Zen of Business: Three Steps to Making Better Decisions

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I’m four years older than my brother Tom and though we couldn’t be more different, he is also my best friend. They say great fighter pilots don’t climb into jets they wrap jets around them, and so it is with Tom and spreadsheets. As a partner in our entrepreneurial start-up, Tom was our ace number cruncher; constantly cranking out the analytics we needed to run the business.

 One day he came into my office and almost shyly said, “I’ve been trying to figure out how you make decisions for six years. I still don’t know how you do it, but I have to admit you’re almost always right. What’s the secret?”

Coming from a younger brother this was high praise indeed, but though I was sincerely touched, I couldn’t help but imagine Tom poring over a decision tree that was six years long and six years wide.

“Tom,” I finally said, “I have no idea. The only thing I know is I know.”

*     *     *

Making decisions is what leaders do, and making better decisions than the rest of us is what makes great leaders great. In fact when I try to account for all the pain and suffering in our country I usually see good people making bad decisions rather than helpless people ground down by the impersonal forces of politics and economics. We would all like to make better decisions both personally and professionally, so how is it done?

There is an ancient mystical “formula” for achieving spiritual liberation that is also a formula for making better decisions as well: “First learn to think of one thing. Then learn to think of everything. Then learn to think of nothing.”

This formula may seem as baffling as alchemy; but applying it to something as mundane as golf may shed some light. When a person decides to master golf, golf becomes the mission, and golf is the one thing.

However our novice soon realizes that almost everything in life impacts his singular mission. There are teachers to be found; exercise, diet, vitamin, and sleep regimens to be maintained; sports psychologists to be hired; relocation to Florida to be considered; and maybe even meditation becomes part of the mix.

Understanding the golf swing means mastering bio-mechanics. Choosing (or making) the perfect golf club means understanding the basics of physics and engineering. There are books to be read, friendships to be reshuffled, and somehow the money must be found to pay for it all. Even romantic interests must be amenable to the itinerant lifestyle of an aspiring golfer with a paucity of free time.

Strictly speaking none of this has anything to do with spending hours putting, pounding balls, or actually playing golf. From the simple, singular, one thing of golf, the aspiring golfer inevitably finds himself up to his chin with the everything of complexity. I recently watched this hilarious video of a golf pro making this point.

Yet when a golfer stands over the ball, just like a mystic, he must “surrender.” He must quiet his mind; forget everything he knows; dismiss past and future; and as Chevy Chase famously said in Caddy Shack, “just be the ball.”

All the million and one decisions that go into executing the perfect golf swing must happen spontaneously. As the legendary Sam Snead said when asked how to hit a slice, “I think slice and then forget about it.” To hit the perfect shot, the golfer must literally think of nothing.

One thing represents our mission either personally or organizationally. Mission is that all encompassing passion that focuses our attention, articulates the challenge, and produces the kinds of questions that must be answered. Since mission is the one thing we can only have one mission. This means that our mission must be big enough to include lesser and often diverse goals and objectives. A golfer has many diverse goals, but only one mission.

Learning to think of everything is a journey from the simplicity of a single mission into ever increasing complexity as we discover, often to our dismay, that there are an infinite number of factors that can affect our mission. My old Zen Master said that the true test of character lies in how many of these “factors” we can hold in our head at once and still act decisively and intelligently. Or put another way, how much pressure can we take as we factor ever more factors into our decision-making?

Learning to think of nothing is a return to simplicity, but with a critical distinction. Our mental and emotional muscles are now so well developed, and dealing with complexity so familiar, that decision making becomes habitual, automatic, and often, as in my own case and that of the golfer, unconscious.

The work of factoring in factors is still going on, but is now automatic; perpetually feeding back information to the unconscious “black box” where all decisions are actually made. In effect the formula uses reason, experimental data, and the conscious mind to train this black box until it automatically spits out increasingly speedy but still accurate decisions.

Like golf, making better decisions initially means tackling complexity. Complexity is not the opposite of spontaneous simplicity; it is a stage on the way to simplicity. Learning to drive a car is initially so complex that we verge on perpetual panic as the number of simultaneous decisions that must be made threatens to overwhelm our conscious mind. Yet eventually we listen to music, hold a conversation, and drive at the same time without any conscious effort at all.

As T.S Eliot said of spirituality, great decisions emerge from “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” And this is what professional athletes mean when they ceaselessly reiterate that success depends on remembering “to keep it simple.”

Better decisions start by making it our mission to make better decisions - a singular, all-encompassing mission that will benefit every area of our lives. After all, as the philosopher Sartre said, “We are our choices.”

Step two is being aware of our decisions as we make them. This is what mystics call mindfulness.

The next step is rigorously tracking our decisions and consciously wondering why they succeed or fail.

The final step is just feeding back the results, making adjustments, and repeating the experiment until the entire process becomes as habitual and effortless as driving a car.

But this formula relies on another tip from the mystics. Self-knowledge lies at the heart of every mystical path, and unless we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves we will never be great decision-makers. This means overcoming the temptation to ignore, discount, or rationalize uncomfortable results stemming from bad decisions.

 Like the mystics, great decision-makers courageously face facts regardless of the ego damage that may accrue along the way. They surround themselves with “prophets” who dare to speak “truth to power,” and they realize that the more we value the truth for the truth’s sake the better our decisions will be.

Of course our decision-making will never be perfect. An old colleague and I decided to make a list: “The Ten Stupidest Decisions I Ever Made.” Though it started as a joke, we continue to update our lists every year. And despite my best efforts, occasionally a whopper must be dropped from the list to make room for an even bigger mistake. I will never be able to eliminate my bad decisions, but I like to think that this little exercise in humility increases the probability of making better decisions in the future.

 

Read my bookBusiness Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook http://facebook.com/aturak, or check out my website http://www.augustturak.com to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.

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