“I don’t know.” Confronted with so many complex things in this new-to-him world, my 2-year old son has quickly perfected the phrase to answer any question I throw him on any topic. But at age two, an adult is always nearby to show the way and solve the problem.
Eventually though, the 2-year-olds become the adults and that “I don’t know” feeling confronts us again. Unfortunately, problems get bigger as we get older. For many of us trying to make a difference in the world, no one stands nearby with a map of the way or a solution to the problem we feel called to solve.
Over the last three years, I have been given the opportunity to sit with over 100 social innovators in our community at Plywood People who desire to be problem-solvers and to bring restoration to what they see as broken. Over and over again, these friends have come to talk to me because they are wrestling through what to do next in their dream or in their personal lives.
What should we do when we don’t know what to do?
What do you do when your day job takes up all your energy but it doesn’t fit your calling?
What do you do when your credit card is maxed out and you aren’t sure where the money for your bills is going to come from?
What do you do when you are considering moving but aren’t sure where to go?
What do you do when there is more work to get done but your spouse calls you telling you it is time to come home?
These tensions between work and family, dreams and bills, friendship and future eventually confront all of us in one way or another. In these challenging times, we are forced to make choices.
I used to think that as I got older I would also, almost automatically, get wiser. I naively assumed that making decisions would then get easier. Wrong. As I get older, as I expand my circle of friends, as I make good decisions and my influence grows, it seems that almost every choice becomes more complicated. More people are involved and affected, I understand the context of diverse situations, and the demands on my time continue to grow.
Suddenly the words yes and no have taken on greater significance. What I choose to say yes or no to will define what I do in life, how others perceive me and how I will be remembered. These two small words (yes and no) are the most defining words in the dictionary.
In an age of wanting more, doing more, and showing more of what we do every moment of every day, we want to say yes to every opportunity that presents itself. But this is not possible. In fact, when we say yes to everything, we don’t really become anything, do we? I have found that instead, the more I say no to things, greater opportunities emerge.
So how do we figure out what to say yes to and what to say no to? I recommend creating a process for making big decisions.
1. Explore the Options.
We often see a very limited perspective of what could be. It is important to consider what all the possible options may be. Try to include the most unreasonable options in your process, because they could cause you to think of new solutions. Then process the good and the bad of all the options to find the most reasonable few.
2. Understand Who is Influenced.
Every major decision we make will cause other people’s lives to change in some way. Sometimes they are people very close to us and other times they are very distant in relationship; but other people are always affected by our personal choices. Take time to process what your decision will do to the lives around you, get clarity on what could happen, and consider others in your choice.
3. Invite Others to the Table.
Once you understand your options and the people this decision affects, it is time to receive feedback from trusted advisers on how to move forward. Who are the people you can invite to the table to speak into your major decisions? Ask trusted friends, wise mentors and respected peers to help you process your options.
4. Name Your Fears.
Don’t be under the illusion that if you are pursuing your calling, you will not be afraid. For some, fear is a constant companion, barking at our heels as we strive to do things no one has done in quite the same way. Fear has existed since the Fall in Genesis. Many good decisions will be hounded by our greatest fears, but fear never makes good choices. Name your fears and do not let it make your choices.
5. Make Time for Solitude.
This is the time to seek spiritual guidance and clarify what you truly believe about the decision. Stop everything to ponder and pray. Separate from others, take all the information you have gathered through this process, and begin to understand what you feel is most important and seek God to clearly give you direction through prayer and listening.
6. Take a Step Forward.
At this point, you have to make a choice. You can’t know the future and you definitely cannot control the future, but you must move forward toward a decision. Use your understanding, the wisdom from God and others and take action.
Humans are uniquely gifted with freedom of choice. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, people chose each day whom they would serve or not serve and what they would do with the days God granted them. God has prepared so many good works for us to do; a fallen world waits for us to bring our light to the problems we see.
As you consider your next major decision, I hope and pray these principles help you become a better decision-maker so that together, those of us following Jesus will be known for the problems we solve.
Jeff Shinabarger is the author of Yes or No: How Your Everyday Decisions Will Forever Shape Your Life and the founder of Plywood People. Learn more at YesorNoBook.com and PlywoodPeople.com.