Published on [Permalink]
Reading time: 3 minutes
Posted in:

There can be only one (priority)

I am reasonably quick at making decisions, and people occasionally ask me for input when they need to make theirs. This is either when they have already decided — and there are good and not so good ways of soliciting feedback then, but that is for a different time — or when they haven’t a clue about what to do. This latter situation is usually because:

My favorite part of the process, and the part I consider the most difficult, is defining the problem, figuring out the options, and mapping out — to the extent possible — the Markov chain for each; i.e. the first two items on the list. But once you do that, shouldn’t the choice be clear? Well, for some (many?) apparently not!

Wild problems aside, This is admittedly a very big aside, but most issues people ask me about are not, in fact, wild, just ill-defined. once you know the choices and their consequences, shouldn’t it be easy to pick the one that fits best with your priorities?

Well, not unless you rank them! Which is so banal I’m a bit embarrassed to waste even two minutes of your time for it, but seriously, for every 10 people I ask about their top priority (singular), nine will start giving me an unordered list of them, and start hemming and hawing about my follow-up, which is to pick just one. Because there can be only one: it’s right there in the name! And if only one choice fits, well, there you have it! If there are several, you go down your ordered list one by one and prune.

Of course, it is not always that easy. But the decisions people get paralyzed about are seldom in the Sophie’s Choice category; and for those that are, there are usually many more degrees of freedom to reframe the problem, the choices, or both, than poor Sophie had. For everything else, the choice is difficult because people haven’t figured out the priority, i.e. what they actually want.

NB: the list of priorities can be all-encompassing (“values”, but remember, at the end of the day it’s really just one “value”) or context-specific (“first, do no (net) harm” for doctors, etc.) I am sure there are whole industries ready to sell you their lists of priorities, or, um, empower you to make your own. I am by nature skeptical of anyone who too readily shares theirs. Caveat lector, as they say.

✍️ Reply by email

✴️ Also on