His problem wasn’t unique.
Each of my Do What You Want books I open by telling a story about two business leaders, Gary Cohn and Jeff Bezos, at similar crossroads.
Bezos was at DE Shaw, wondering do I leave this great job to build the everything store. Cohn had been sitting as president of Goldman Sachs with his eye on the CEO seat, thinking about how to ascend or make a move.
The executive sitting next to me on the plane was in the same bind.
From the ground level he’s climbed his way to the near top of a towering company, where he sits an arms-length from the corner office.
Unclear of how long it will be before the CEO retires, and facing plenty of internal competition for the top job, constantly he’s asking himself…
Do I Stay Or Do I Go?
For most of the flight we were busy being anti-social on a plane, but as the flight attendants began preparing the cabin to land at Newark, we started talking.
“So, what do you do?” he asked.
“I do what I want” is my playful answer, but wanting to avoid all that I dodged his question, “I’m a consultant. How about you?”
Like most top executives, unsatisfied with my evasive answer he went deeper, “What type of consulting?”
“Our consulting firm is focused on systematic winning in your business, but my work is far more personal, working with leaders in getting what they want.”
“I’m a leader, I want to get what I want,” he half-joked, “I wonder if you’ve had any experience with this type of problem I’m facing…”
Often when people present problems to me they’ve spent so much time wrapping themselves around the axle that they think their problem is super complicated and unique.
Vista Equity Partners crushes it because they figured out that the types of companies they buy can be optimized the same way, and our problems are much the same.
Sitting back and taking a big sigh, he told me how much he loved his job, how his career had been a rocket ship, but, now, he found himself stuck at a crossroad…
Like an actor taking a gulp of air before delivering his big line, slowing his voice and looking me deep in the eyes, he said, “I just don’t know if I should stay in my job or leave to start this new venture…”
Within 15 seconds I could see exactly where he was stuck.
It’s All In The Eyes
Looking over to his right, he talked about the challenges of the organization and staying in his current job.
He doesn’t know if he can have the impact he wants. He’s not sure whether he’ll get tapped for the big job. Watching his eyes darting left to right like he was reading a script, it was obvious he’s been telling himself the same old tired story for years…
Hard luck stories bore me and we were coming in to land, so I seeded an idea on writing new stories then quickly moved him to his door number 2.
You know when someone’s eyes go massively round like they’re in fear or surprise or excitement?
Well, when he started talking to me about the new venture he’d been considering, his eyes bulged an inch beyond his sockets.
Not from excitement though, arrrrggghhh those eyes were filled with sheer terror.
Freeing Him Some Space
Bulging eyes and that shot of fear are an obvious sign to someone trained in NLP that the picture he’s looking at inside his head is just TOO BIG…
His business venture might be truly exciting, but so long as that picture is bulging his eyes out of his head, there’s no way he’ll take action on it.
So, asking him to think of that BIG opportunity again, I leaned over, grabbed his picture in the palm of my hand, and moved it back a foot.
His eyes changed. His face calmed. Shocked, looking at me like he’d just woken up from a bad dream, “What did you do?” he gasped.
“How did you do that? How did you make it feel so much easier?”
“I didn’t” I responded, “It’s like when you’re trying to read a book too close to your face, I just moved the book back, and you gave yourself more space from it.”
Because nobody ever teaches us how to run our own brains this seemed like magic to him, and like an excited child he wanted to keep talking about it.
But I kept him moving. We only had a few minutes before landing and I wanted to finish the work!
Stuck At The Decision Point
To him his problem was unique and complex and full of pros and cons and whatnot…
But to me it was just a decision strategy.
Should I go to this or that college? Should I marry/divorce this or that person? Should I take this or that job? Should I keep working or retire? Should I keep doing what I’m doing or go for what I truly want?
While these types of decisions can be mind-busting, and we can spend years or decades struggling to solve them, they are more easily solved when you see they are structured exactly the same way.
It doesn’t matter what the decision is.
It doesn’t matter what the pros and cons and this and that complexity is…
All that matters is getting beyond stuck in the “content” to developing a process for navigating your decision.
For nearly a decade I drove myself more nuts asking the question “What Do I Want?” believing that if only I could figure it out, I could get it.
It makes sense.
To our shallow, sequential, rational minds the logic is tight, which is what keeps it stuck!
We trick ourselves by thinking, If only I could make this decision…
But, if we were able to make the decision, we wouldn’t be stuck “trying” to decide, would we?
For years I bludgeoned myself with the same dense narrative…
What do I want?
I don’t know.
Well, I really need to figure that out.
OK, what do I want?
I don’t know.
Well, I really need to figure that out…
For years this type of thinking beat me down, but, luckily, while I was stuck in that confusion, I was still driving a process that was leading me to an answer.
Over ten years of asking myself my mind-numbing question I got more confused but where I got lucky was that every day I was finding ways to keep moving in the right direction.
I didn’t know where I was headed, but I knew with absolute certainty that the only way there was to keep moving!
For a decade I kept nagging myself to figure it out, but in moving forward in my process I was figuring it out.
In hindsight I saw that I wasn’t only solving my unique problem of what I wanted, but I had built a process that worked for anyone and any decision.
The Dual-Track Roadmap
The dirty secret of doing what you want is…
You don’t need to know what you want!
No matter what decision you’re making, if you can’t decide, you only need to design a process that leads you to the right decision over time.
Hence, instead of getting stuck thinking that we must make a decision to move forward, we merely keep working our process that is moving us forward!
The process I built I ripped the name off from a classic investment banking strategy.
Sometimes a company doesn’t know if they want to go public or sell, and instead of forcing a decision, they build a dual-track process to move forward on both tracks at the same time.
Up front they don’t need to know what decision they’ll make, only to keep evolving their process that leads to the right decision over time.
A Few Boxes On A Napkin
Having walked him through this and seeing he was really getting it, with only a few minutes to finish my work I guided his mind to the brightly lit exit sign.
I pulled out my Uzi tactical pen and on the United napkin drew a chart like the one above.
Pointing to the two boxes at the bottom, I said to him, “This is where you’ve been stuck. You’ve been grinding your gears thinking that you need to choose one or the other to move forward, but really you want to turn it upside down…”
Looking at it the other way up it became so obvious to him that he cried out loud.
“Oh, oh, oh, I see it now, what you’re showing me is that I’ve been stuck thinking about the decision when really I just need to keep taking small steps along each path which will lead me to the right decision over time…”
At that moment our seats rocked as the big metal bird touched down.
Looking now into his left eye, I tapped him on the shoulder a few times, reinforced a couple of ideas, and knew that he had it from here.
This man was well on his way to doing what he wants. 🙂