“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”
- Roy Disney, cofounder, Walt Disney Productions

There is a famous Stanford University experiment that measured the impacts of being able to delay gratification. Professor Walter Mischel performed these experiments and continued to follow up with his subjects for decades. In the studies, a child was given a choice between one marshmallow provided immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for fifteen minutes. The kids that delayed gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower incidence of substance abuse, lower levels of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. Your ability to make decisions focused on the long term is directly connected to your ability to realize your potential.

A life is made up of the compounded effects of thousands of decisions. The better you get at making those decisions, the higher the likelihood that you’ll manifest the existence you desire. The problem is, as a society we’re plagued by bad decision-making. Why? Because most individuals and organizations aren’t self-aware and lack a framework for making decisions. This combination of not knowing how and not knowing why diminishes the likelihood that you will unlock your creative potential.

At any given moment, there’s always a best choice, a best course of action based on your priorities and what you want to achieve. When you’re young, these highest and best challenges are quite simple to identify. Say, for example, you’re playing with your friends. You can play basketball, soccer, or video games. You like basketball better than soccer and your mom wants you to play outside, so no video games. Clearly, basketball is the highest and best challenge at that moment. As you get older, you want to join a sports team. You want to play basketball, but you’re much better at soccer. Now you have to choose what you like to do versus what you have a better chance of succeeding at. On top of that, one of your best friends is playing basketball, the other soccer. Making the best decision just got a lot more complicated.

Life continues on this type of path. Based on our cognitive abilities and the minimal impact of poor decisions, things remain somewhat simple through our early twenties. For the most part, you can make a mistake and recover while still having a high probability of achieving your goals. But once you add spouses, children, aging parents, career demands, and financial planning, the impact of poor decision-making is amplified tenfold. The difference between amazing achievement and complete chaos becomes a couple of poor decisions.

Your entire life can change quickly.

And the exact same theory applies to businesses. When you start, the decisions are easy, but the more money and people get involved, the more complicated it gets. That’s why going public is such a tough decision; you can reap untold financial gains, but you also end up needing to involve thousands if not millions of shareholders in your decision-making process.

Let’s look back at the beginning of your career.

When you’re just starting out, you say yes to almost every challenge. You’re just happy to be involved. Whatever opening comes to you, at least you’re part of something and learning. But as you grow, you begin to understand who you are, what makes you special, and what you believe you want to do. Immediately, that begins to add filters to the decision-making process; e.g., you want to be a lawyer, so you don’t have time to take part-time catering jobs anymore. Simply put, the more you grow, the more you need to say no. At first maybe it’s 5 percent of the time: No, I don’t want to be in finance, I want to be in the arts. Then it’s 10 or 20 percent: No, that’s not enough money; or I want a better title or more freedom. But eventually, when you become an experienced creative, it should get to 80, 90, or in some cases 100 percent of the time. When you get to that point, it means you’ve really begun to understand who you are and what’s important to you.

But saying no isn’t easy, especially for individuals and organizations who love to create. After all, it’s difficult to forget there was a time when nobody was asking. And that’s a trap, because if you don’t say no—if you don’t start to filter projects—the work will begin to suffer and you’ll slide back on the scale. You’ll receive fewer offers and need to say yes more, often taking on projects that draw you further away from your purpose.

Disciplined decision-making is critical. That’s why I am offering a framework to help you define your highest and best challenge, guiding you to make choices that meet your short-term needs while bringing you closer to manifesting your purpose and maximizing your long-term return on investment. To discover your highest and best challenge at any given moment, you must look at three factors: purpose/core values, short-term needs, and long-term return on investment. Here’s a quick look at each:

Primary Decision Point

  • Purpose: The first and most important question to ask when making a decision is: Does this opportunity align with my purpose? When you’re focused on unlocking your creative potential, your purpose is always your primary decision point; the more closely aligned you are with your purpose, the more likely you’ll create work that’s unbelievable instead of just ordinary. Are you further integrating what you do every day (your position) and what you desire internally (your purpose)? The more integration of those elements, the better the decision.

Secondary Decision Point

  • Short-Term Needs:  Safety. Security. Shelter. Food. Water. Love. Tuition. Or, for some people, daily vanilla lattes, a weekly night out with their wife, an annual family vacation. While you’re working toward unlocking your potential, it’s vital that you put yourself in a position to meet your basic short-term needs. Each of us has a different idea of what we need to function effectively, and being brutally honest with yourself about those needs is critical. While anything worth pursuing requires some level of sacrifice, and most of us need less than we think, the secondary factor in determining your highest and best opportunity is to look honestly at whether you’ll be able to meet these basic short-term needs when you make this decision.

Tertiary Decision Point

  • Long-Term Returns: Every time you make a short-term decision, you sacrifice something in the long term, and every time you make a long-term decision, you sacrifice something in the short term. I know that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how understanding short term versus long term with this type of perspective provides you a deep level of clarity. When it comes to unlocking your creative potential, you always want to maximize the long-term benefits of your decisions.

Now let me clarify what I mean by returns, because most people will immediately think returns mean money. While you can measure your returns in money, people measure their success differently based on their priorities. Some may seek critical acclaim or to have an impact on others’ lives, and some may desire freedom or time spent with their family. It’s important to note that only you can define for yourself what you value, and then try to maximize those returns long-term to make the most impact over time.

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