Dare to Decide

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Most days, we walk through life in the same way. We wake up surrounded by the same walls, pass the same landmarks on the way to work, the same work we've done for . . . forever?

It's comfortable. It's us.

And then, we're faced with a decision. A life-changing decision. Go back to work after the baby? Take that job offer? Go to law school? Change careers altogether? Retire?

Okay, I admit it. This is a major issue at The Washington Post right now. Early-retirement buyouts are on everyone's mind. But my cube-neighbors aren't the only ones facing a life-changing decision. Each week, I receive dozens of questions from people asking me to choose for them: Should I stay or go? Should I take the promotion, even if it means I have to uproot my family?

I wish there were a simple way to make these decisions. But in most cases, even my weekly chat can't do that for you.

However, we can shed some light: How have others made their huge decisions? Did these practices work for them?

A few of my colleagues are taking the advice of another co-worker. Years ago, she had to decide between remaining a reporter or going to law school.

She had about two months to decide, so every day at the same time, she would draw a smiley face on her calendar if she wanted to stay at that moment, a frown if she wanted to go. The rules: She could not be undecided or neutral during face-drawing time. And she could not keep a running tally of the results. At the end, when she added them up, she was surprised how clear the answer was. (As I mentioned, she is still a co-worker of mine.)

Others tell me their decisions were made when they looked at the worst-case scenario of each alternative. Then they decided which worst case was the best option.

As an executive coach, Kim Lysik Di Santi doles out this advice every week: Assume that whatever decision you make turns out to be the wrong one, then figure out which wrong decision you could best handle.

She speaks from personal experience. Years ago, Di Santi had a nice job in Bellingham, Wash., but was offered an opportunity in New York City.

Which would have been worse: to stay in Bellingham and wonder what if? Or to go to New York and fail? She chose New York. "What would I regret 10 to 15 years from now?" she said. Di Santi, founder and president of Total Strategy in Reston. realized that if the New York job were "just devastation all around, it would be easier to pick up the pieces in New York and move on."

Eugene Barnes calls it "let Murphy work for you." (We all know Murphy's Law: If something can go wrong, it will.)

"If Murphy strikes, which [option] can you live with, or actually like? Choose that one," he advises.

That must have been a part of the big decision Barnes made about a decade ago.

He had to decide whether to extend his stay working overseas for the Army, or come home. He went the traditional route: a pro and con list for staying overseas.

He quickly realized there was a long list of pros that included better pay, free housing, a great European experience. There was only one con: He had promised his parents he would come home. So he called them, had a long talk explaining why he wanted to stay, and promised he would make it back to see them more often. He hung up and extended his stay.

But sometimes the old pros and cons don't do it for us.

Kristin was a magazine editor in Washington when she was offered a major promotion within her company. It would require a move to Seattle. She was happy in her job, liked her co-workers and enjoyed the city. But on the other side were a raise, new responsibilities and a great new city to explore.

She decided the "stay here" factors on her list -- which included good friends and family nearby -- weren't reason enough to turn down the job. Eight months later, she doesn't totally regret her decision, but she wishes she had given more value to life outside of her career. It also never occurred to her to consider the job market in the new city, just in case things didn't work out. And frankly, it's not going great. The office there is in upheaval. Kristin is facing another career decision: to stay in a bad situation or relocate again. "I don't know what I'm going to do, but I do know that this time around, I'm not going to dismiss the quality-of-life questions so easily, and I'm not going to make a move up the ladder just because the opportunity presents itself," she wrote in an e-mail.

The question about whether to stay is often a tough one because many people are completely comfortable where they are. Why mess with that? Colette Fozard made a decision last weekend that will definitely push her out of that comfort zone.

A legal secretary in the District, she began to get the itch several months ago to find something more challenging.

As Fozard started to inquire about paralegal openings at her firm, an attorney who had recently left the firm offered her a position as a legal assistant. On a Friday, her employer countered with a hybrid paralegal/marketing spot. She spent the weekend agonizing. On lined paper, she wrote down the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of each job offer.

Fozard had a great reputation at her current firm but was afraid she would never be viewed beyond that role. She was nervous about taking on more responsibility but felt it was important to grow in her career. "I'm comfortable here," she said. "But sometimes it takes a change to break into a new mode."

Finally, the great unknown won .

To make such a monumental decision, people need to look at their whole lives, said Leslie Williams, an executive coach and president of LeaderShift Consulting in the D.C. area: What did they want to fulfill in themselves when they took this job, what did they fulfill, and what still needs to be fulfilled? "A lot of times, people will stop at the practical. And the pros and cons don't add up to be a clear decision," she said. So she tells her clients to think beyond just the practical aspects.

Williams used to be an organizational development consultant and spent a lot of time figuring out how companies should be arranged to make them run efficiently. She loved her job, but over time it didn't hold the same power for her it once had. Soon she realized why: "It was like I wanted to be in the car with the people, and I was the mechanic."

Someone told her about executive coaching. Not long afterward, her decision was made.

As was Fozard's: She will start her new job in a few weeks. And Barnes's: He enjoyed those final two years in Europe. And Kristin's: Her last decision led to a realization that will help with the next. And Di Santi's: She loved New York. And my co-worker's; thankfully, she is a reporter here still.

Now it's your turn.

Join Amy Tuesday athttp://washingtonpost.comfrom 11 a.m. to noon to discuss your life at work and life-changing career decisions. You can e-mail her atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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