Heart attack victimWe sat at an outdoor restaurant, looking out over the Atlantic. A cool breeze tempered the Easter sunshine.  The same breeze that makes Portugal a great (biased opinion) destination for Irish people, avoiding the intensive heat common in some other parts of southern Europe.

Castle Construction: Linda and I discreetly observed as 2 local kids (they looked like brother and sister) played on the beach directly below where we were sitting. They had all the gear for building a sandcastle. One multi-coloured bucket. Two spades. The castle itself was protected by an enormous moat. In a timeless, joyful ritual, they wrestled against the tide to protect the structure. Would it be strong enough to withstand the heavy flow? The girl, a bit younger at about 4 years old, kept up a ferocious running battle as the breakers threatened to destroy their handiwork. She kept running into the surf and running back in an endless interplay. The kids couldn’t make a decision about whether to continue with the construction of the castle itself or work on the moat. They seemed in awe of the force of the waves, but also worried that the tide could overpower them. While it was great fun, the heavy swell also seemed a bit dangerous. Of course, every nerve-ending in my body was poised for action. If anything untoward happened, I was ready to shout, really loud, “someone save those kids!”

Approach Avoidance Conflict: In psychology, there is a concept labelled ‘Approach-Avoidance’ conflict.  This occurs when there is a goal or event that has both positive and negative effects or characteristics that make it appealing and unappealing simultaneously. Examples: You are standing in line, close to the top of the roller coaster queue.  Yes, you want the adrenaline rush of powering down those slopes at some enormous G force – but you’re almost equally scared at the prospect of doing this and want to run away (without, of course, appearing to be ‘chicken’). Perhaps the classic approach-avoidance conflict is marriage. Just ask Rory McIlroy.

Decision Dilemmas: Similar tensions occur in a range of decision settings. Those considering leadership roles may desire the ‘promotion’ and the momentary fame (proving to their head teacher who predicted they’d never amount to anything, that he was WRONG!). Yet, they may secretly be scared that the teacher was RIGHT. People who desire to be ‘noticed’ in an organization for the quality of their work are often pulled in the opposite direction – in line with the Japanese maxim: ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’. Executives considering completing an MBA are conflicted with the huge time commitment (“how would this even be possible with my work schedule and 3 small kids?”) versus forgoing the possibility of smearing rocket fuel on their CV. And so on.

When we are conflicted by a major decision we become caught in an Approach-Avoidance conflict. Do I jump at the opportunity and risk failure or do I stay in the safe zone?  Once a decision is made we know that a lot of the tension will disappear. Julia Louise Woodruff said: ‘Out of the strain of the doing, into the peace of the done’. Making a decision, any decision, often relieves the tension. But, if the only criteria you use is speed, you just get to the wrong place faster. So, how can you know that it’s the right decision? Do you go on building that castle or do you concentrate on the moat?

No Magic: If there was a magic formula for making correct decisions, then no poor decisions would ever be made. In fact, nothing would ever be made.Sydney Smith, a Clergyman, said: “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable”. You gather the evidence as systematically as you can. You weigh it up, taking all of the factors into account. Then, you push the button.

Do yourself a favour. Leap out of the ‘I don’t know zone’ and make that call. There are very few things in life that can’t be corrected or won’t be forgiven over time.



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