To hear Monica McCarthy tell it, one should have a grip on ones core values before making big decisions. She should know. This past year she suspended her acting career and cancelled her wedding. So I started thinking about big decisions in my life and the core values I hold.
Core values. Hmmm. Is it possible I have none? Do I really ever make any decisions, or do I let them get made for me? Here are a couple examples to illustrate what I’m grappling with.
Marriage. I got married young. I didn’t know any better. Tom was young, too. He didn’t know any better. Why did we do it? The funny thing is, neither of us remembers making a decision. Was there a proposal and if so, by whom? Where were we? I don’t remember bells, or even gongs. To the best of my recall, we figured we were pretty comfortable with each other, so why not get married. ‘Pretty much,’ ‘sort of’ and ‘basically’ were valid qualifiers.
I remember thinking I had an advantage over a friend of mine who had romanticized marriage since she was a little girl. At age 10, she was able to describe her future husband (by appearance only, of course) and she knew how many children she would have and what she’d name them. I had no expectations. I was OK with uncertainty, and I was a bit of a risk taker. My philosophy around that time of my life was ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’
Is that a core value?
The New York Times published a story this week about Target Corporation’s analysis of consumer habits and choices, devising a means of predicting which buyers are expecting a baby. Usually, shopping choices are unconscious habits. But what marketers know is that we’re most likely to change those routines (and products we buy) when we’re in the midst of major life events, such as divorce or marriage, moving, having a baby, etc. But, I ask, if our patterns are thrown off by these big events, how are we supposed to bring values and rational thinking to those very same big decisions?
Further studies outline the pattern our decision-making process follows. First, there’s a ‘cue,’ like maybe someone reminds me I have to decide if I will quit my job tomorrow. That’s followed by the ‘routine,’ which for me would be running to Target to spend money on name-brand cosmetics. And finally, the ‘reward’ I’m anticipating: my make-up is exquisite when I quit my job.
Wait, when did I decide to quit my job?
My experience is that people (like marketers) will pounce if they sense a vulnerable, indecisive moment. So sometimes it’s good to act like you’ve made a decision.
In high school, on a date that went wrong in a hurry, The Boy insulted me by calling me a “crowd-pleaser.” I was terribly offended. He was telling me I had no sense of self, that I was wishy-washy. I slammed the door as I got out of the car. (“Crowd pleaser? Why, I oughta …”) This was about the same time I had to jump out of a car when some Jesus Freaks cornered me. At a stage in life when everyone was trying to find themselves, I was apparently not even looking.
By the time T and I were returning from Spain in 1979 I was better at appearing decisive. As we discussed starting a newspaper, I made a promise. “I’ll only work with you for one year, then I’m off on my own.” Very clear plan, except I realized I enjoyed the work and was good at it. I didn’t really decide to stay, but I did.
I’m best at decisions after the fact. When I discovered I was pregnant, I was in shock. How could this happen without a plan, without my making a considered, adult decision? To make up for the confusion, I decided since I was pregnant I was going to have a baby! Brilliant. And I did, so there.
Once I’ve decided something (or, more to the point, understood a decision has been made) my routine is to act on it and keep acting on it until completion. Tom calls this the “batter your head against the wall instead of going through the door” routine. Is there a reward? A sore head and difficulty making decisions.
Maybe I just decided to be lucky. Or I decided to surround myself with people who knew what they wanted, since I didn’t. Or maybe I’ve always known the futility of decision-making. Things will go the way they are going to go anyway. I do know one decision that can’t be made often enough. In the words of the late great Art Bartel (I chose him for a father-in-law) ‘you can be as happy as you choose to be.’
My reward? It looks like I planned it this way.