional expectations, and I would increase my chances of landing a permanent position at the new institution.  On the downside, I would have to move my family on short notice and with no knowledge of the area, I would have no guarantee that I wouldn’t have to move them again in 1 year, I would have to finish my PhD long distance, and I would have to inform the department head at Auburn that I was quitting a week before Auburn’s classes began.  The money was very enticing, but the possible negatives to other values were huge.  How could I decide?

In all decisions, easy to hard, the same principle applies – you have to apply your hierarchy of values.  Values – all those things that you want to gain or want to keep – are necessary for living and directing your life.  We value many things, from good food, restful sleep, and comfortable homes to a loving family, exciting friends, and a engaging career.  There are so many things that we value, though, that it’s easy to get confused as to how and when to apply them when they seem to conflict.  Because the sheer volume of values, it is absolutely necessary to decide which values are most important – to establish a hierarchy.  With this hierarchy, we can compare and contrast the expected results from a decision to determine how we are promoting our values best.

Just as ideas are context dependent, so is our hierarchy of values.  Values depend on the time, place, timeline, people around us, and the things we are currently doing.  For example, if I’m on vacation, the last thing I want to value is work because the whole point of a vacation is to get away from work.  Similarly, when I’m at work, I don’t want my joy of running to impact my ability to get a job done.   Or if I’m having an intimate conversation with my wife, I’m not going to answer my phone.

Once a context for a decision is defined, the first step for establishing a hierarchy starts with the emotional impact of each value to gauge your subconscious importance.  If considering what from the menu I want for dinner, I consider how each dish makes me feel now and what I expect to feel after the meal.  Feelings can give you a quick and dirty appraisal of your hierarchy.  The only problem with feelings is that they are notorious for leading you to bad decisions. The second step is crucial – you must check your emotional response against reality through the use of reason.  If you have used reason consistently throughout your life, your emotional response will likely be the right one.  If you haven’t, it won’t.  For example, there is a definite emotional appeal to say that your family comes before your career, but looking at reason you can see why I consider my career more important than my family – in the context of long-term individual happiness and success.  While there are many cases where in short-term contexts my family is more important, long-term the only thing that can make life ideal is a career I passionately pursue.

When applying your hierarchy of values to a specific decision, it is important to explicitly identify all the values at stake.  In my decision above, I had 3 major long-term values at stake, my career, my family, and my financial well being – in that order.  The important part was to consider career and family BEFORE the money.  For my career, completing my PhD in 4 years was essential.  That was my first concern and no short term job could take that value out of my vision.  Next, I considered my second highest value, my family.  For them, finding a less stressful family environment and more time for family fun was important.  If the new job could help with that, then I would definitely consider it.  For my financial well being, more money is always better.

I started my decision by trying to mitigate any negatives to my highest values.  So I talked with my dissertation chair to ensure that the move would not impact my working relationship with him nor would it impact my ability to complete my PhD in the time span I had set for myself.  Secondly, I considered how to work the channels to inform the department head at Auburn of my decision to soften the blow.  I didn’t want her to be vindictive and try to hold up my degree for any reason.  For my family, I had a deep conversation with my wife to see if this move was something that would be beneficially for both of us.  I promised her she could if she wanted, stay at home with the kids over the next year instead of running herself ragged working.  I also contacted the new university to see if they could put me in touch with someone trustworthy for renting a house.  There was little I could do to mitigate the quick timeline for the move.  It would be painful.  I would also lose about a month of research time with packing, moving, and adjusting to the new environment.  But given the greater flexibility I would have at home, I could make up that time working in the evenings and weekends.  After gathering all of this information, I realized that my career path would not be hurt and may be enhanced with the move, my family would experience a short term upheaval but would have less stress long-term, and my financial picture would be much healthier.  For me, that was a green light to go.

Besides mitigating major negatives, another successful strategy for deciding include redefining the context of the decision.  For example, suppose you are unhappy with your current job but face a difficult employment environment.  Instead of thinking in just terms of a job, perhaps you could expand the context by considering starting your own business, going back to school for training in a different field, or talking with your boss to see if something can be changed in your current position.

Three things to avoid 1) pursuing “values” that bring you suffering, 2) having poorly defined hierarchy of values, or 3) ignoring your hierarchy when making decisions.  If you know what’s important for you and your life,  making decisions becomes straight forward.

In short, discover the good, know how good it is, and then go get it.  You are worth it.

About John Drake

John Drake is an associate professor at East Carolina University. While pursing his PhD in management information technology and innovation, John learned the art of high productivity through setting difficult goals to achieve unending success. John is a student of Objectivism, an advocate of Getting Things Done, a parent of three, a husband, a writer, a business owner, a web master, and an all around cool guy. His professional site is at http://professordrake.com

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