How to Avoid a Nuclear War

And Make Other Great Decisions

You will never make a fully-informed decision. Accept it. The reality is that every choice involves using limited information, can have unforeseen consequences, and, because of conditions that change before your very eyes, may end up being the wrong decision anyway. Then you will have to change your mind.

Yet you still can make good decisions within the limitations facing you. This starts by taking four critical steps that can focus your decision-making, help you assess the situation before you, help you avoid past mistakes, and provide you with enough flexibility to change course when necessary.

1. Make your decisions with the goals in mind

Data is incredibly helpful when it is high quality, fully vetted, and used in sophisticated ways. But even the best data cannot help you assess the future—or make decisions that always hold up over time. As many a political and business leader will admit, unforeseen changes can alter the course of everything, rendering your data useless.

Given that life is full of uncertainty, your first step in decision-making starts with what you are setting out to accomplish. This means setting clear and concise goals that may be achieved even if you must change course or come up with new decisions. As part of that process, you should focus on making your goals specific, measurable, timely and realistic given the lay of the land.

But it isn’t enough to just think about your decisions in the context of your goals. You may even need to reassess whether the goals are achievable or worth doing. After all, the goals themselves may be the bigger problem than the decisions you make to achieve them. This means assessing your goals to see if they are too vague, merely aspirational, or just plain unrealistic.

2. Consider skeptically the conditions before you

John F. Kennedy learned a critical lesson from his ill-fated backing of the Bay of Pigs invasion: Scrutinize an entire situation critically before making (or going along with) a decision. He put that lesson to good use nearly two years later when he learned that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles in Cuba as part of its alliance with Fidel Castro.

To look holistically at the situation (and to discourage groupthink), Kennedy encouraged each person addressing the Cuban Missile Crisis to act as a “skeptical generalist,” asking tough questions about both the situation and the ideas of their colleagues. He also broke his advisers up into teams (and even asked them to meet without him present) so that they developed alternative strategies. As University of California, Berkeley, Professor Morten T. Hansen points out, Kennedy’s approach helped America (and the Soviet Union) avoid nuclear war.

Kennedy’s approach to his decision-making on the Cuban Missile Crisis is one we should embrace. After all, a situation can be more than what it appears to be, and we are limited in what we can assess from our particular viewpoint. One way to skeptically assess conditions is to seek advice from trusted sponsors, mentors, and colleagues who can provide honest feedback on an issue or situation. Another is to develop alternative solutions to the problems and situations you are tackling; doing so will give you additional approaches to take if you have to change course.

3. Learn from—but don’t dwell on—past mistakes

No one goes through life without making an error or a thousand; you wouldn’t be human if every choice was the right one. Yet those past errors and mistakes are critical in making better decisions; after all, you can only connect the proverbial dots of your life backward in your quest to move forward.

One way to learn from past mistakes is to look at every aspect of those situations. This means sitting down and charting out the conditions at that time, the decisions made in response to them, and how things went awry. What you will learn is that sometimes, the problem wasn’t the decision, but in how you assessed the situation. Other times, the problem may be everything, including unforeseen circumstances you could never anticipate.

This assessment should also include looking at the good that did come out of the mistake—including how you overcame the adversity. Understanding how you made it through a situation is helpful in making good decisions in the present and future.

4. Accept the possibility of course correction

Even if you take all the right steps, changes in conditions (from the departure of a supervisor to a natural disaster) can force you to make a different decision. This is okay. As the serenity prayer reminds us all, you are only in control of the things you can change.

The good news is that you can actually make a different decision to achieve your goals when those course corrections happen. So embrace the ability to make decisions—even if they end up being different from your first choices. Always remember that there is more than one way to get to the next level.

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