THE BLOG
09/28/2010 01:41 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Avoid the Biggest Mistake in Decision Making

I'm planning on using my next few blogs to talk about what I consider to be the key principles of decision making. I've spent most of my life teaching, and after a decade I came to the conclusion that the courses I taught had a few central ideas, and that in order to teach successfully I should emphasize those few central ideas at every opportunity.

Many disciplines have a "biggest mistake," something you must absolutely not do. Possibly Hippocrates was the first to recognize this, as his injunction to future physicians was, "First, do no harm." Put yourself in the shoes of the young lady in the following scenario, and see if you can avoid committing the biggest mistake of decision making. While you're at it, see if you can figure out what the biggest mistake is (or at least what I think it is!) before it is revealed.

The scenario is presented in the following paragraph.

Ever since you saw your first movie when you were three years old, you've known that you wanted: to be a movie star (you and approximately 20 million others). The odds are no longer 20 million to one against; you've recently graduated with a degree in drama (you and a few hundred thousand others), and every so often someone asks you if you're Angelina Jolie's sister (you and very few others). With all this going for you, you've decided to turn down your father's offer of a position in his plumbing supply business and take your show on the road. You're mulling over three possibilities. Should you:

A: Take a position as an understudy to the lead in a revival of "My Fair Lady" in Chicago?

OR

B: Take a leading role in a series of performances of "Phantom of the Opera" in Charleston, South Carolina?

OR

C: Head for Hollywood, where you know absolutely no one, and make a living as a waitress or whatever while trying to obtain that one big break?

Think it over and make your choice. 

A: Take an offer to be an understudy to the lead in a revival of "My Fair Lady" in Chicago?

1 point -- Here's the best-case scenario with this option. Let's suppose that, in the great tradition of the theater, you say to the lead, "Break a leg," and she does. You take over the leading role, to accolades from all the critics. Then what? You either continue in Chicago and live happily (or unhappily) ever after, or you pack up your belongings, take that review and move on. If you want to be a movie star, you'll head for Hollywood.

B: Take a leading role in a series of performances of "Phantom of the Opera" in Charleston, South Carolina?

3 points -- This is clearly superior to being an understudy, as you don't have to rely on someone breaking a leg. The cardinal sin of decision making is to allow yourself to consider an option that is clearly inferior to another. However, after "Phantom" completes its run, you're still faced with deciding on your next career move.

C: Head for Hollywood, where you know absolutely no one, and make a living as a waitress while waiting for that one big break?

5 points -- Your chances of becoming a star are much greater in Hollywood than anywhere else. You can either try to be a big fish in the ocean, or settle for being a big fish in a small puddle. I intend no disrespect to either Chicago (I've lived there, and if I couldn't live in California that's where I'd go) or Charleston (it seems like a very attractive town), but the majority of movies are made somewhere else. More importantly, the majority of movies are cast in Hollywood. You could have a successful career elsewhere, but you'd always wonder about whether or not you could have fulfilled a childhood dream. Even if you fall flat, you've got to take a shot. You may disagree with my giving this option the highest point total, but I feel that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, because love is where the big-time payoffs are.

I also feel that a great many wrong decisions -- ones that cause you to kick yourself and ask, "How could I ever have done that?" -- are the result of committing the mistake of considering inferior alternatives. One way to avoid doing this is to compare your options with each other, asking "Is this alternative better than that one?" rather than "Is this a good alternative?" This seems obvious, but I'm willing to bet that you've adopted an inferior alternative when a demonstrably better one was on the table. I know I have.