Years ago, I worked for a company that was a local affiliate of a very big multinational.
At different stages of my career at that company, I was approached by our biggest competitor. They wanted to recruit me. My personal belief was that I should stay loyal to my current company and resist the temptation to even talk to our competitors. I don’t know if that was “right” or “wrong” but I felt it was the ethical choice. I didn’t want to betray my company.
Then I went through a difficult period, personally and professionally. It was February, I recall. Everything seemed to be going wrong. I’d lost some family members. I was feeling of lot of pressure in my relationships. On the work front, I was also becoming increasingly dissatisfied. It wasn’t a big deal, but I wasn’t exactly clicking with my direct supervisor. I guess we weren’t a good match in terms of working styles.
My phone rang one day, and a headhunter asked me out for coffee. She wanted to tell me about an opportunity. I thought, “Why not?” When we got together, she admitted to me that the company interested in me was our competitor. She hadn’t disclosed that on the phone because I’d already said no twice before.
This time it felt different. Maybe I needed a change? But I felt confused. I didn’t know which part of my brain was saying Yes and which part was saying No and for what reason.
Was it a good offer? Yes.
Was it more money and responsibility? Yes.
Was it a more nimble and entrepreneurial environment? Maybe. I could only guess.
Could I really leave the company I’d grown up in, and where I’d always felt rewarded and appreciated? Ugh!
The Yes / No Matrix
Life is full of Yes and No decisions. Every Yes and every No leads you to another decision node where you must decide again. Another Yes, another No. And so on and so on.
These Yes / No decisions are like the branches in a tree. No one can know where a sequence will lead.
If we could be as “artificially intelligent” as a machine using algorithm based on past decisions and relevant experiences for every decision we make, then maybe we’d increase our level of certainty.
Here’s the question I’m wondering about now: How much of a role does luck play in those big Yes / No moments?
My “job offer” experience provided an interesting answer.
Branches on the Tree
When it came to my new job prospect, I obviously took a major step forward with my first Yes by visiting the offices of our competitor.
Was this a good decision? It seemed promising.
I liked the atmosphere, the attitude and the leadership. The person who would be my immediate supervisor was a very smart, interesting woman. The Managing Director — I’ll call him Jim — was alo a thoughtful, and very respected executive in the local business community.
My heart said, Yes. Let’s give this a try. So I signed on. BIG, BIG DECISION!
The next day I went to my boss. The rule was that if you ever decided to leave for a competitor you needed to announce it officially and depart IMMEDIATELY. They just gave you time to pack up your personal belongings.
My boss was shocked at my decision. He advised me not to say anything to anyone, and escorted me to our Managing Director’s office. Let’s call him “Andreas.”
Andreas was super surprised, too. He never thought I would ever leave our company for the competition. Over the next two hours, Andreas tried to convince me to stay. He put all kinds of arguments forward about our strength as a company vis a vis any competitor and how much potential I had for growth and opportunity.
In the end, he made three different counter-offers to try to entice me to stay.
None of these offers was money-related. They were all about taking other positions in the company with a more international career trajectory. Andreas said, “Take three hours and think about it.”
Those were the longest three hours of my life.
Both parts of my brain fought ferociously. What should I do? Leave or stay? Yes or No?
I liked the options that Andreas gave me. I didn’t really want to leave my company. I was just feeling vulnerable and low.
But what about the Yes I’d decided the day before? I had told our competitor that I would join them. Could I cancel my agreement? I felt like I was being immature and irresponsible. I worried that I was harming my reputation and personal “brand.”
I was running out of time. Nobody could help me make up my mind. My friends could not understand the context of my anxieties. My colleagues weren’t allowed to know. I sought some legal advice regarding the contract I’d just signed and learned that my agreement was not yet binding.
In the end, I decided Yes — I would stay.
I told Andreas that I would accept his new offer. I would change positions and get a new boss and department.
I hoped that Jim, the Managing Director of our competitor, would understand and not be too angry with me.
But I felt good about my decision. That was how I judged I’d made the right one.
Then things got interesting.
A year later, big news. My company announced it would merge with the company I had rejected!
I suddenly felt anxious again. How would I be received by our new colleagues? Was my career in trouble because of this unexpected twist of fate?
In fact, I got very lucky. Andreas, our current Managing Director, was selected to become the Managing Director of the new, merged entity.
Jim, the old Managing Director, left the new company to pursue other opportunities. I met him years later in another country and in very different circumstances. He remembered me and gave me a meaningful smile.
Recently, I read a book by Leonard Mlodinow about decision-making called “The Drunkards Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.” It’s one of a number of interesting new books that come out of the groundbreaking behavioral economics work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Mlodinow, like Kahneman and Tversky, explain how and why we make decisions when — like my job choice — information is incomplete or there is uncertainty involved.
The short answer is: we’re a lot worse at it than we realize.
As Mlodinow says,
“when chance is involved, people’s thought processes are often seriously flawed.”
Our gut decisions based on intuition may feel right, but they are actually highly biased and based on faulty assumptions. We do a little better when we think through rationally, but even then we’re not as good at seeing patterns and connections as we realize.
To Mlodinow, the best solution is to understand the role of randomness better. He says,
“A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness, and hard work.”
As he puts it,
“the connections between actions and results is not as direct as we might like to believe. Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict…”
A Lucky Break
That rang true for me in my big job decision. I couldn’t possibly have predicted that my old company would merge with my competitor, nor that my old MD would stay and the other MD would leave.
Lots of things could have gone wrong. I could have joined the competitor and been in big trouble after the merger.
Or, I could have stayed at the old company and ended up getting fired by the new MD if Jim rather than Andreas had taken over.
No one can tell. If you select a branch in the tree, you can never figure out how it would be if you have made a different choice.
In the end, it worked out really well for me, better than I could have hoped. Did my decisions lead me to that?
No way. I just got lucky.
What’s Luck Got to Do with It?
I’ve experienced other moments like that in the years since. I’ve learned how to handle them a little better. Unlike Mlodinow, I don’t believe the outcomes are completely random. Or, more importantly, I do believe it’s important to try and make the best decision possible.
I tell myself to:
· Stay calm — don’t rush into a decision in the heat of the moment. Breathe.
· Stay present — rely on your body to help you decide. Become aware. Observe the atmosphere around you, seek out signals. Information is important but feeling helps you decide what’s right for you.
· Seek out advice — if you can, get the perspective of people you trust.
· Maximize your Return on Luck — as Jim Collins says, be prepared, be ready to take advantage of your lucky breaks, and don’t rely on luck for life or death moments.
Some people believe in fate. They think their lives are ruled by an external force — whether God or the Universe. They may seek guidance through prayer or spirituality to make their decisions, and they accept what happens to them and don’t stress too much about it.
Other people think life is absolutely random and there’s no reason why one thing happens over another. Rather than being completely hopeless, however, this attitude makes it even more necessary to be active and deliberate about your choices. This forces you to think more deeply about why you’re doing something. It can even help you make decisions that are more aligned with your inner sense of Purpose.
Me? I don’t believe in fate. WE shape our own lives, with our luck or with no luck, with some help or with no help, with our brains and skills, and — at the deepest level — by aligning our choices with our sense of purpose.
The most important thing is to not be afraid. In life, we need to take chances, try new things, appreciate the good and the bad, and live with less stress and worry.
It all works out in the end. That’s the story I tell myself. It’s what we do with our opportunities and how we feel about life that matters most.