The most useful concept I learned in undergrad

“So, I ask… any words of advice?”

I didn’t know what to write back.  I was excited by but also unprepared for the overwhelming response I got after my talk at UC Berkeley.  I poured out my story to a group of strangers, in hopes that they would open up and ask questions they may not have asked otherwise.  And they did ask.  But even after this one girl took a risk and poured out her own story into an email, I didn’t know how to answer her question.

I can talk about my own experience, and I can pass along advice that I’ve found helpful, but sometimes it seems like people really just want to know what they should do.

I can’t tell them. I wish I could, but it’s their decision to make.  The most that I can do is help people sort through their thoughts and help them come to a good decision, using one of the most useful concepts I learned in undergrad.

Decision analysis. I love this stuff.  According to Answers.com, decision analysis “offers individuals and organizations a methodology for making decisions.” In it’s purest form, decision analysis provides a way to calculate what decisions are optimal, but that exercise requires a lot of data (which often isn’t available) and assumes that humans are rational (which they often are not).  Still, the general principles of decision analysis can be used to tame the brain entanglements that sometimes obscure the path that makes the most sense to take.

Key Principle #1: Understand your preferences. This is a message that is repeated in previous posts, because it is so important.  Take the time to figure out what you want. What do you enjoy doing?  What are you good at?  What are your values?  If you’re not particularly happy with where you’re at, it may be easier to start with what you don’t want.  What’s as important as figuring out what you want, is getting a sense of what you want most and least.  When faced with trade-offs, where do all of those things fall in the hierarchy of things that you want?  What are the non-negotiables, and what are the nice-to-haves?

Key Principle #2: Explore what all of your options are.  What are the courses of action you are deciding between? What are the decisions you must make now, and what are the choices you’ll make later as a result of those initial decisions?  It’s important to keep this step separate from the prior one.  Sometimes people will feel like they don’t have options, when in actuality, they do.  It just may be that all options except for one are extremely undesirable.  It is still necessary to recognize all options, even the ones you don’t like.  You will evaluate them against your preferences later.

Key Principle #3: Identify the potential outcomes of each option you have, guess-timate the uncertainties that go along with it, and determine how you feel about uncertainty. If you choose to stay at your job in a dysfunctional organization, the organization might change for the better, it may stay the same, or it may even get worse.  If you choose to leave, a number of other things might happen.  What do you think is the likelihood of each of those outcomes happening?  How comfortable are you with uncertainty and risk? Do you prefer to get $1 for sure, or would you trade that $1 for sure for a 50% chance at $2 and 50% chance at no dollars?

Key Principle #4: Use what you know about your preferences, potential outcomes, uncertainty, and feelings about uncertainty to evaluate the choices you can make. Use your preferences to rank the potential outcomes against each other.  What is the best outcome?  What is the worst outcome?  Use the likelihood of each outcome in conjunction with your feelings toward uncertainty to evaluate each choice.  Perhaps choice A can lead to a 50-50 chance of two mediocre outcomes.  Choice B, on the other hand, can lead to a slightly better outcome most of the time, but has a slight chance of a really really bad outcome.  Depending on how you feel about uncertainty, you may want to go after the highest likelihood-good outcome (choose B), or you may prefer to avoid the really really bad outcome at all costs (choose A).

Decision analysis may not get you an answer, but it should provide you with some direction, which leads me to the last principle:

Key Principle #5: Outcomes are distinct from the direction you take and the decisions you make. Outcomes are outside of your control.  Choices and actions are within your control.  Pour yourself into the process of understanding your situation, which will help you make good decisions that are consistent with the direction you want to go.  Too much focus on the outcomes, which you cannot control, can lead to frustration and will keep you from enjoying the journey.

“So, I ask… any words of advice?”

I’d love to give her advice, but in her case, I don’t know enough.  I don’t know what she wants, or what is most important to her.  I don’t know what options she has.  I don’t know what uncertainties are in the mix.  But maybe this post is just enough to help her begin to sort those things out.

Michelle Florendo graduated from Stanford in 2004 with her B.S. in Management Science and Engineering.
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