Brian, a software engineer, worked at an aerospace company for 24 years. Due to retire within a year, he looked forward to enjoying -- even savoring -- the final 12 months of his job. Unfortunately, his plan never materialized. A single bad decision derailed it.
"I've made a big mistake," he wrote to me in an e-mail. "I was recently asked to take a new position in my company's finance unit -- an area I know nothing about. My boss made the request on a Friday afternoon, telling me that the move was critical to the success of the division. Feeling pressured, I said yes. Now, a month later, I regret it. I hate my new job, and my old position has been filled. If I leave the company, I won't receive my full retirement benefits. I know that some people would say I should just roll with it -- after all, it's only a year. But each day gets increasingly unbearable. Do you have any ideas?"
As Brian discovered, big decisions come with the possibility of big mistakes -- a sure bet for causing anxiety. We grapple with the fear of making the wrong choice, the concern over unknown factors, and the pressure of meeting a deadline -- ours or someone else's. As the stress mounts, we may override our anxiety with impulsive action. But that can be a recipe for regret. As we all often feel after making a mistake, Brian believed that this one bad decision was an irreparable disaster; nothing good would come of it.
Since there was no way for Brian to take back his choice, he would gain nothing by agonizing over "what if." Instead, we would focus on finding the upside to the situation. I had no doubt that Brian would someday be able to apply the wisdom gleaned from this mistake to other areas in his life. It would just take a little inquiry to identify what the lessons were.
We started out by exploring his original decision with the benefit of hindsight. "If you could go back and redo that Friday afternoon when you took the job," I asked him, "how might you have handled it differently?" After taking several minutes to think about it, he said, "The first thing I would have done is ask for more time to seriously consider the change. That would have allowed me to talk to a few close friends and lay out the pros and cons. I would have also contacted people in the new division to get a realistic view of what the job entailed. Finally, because I meditate regularly, I would have meditated on the offer and written down any additional thoughts or feelings about taking the job."
As hard as it was for Brian to revisit the circumstances surrounding his poor choice, I saw a bright spot in his answer. He clearly recognized the common ingredients essential to making smart choices -- steps that would serve him well in the future. Whether we're faced with a choice of whom to marry, where to live, or what school to attend, decision-making success comes down to three basic elements: time, facts, and perspective. As I shared with Brian, we can cover these with three essential questions:
1. How much time do I need to make a smart choice? (Once you have an answer, add a bit more.)
2. What additional information do I need to feel fully informed?
3. Whom can I speak with to gather different points of view?
In Brian's case, I suggested he also consider enlisting another guideline -- an "always sleep on it" rule when making crucial choices. Had he abided by this when considering the new job change, he would have given himself the time he needed for additional fact-gathering conversations with colleagues, family, and friends.
Once he had a handle on the practical things he would have done differently, I invited Brian to dig even deeper. In particular, I wanted to know what prompted him to say yes to his boss so quickly. His answer was quite telling. "I felt powerless. I made the decision to take the new job because I wanted to keep my boss happy; I wanted him to see me as a team player. I have a hard time with conflict, so rather than face any resistance or negativity, I put the company's needs before mine." If Brian had relinquished his power at work to keep the peace, I suspected he did the same thing in other areas of his life. Together we needed to find out. I asked him to spend the next week thinking about the following question: Where am I making choices to avoid conflict rather than honor my soul?
At our next coaching session, Brian started our conversation with an honest revelation: "I actually found several cases where I put my needs aside to avoid conflict. For one, I volunteer every week for a local shelter when I really don't have the extra time right now. But I'd hate to disappoint them, so I stay." The pattern continued in his working relationship with a friend. "He's asked me to join him in his business," Brian continued, "and while I'd rather focus on my own, I keep putting off telling him 'no.' I know he's counting on me."
But Brian had saved the most poignant example for last. "There's something even bigger that I need to deal with," he explained. "I've been seeing a wonderful woman for more than a year. I really do care about her, and yet I just don't see a future for us. I haven't told her the truth because I know she'll be devastated and angry." After listening to Brian's candid assessment, I could clearly see the main gift of his initial mistake. More than anything, this one unfortunate decision had brought to light his general discomfort in expressing his true feelings -- a critical skill necessary to living a life that reflects our deepest, most genuine priorities.
It was clear that Brian needed to start defining his life by "no" as well as "yes." My final challenge for Brian would be tough, but a necessary first step to a new approach. I wanted him to tackle the biggest issue first: his relationship with his girlfriend. If he could have an honest talk with her, the other conversations would be much easier to face. I suggested that he meet with her and tell the truth. He needed to be direct and complete with his decision -- no leaving doors open to spare her feelings, which would only make matters worse. Brian reluctantly agreed and, after we spoke about what he'd say, he called her to get together.
In our final session, I could see big changes on his horizon. "Telling my girlfriend the truth was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," Brian admitted. "She was hurt and upset, and it took all I had to stay firm about my decision. Before she left, though, she did thank me for being honest," he added. "And after it was over, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I had no idea how much energy I was using living a lie." Best of all, he said, the experience gave him the motivation he needed to deal with other life areas he still had to address.
The desire to live an authentic life -- one that honors the soul -- requires becoming skilled at facing conflict so we're able to make the best choices. Many people spend their lives making poor decisions just to avoid the possibility of confrontation. A friend hurts your feelings with a critical comment, and rather than say something to her, you let it slide. You're overdue for a well-deserved raise, but because the thought of talking with your boss makes you cringe, you don't ask. We don't often think of it this way, but the choice to not do something is still a choice. Anytime we remain silent or avoid making decisions that we suspect might be painful, we are, in essence, choosing to dishonor our soul, and this choice often dishonors our relationships as well.
After spending a month pondering his unfortunate decision, Brian learned a valuable lesson about making smart choices. In what felt like a wall of disaster, he found a doorway that led to a whole new way of living. That "mistake" turned out to be a crucial turning point. Not only is he now armed with better decision-making skills, he has something even more important: direct experience in what it means to live an honest life.
Need Cheryl's coaching? Each issue, our life coach helps a Body+Soul reader work on life challenges like career change, relationships, and procrastination. Write to Cheryl, describing your situation, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace." Visit her at cherylrichardson.com.