When you think of some of the best decisions that you’ve ever made, do they have anything in common? Why do those decisions stand out as the best?
One factor can be that the actual results were much better than the expected results. Maybe you produced results that were much better than what you expected. Maybe you produced results that were exactly what you expected, but much better than what certain other people expected. Maybe the decision was something that many other people doubted would work (and were reluctant to try), but you trusted yourself and did it anyway… and you were pleased by your results and proud of your courage.
Another part of what can really make a decision stand out in our memory is the social context of that decision. One example of a social context is when there was an option that I was hesitant to take, but lots of people around me encouraged me and expressed their confidence in me. Sometimes that can go very well and sometimes very poorly, but when it goes well, I can get a very favorable result and have a lot of emotional satisfaction about that result. I can feel a distinct pride and fulfillment about what I have done and how I have done it. I can also feel the support and pride of the people who have encouraged me (whether that is just one person or many people).
Most likely, the decisions that you can look back on as the best decisions that you’ve ever made include a variety of social contexts. Some choices, you made simply by instinct and without regard for any social validation or criticism. Other experiments, you did primarily as a direct result of social encouragement (or even pressure). If there was a lot of socializing about your choice (and your results), then that can certainly strengthen your memory of the decision.
Satisfaction with results, surpassing expectations, and social reinforcement
However, I do not think that the biggest issue is an unusual social context or better results than expected. The simplest detail that connects my own “best decisions ever” is my own satisfaction with the results.
I was effective at producing results that I eventually recognized as very valuable. Maybe that recognition was instant and maybe it took years of “hindsight” for me to fully appreciate the long-term significance of my choice.
For you, in some cases, maybe you simply declined to do something that other people encouraged you to do. Maybe you were conservative and cautious and then later you saw their results and looked back at your own caution as extremely valuable (and even courageous). Or, maybe you boldly did something very effective without any social encouragement (or even intense discouragement). But if something is on your list of your “best decisions ever,” then that probably means that you were unusually happy with the outcome of the decision, right?
Organize your life around how to make high-quality decisions
What if you organized your life around making new “best decisions ever?” What if you significantly increased the value that you get from your future decisions… and even from your past decisions?
Some of these ideas may seem curious or strange. However, if these words were just repeating things that you were already thinking, that would not be very distinctive, would it?
Have you ever heard someone say “I regret that I made that decision?” What they generally mean is that they regret the results that were produced and they have learned from those results. In other words, the decision itself produced learning. The decision was not a bad decision. The decision might not have produced much else besides a hard lesson, but sometimes hard lessons might be a great way to learn, right?
So, consider that anyone who says “I regret that decision” might be operating in a way that produces lasting guilt (or even shame). What if I simply recognize that I value some results more than others (and some methods more than others)? From that perspective, every choice results in learning… no matter what!
My interest right now is not to condemn certain decisions as violations of perfectionism. If I relax any anxiety about being loyal to some particular ideal of perfectionism, then I can focus on what results I produce and what methods produce the best results. I can relate to all decisions as informative. I can stop relating to my past decisions as nothing more than methods to avoid criticism or compete for approval.
Regret disappointing results without condemning the method
Have I ever made any bad decisions? For a while, I would have denied that and been insulted at anything approaching an accusation that I had made a bad decision. Later, I would have listed several decisions as bad (based on what happened later, like the experiences produced for me and for other people by that decision). Now, I have withdrawn all condemnation of my own decisions or the decisions of anyone else. This is actually a massive relief.
Why is it a relief? Condemnation is certainly a valid option. However, condemnation can take a lot of energy and attention away from measuring results and tracking which methods produce which results.
You can learn from the mistakes of other people (like mine)
Condemnation is a great method for socially displaying my loyalty to a particular form of perfectionism. Sometimes, I can directly condemn a particular method to influence someone and prevent them from learning something “the hard way.” Maybe I interrupt them and offer to help them to learn from someone else’s mistake (including my own mistakes). Maybe they resist learning from anything but their own mistakes, although, if I care about their results, then I can continue to influence their methods.
I have made many mistakes. However, I now assert that I have never made a bad decisions. I have just made enough decisions that some produced better results than others. Making mistakes is part of learning.
To maximize learning, expect to notice lots of small mistakes.
Avoiding mistakes is refusing to learn. Also, avoiding mistakes can lead to massive mistakes. In fact, it is not that I can actually avoid making mistakes, but that I can avoid recognizing them as mistakes (for seconds or for years).
I frequently take actions that I later consider a mistake. Lots of small mistakes are much more favorable than a few massive ones.
Accept mistakes. Plan to make lots of them. Notice them as quickly as possible.
Avoid pretending that it is really possible to completely avoid mistakes. We can avoid admitting mistakes. We can even attempt to distract ourselves from the results we produce. That might even be favorable occasionally (or else why would anyone ever do that)?
Now, instead of being anxious about mistakes, just be interested in results and effectiveness. How can you organize your life around making lots of new “best decisions ever?” Make some new decisions and be very attentive to the results that they produce. Then, once the results of the first decisions are clear, make some other new decisions.
Organize your life around how to produce the results you value most
If it would give you a massive increase in satisfaction, would you be willing to reduce or discontinue some of your familiar habits? If there were methods that you could use to get much better results faster and with less effort or risk, would you be open to that (or would you be so anxious about avoiding criticism for mistakes that you compulsively avoid learning any new methods at the risk of producing new results)?
Why exactly did I ever try to avoid mistakes? As noted, the first layer is that I simply tried to avoid being aware of the results I was producing. I tried to avoid recognizing which actions were mistakes and which ones were effective. Maybe I distracted myself (and perhaps a few others) by being very easily offended and condemning lots of people and ridiculing lots of behaviors.
But the background issue there was that I was competing for social validation. I threw around invalidating comments regularly. I even made occasional dramatic apologies about a few very isolated mistakes that I was unable to perpetually deny.
I avoided quickly identifying my mistakes as mistakes because I was terrified of being targeted with social condemnation. I was not a perfectionist because of something fundamental about me. I adopted the habit or practice of perfectionism as a coping mechanism for overwhelming social pressure. Maybe I complained that I “should have been better protected” or that “those people should not have bullied me or betrayed me.”
Lately, I have lost interest in those complaints. How? I simply withdrew from certain sources of social pressure (people and interactions that were stressful, uncomfortable, anxiety-producing). Did I have lots of sincere justifications and complex explanations for why I withdrew? If I did, that does not matter much to me now either way.
The problem with habitual perfectionism as a response to social pressure
So, if the only reason that I have avoided admitting mistakes (and learning from them) is because of stress about avoiding social criticism for those mistakes, that is good news to me. I will abruptly withdraw from the most vicious critics and bullies.
I am willing to completely release any old habits of appeasing them. Those habits helped me survive, which is great. Now, I would rather avoid the most hysterical critics and silence those who are easily silenced.
How can you get high-quality, constructive criticism?
But the most radical new practice is to seek out constructive criticism. I want to learn, even from my own past mistakes (especially from them). However, I am absolutely firm that I value certain kinds of criticism more than others. I demand high-quality criticism. I seek it out.
How do I know which criticism is best? I assess it by it’s results. Does a particular dynamic of criticism improve my results? Does a particular critic or group of critics provide the most respectful, refreshing, and relevant criticism? Does their criticism enrich my life and even consistently produce relaxation and relief from stress?
Do I notice that I am attracted to certain people that gently provide precise and productive criticism? Do I appreciate it even more if they resort to less gently methods if gentle methods are not working?
Cultivating a culture that promotes high-quality results
I value a culture (a social context) that promotes high-quality decisions. That means a willingness to try new things, to precisely assess the results of the new experiments, and to quickly admit any mistakes as mistakes. High-quality decisions are decisions that produce EITHER relevant learning OR effective results OR BOTH.
If I have ever isolated some particular past decision as “the very best one ever,” I relax that emphasis. I plan to make my best decision ever within the next 24 hours (not avoid making a better decision than my old favorite “best one ever”). 48 hours from now, I plan to have made a few new decisions that are the best I have ever made.
One of my new “best decisions ever” might involve inventing a bold claim and then publicizing it. We’ll focus on that subject next….