Many of my clients come to me when they have a big decision to make. Maybe it’s a job, maybe it’s a relationship start or end, maybe it’s a move or career change. We’ve all got them, big decisions, at least at some point, and it can be daunting to approach that decision. What my clients tend to do, and well, pretty much everybody I know, is to approach the decision with some sort of pro and con list; the lists vary and some get more complex, more of a comparison grid where you can see all the possibilities at once. They gather all kinds of information about all of the elements of the decision. They investigate salaries. They look at housing prices. They find out whether the potential partner wants kids. They examine opportunities in different careers. They look at school performance data. They look on internet forums for firsthand accounts of all of the above. They collect enormous amounts of data.
This past Sunday, my minister brought up the idea of Dataism, the rise of big data in our culture and our economy and our increasing tendency to rely on and consume huge amounts of information and to analyze and attempt to use that data to predict the future in all fields. I see this in my clients and friends. When presented with a fork in the road, the instinct is to gather information. We value information so strongly that our knee jerk reaction is to go get some whenever there is a moment of indecision. The interesting thing about that is that in my own case, and with most people I know and talk to, when these big decisions arise, gathering all of the data doesn’t seem to help people make a decision. It seems, actually, to drown them. They are awash in information and no closer to making a decision than they were when all of their data-collecting efforts began.
Some data analysts might suggest that they are not using the right methods to consider their data. I think the problem is simpler than that. It doesn’t seem simple as someone describes all of the complicated parts of their decision, describes all of the possible outcomes, describes all of the different risk factors, describes the way that trying to absorb all of that data has given them hours of worry and stress. But the truth is that they are usually missing some data. There is a critical piece of information that they’ve failed to collect, and it’s one we are not culturally encouraged to consider very often. They’ve forgotten to check in and see how they feel about the options before them.
When I’m coaching someone, I wait until they are done with their data dump. They’ve described all of the stuff, and then I ask them: “How do you feel about it? What do you want to do?” Most of us are so wedded to our information that we initially respond with another run down of the key points comparing evidence and highlighting pros and cons, and almost without exception this still leads to a shrug and a sigh. I then say something brilliant like: “Take a deep breath. Stop thinking about it. Tell me how you feel about Option A.” The rest of this conversation usually takes about 10 minutes, because you know what? They almost always know how they feel about it. They almost always KNOW what they want to do. They may want the data to support that, but they know. The move from the question: “What should I do?” to “What do I want to do?” almost always bears more fruit.
That’s when things get really interesting, because that’s when my friend or client reveals that there are many reasons why their preferred option isn’t possible. Me: “Okay, so don’t do it.” Client/Friend: “Wait? What?! You’ve just helped me realize I actually DO really want this!” Me: “So change the question.”
The questions we ask ourselves have everything to do with the outcome we get. “What should I do?” will yield data and society’s ideas about you. “What do I want to do?” gets you your own doggone preference. Finally: “How can I make that happen? What’s the first step?” tears down the barriers that your scared primitive self puts up for you and tells you to watch Netflix in bed with a bag of chips. “How can I make it happen?” allows fresh thoughts, creativity, help from others to play a part. “How can I make it happen?” assumes IT can happen rather from starting from a big, fat NO. Because, hey, what if it can? What if you can have what you want? What if you can be who you want to be? What if it IS possible? Don’t you want to find out? Big change is hard. You need to ask the right questions to get to an answer that will not just be right, but will be right for you, no matter what big data says.