Decision Making: Make better decisions. Improve your life and your career

Decision Making: Improve your life and your career

Have you heard the sad tale of Buridan’s Ass? It’s a story about decision making that was made famous by French philosopher, Jean Buridan, though a version of it has been traced at least as far back as Aristotle’s work on astronomy called On the Heavens.

Buridan’s version involves a donkey who is desperately hungry and thirsty. In front of him is a pail of water and a bale of hay.

Unsure whether his hunger is more pressing than his thirst, the donkey reaches a crisis of indecision. No matter how hard he thinks about it, he just can’t make up his mind whether to drink first or eat. Eventually he becomes so weakened, he collapses and dies.

This simple but unlikely fable teaches us that in work and in life, any decision is better than none. A true and much more tragic example comes from the aviation industry.

The fatal distraction

Eastern Airlines flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar jet, left New York at 21:20 on 29 December 1972 on its way to Miami. The crew were highly experienced, the plane was only four months old and the weather en route was normal.

Why, then, did this modern jet, commanded by a captain with nearly 30,000 hours flying under his belt, assisted by a co-pilot with nearly 6,000 hours and a flight engineer with nearly 17,000 hours plough into the Florida Everglades?

Of those on board, 96 of 163 passengers were killed, along with both pilots, the engineer and two of the ten flight attendants.

The simple, sad truth is poor decision making. On their approach to land in Miami, the co-pilot lowered the landing gear and noticed that, of the three green lights on the instrument panel that indicate that the wheels are down and locked, only two were lit.

After a brief discussion, they decided to postpone their landing. The air traffic controller cleared them to climb and maintain 2,000 feet. The captain instructed the co-pilot to set the autopilot so that the aircraft would remain at the correct altitude while they tried to rectify the problem.

There was much discussion about whether the gear was down and the bulb was faulty or whether the nosewheel remained in the raised position as the lights suggested.

The engineer and another crew member were sent to a space below the flight deck to see if they could get visual confirmation of the nosewheel’s status. It was a dark night and they didn’t have a torch so that didn’t help.

Keep an eye on the big picture

While the engineer and his helper were below, the two pilots had removed the light and, after examination, they concluded it was faulty. While they were trying to fit it back into place, a chime sounded on a speaker next to the engineer’s seat. This was a warning that the plane had left the altitude set in the autopilot but neither of the pilots heard it.

The aircraft descended so gently through the darkness that none of the flight crew noticed until moments before it crashed. Unfortunately, it was too late. (The accident enquiry determined that when the captain turned in his seat to tell the flight engineer to go below, he probably brushed against his control column which automatically disengaged the autopilot.)

These highly skilled and extensively experienced pilots were so absorbed by the pesky little light bulb, they forgot to monitor the progress of their aircraft.

In your job and in your life, focus on what matters. Get the big jobs done first. Leave your equivalent of a broken light bulb for later or, better still, get someone else to fix it.

Marie Beynon Ray, the late author and psychiatrist, summed it up neatly: “Indecision is fatal. It is better to make a wrong decision than to build up a habit of indecision…action is the basis of success.”

Take a little over two minutes to watch this video explanation of the Urgent/Important Matrix developed by US President Eisenhower. It will immediately help you to identify which of your priorities are urgent, important or neither.


If you liked, then please subscribe to our YouTube Channel for video content. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

You will also like