Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Making Good Decisions

A few summers ago I got to work with a wonderful intern. It was a pleasure to work with him, as it always is with our interns. He was a rising senior, and at the end of the summer, we extended him an offer to return as a full-time employee after he graduated the following year. He was excited to receive the offer, but then, over the next couple of months, he tortured himself and everyone else over this offer. The problem was that he had too many good options, and he couldn’t choose among them.

This post contains my advice to that intern and to many interns since. However, I suspect (and hope) that it will be relevant to many people in addition to interns. Specifically, this post focuses on the importance of making good decisions, rather than trying to make perfect decisions.

Large piece of paper with hand written notes comparing three job offers. Across the top are the headings "Factor", "MegaCorp A", "Large Co B", Late Stage Startup C". Down the left side of the page are the factors "Salary", "Change to Get Rich", "Stability", "Growth Opp", "Interesting Role", "Work/Life", and "Commute". The rest of the table is filled out with plusses, and minuses, and some notes and questions.
Hypothetical comparison of three job offers

Very Good Decisions vs Perfect Decisions

My intern didn’t get his internship merely by being good, but rather, by being great. He and our other interns are used to being the best. Good choices and hard work have gotten them where they are. That plus a large helping of good fortune (including being in a field full of opportunity). The combination of their efforts and fortune has provided our interns with many strong options. Deciding on a first full-time job is a big decision and they want to make the perfect decision. However, trying to make the perfect decision is the problem.

For any job offer, it is possible to know many things about the company: its growth paths and opportunities, the financial implications, and how other recent grads have done. But it is impossible to know what will happen to the company, to the team, and to dozens of other important things.

Because you cannot know these things, you cannot make a perfect decision. However, you can estimate likelihoods for these things. How likely is it that the company will do well? How likely is it that you will be exposed to something exciting? How likely is it that you will have a supportive team and ‘good for you’ growth opportunities? How likely is it that you will get that project that propels you forward, or you will develop that relationship that opens up future opportunities?

You cannot make a perfect decision or “the best” decision, but based on that information, you can make a very good decision. A decision that gives you a very good chance for success.

So, How Should I Make A Decision?

I suspect most of our interns already know how to make a good decision, and there are many guides on decision making. Consider what is important to you and how each of your options stack up against your criteria. So take out a piece of paper, make a column for each of your options, a row for each criterion, and write down what you think. Or use whatever decision-making framework you prefer. And if you don’t know what to fill in for a particular entry, do a little more homework to learn.

Also consider asking for advice from Future You. Future You is you, but in the future, after having picked each one of your options. Ask Future You about your criteria (how did option A do?), if your criteria actually mattered, what you aren’t considering, and, if they are satisfied with the option they chose.

Since we haven’t yet conquered travel through time and alternate universes, you cannot actually talk to Future You. You can come close, though. Instead of asking Future You, find someone with a similar background and interests to yours who has already decided on one of their job options and started working. Ask them all the questions you would ask Future You, and then listen closely to their answers. And if you can’t find anyone similar to Future You who’s chosen that particular job option, take that as a possible warning.

At this point you have hopefully invested time in learning about and evaluating your options, including talking to others. Maybe you have a decision framework in front of you. By all means, see what the decision framework says. Does it say to pick option B? How do you feel about that? Does it feel right, and do you start to get excited when you think about it? Great! You’ve made your decision.

However, if you review the selected option and find yourself uncomfortable, listen to that reaction. Your mind is trying to tell you something. Re-review your criteria, evaluations, and weights, and see what doesn’t feel right. One of the strengths of any decision framework is that it prompts you to think deeply about the options. That pushes a lot of information into your subconscious, and you should listen to your subconscious. Maybe you have over-weighted an option. Maybe option C is less exciting than what your framework answers indicated. Whatever comes up for you, listen.

Just Choose Something

Some of you will have diligently done all of the above, and will still feel stuck. You have created options for yourself. You have evaluated them and reviewed them. You have listened to your subconscious. And yet, you are still stuck between two or more options. Consider the following thought experiment: If most of your options vanished, leaving you with only one, would you be comfortable picking it? If so, congratulations–you have wonderful options! If not, consider taking a step back and looking for more options.

Assuming you indeed have wonderful options, you’ve reached the point when you need to make an arbitrary choice. Would you be more excited to tell your family and friends about one option? Great–decision made. Do you like the color of the logos of one of them? Good, done. Find some (possibly arbitrary) reason to pick one over the others–including flipping a coin–make your decision, and celebrate your good fortune.

It’s Okay to Be Scared

This can feel very scary. Choosing one option is saying no to other very good opportunities. As humans, we are loss averse, and saying no means losing an opportunity. This is okay. By making a very good decision, you have put yourself in a wonderful position. Ultimately, you could only take one of these opportunities anyway.

But what if your choice doesn’t work out? You’ve said no to these other opportunities. What will you do? I’m here to tell you it will be okay. Even if this choice doesn’t work out, you will have more opportunities, good opportunities. They may not be the opportunities you have turned down, but that’s okay.

So stop worrying, make a very good (but not perfect) decision, and start living again.


A special thank you to Heather Beasley Doyle for her feedback on this post. Heather is a gifted writer (on a completely different and higher level than myself) and you should read some of her writing here, here, or here.

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