I’ve found that my process for major decisions is frequently not trying to find the answer but figuring out what the true question is. Answers are relatively cheap and plentiful, but they all depend (for me) on what question I’m trying to answer. For the big decisions, I frequently have a feeling of digging deeply to come to the right question, at which point the answer becomes obvious… and almost an afterthought.
I’ve sometimes had decisions where, by every possible measure, the two choices weighed the same. I ultimately had to just pick one, like one of two identical flowers. When that happened, it’s always been the case that the one that I didn’t pick seemed to wither and die within a few weeks: something would be revealed or develop that showed I’d made the right choice for me.
I’m an optimist. I’ve always been an optimist. There’s a great deal of serendipity in my life and that’s a good thing. It works for me, too; people have noticed that things just… manifest for me at times. I’d never thought about it a lot for much of my life, fearing that if I poked at it too much, I might spoil whatever the mechanism. But then I bumped into another optimist and we started comparing notes and it turned out our thought processes were much the same on this. And we figured out how to talk about it to other people.
We dubbed our process “Asking the Right Question.” This may sound a little vague, but trust me, this really is the best way we can describe what we’re doing. But we were able to articulate a lot of this after I learned about a technique called “power thinking.”
Credit where credit’s due: I read about “power thinking” 20, 25 years ago in a magazine article. I have tried in vain to find this again. If you can provide any information on it, please let me know. I would love to read the whole article again and see if I’ve missed anything as well as be able to point people to the article and the author.
As I recall the article, the concept went along these lines: Most people tend to think “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” such as “I want a new car but I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This is a statement that really doesn’t move anywhere. It’s a statement of fact and there’s almost a “ker-THUMP!” noise at the end of it. You can’t really get around the B condition, so you might as well quit now.
Power thinking–both as the article described it and I think about things–says that if you come up with a statement of “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” you should change the ‘but’ to an ‘and’ to create “I want to do A, and B is in the way.” The first construction is preclusive while the second merely suggests that you need to come up with a detour or even define an entirely different set of conditions. This changes the example statement to “I want a new car and I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This sentence moves; in fact, it almost instantly transforms further into “Well, how can I get a new car if I don’t have enough money to buy one?” Other corollary questions tend to fall out of this almost as quickly, such as:
- What other ways are there to get a new car without paying full price?
- Can I borrow the use of a new car?
- Are there new car leases available that would make sense?
You can even start wandering farther afield with questions like these:
- Do I need a new car or would a really good used car do?
- How much do I drive and would it even make sense to use taxis for local stuff and/or trains or carpooling for longer trips?
- Could I bicycle?
…and so on.
All these questions help you focus on the true issue, which may not actually be “I need a new car” but “What I’ve been doing for transportation isn’t working and I need to change my transportation options venue and my requirements.” In other words, the real problem for me, once again, it’s getting the answer, it’s burrowing down through the layers until I come to the True Question.
Okay, not everything is a huge enormous life decision. Some things are going to be simple like “Darnit, I could use a new shoulder bag because this one is ripping and they don’t make this model anymore.” The chances of getting to a much deeper level are slim from here. For the things I do, I really do need a shoulder bag to carry things around. But knowing immediately that I should think about other options for shoulder bags lets me find other, potentially better solutions. FWIW, I bought a bag this time that’s a shoulder bag for police officers. It has a slightly smaller main bag area, but there are lots of small pouches around the outside designed for holding ammo, tools, supplies, and so on. It’s also very durable and is convenient to carry. I found it because I didn’t go looking for the same bag I’d had before. But even if your thinking process isn’t the same as mine, the power thinking technique brings up other ideas and helps you circumnavigate the inevitable life obstacles that happen to all of us because we’re not infinitely rich, powerful, and devilishly good-looking.