What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do?
In the space between yes and no, there’s a lifetime. It’s the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it’s the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are.
I had everything planned out perfectly. Headed to a little sustainable farm in northern Michigan, we were on our way. A four-hour trip loomed ahead of us, and it was just her and me in my Dodge Stratus. A light, fresh snow covered the ground, but nothing that would slow us down. My excitement for what was about to happen made my heart feel like it was three sizes larger than usual and clearly visible through my shirt. Suddenly I realized there was a major element I had not planned on: four hours in the car, just her and me. This day quickly taught me that when a decision is made, I need to find the clearest and simplest way to communicate it to others.
My girlfriend and I hadn’t seen each other for the past week, so the conversation started easily: “What have you been doing this week? I haven’t talked to you much; tell me everything.” That took all of one mile. Then, “I’m hungry. Let’s stop and get some food that we can eat on the way.”
We stopped at YaYa’s Flame Broiled Chicken, a Shinabarger family favorite with a comfort-food feel. I was in need of some calming comfort. We ordered to go. That bought me thirty minutes. Then I talked about the Michigan State basketball game I had watched the night before, giving more details than usual, anything to fill the empty conversation space.
Next, I turned the tables. “How’s your schoolwork going? What’s been going on?” At this point, I was pretty sure she could hear the ever-louder thumping of the blood beating through my heart. Turn the radio on to fill that quiet space. Check the directions a few times. Show her a new book I had purchased. Let’s listen to this CD. I was thinking of anything we could do without revealing to her what I had really been doing all week.
The stated plan for the evening was night skiing at a ski resort. After reading the book
His Needs, Her Needs, we were attempting to practice one of the book’s suggestions: learning about the things your partner enjoys for recreation and trying to do them with and for each other. I loved to downhill ski, and she was willing to learn. An up-north ski trip provided the perfect excuse to get her in the perfect location for a life-altering question. She thought we were going skiing; sometimes life takes a different direction than our expectations.
About thirty minutes away from our destination, I had run out of conversation starters, so I instructed my beach-loving girlfriend that it was probably time to start dressing for the snow.
“Why don’t you add some layers to your outfit? Put on your snow pants, extra layers, gloves, hat …” I was still buying time any way I could. She was all set, and we were pulling into this little farm I wanted to show her before night skiing began. By the time she had bundled up and we rolled out of the car, she looked like the Abominable Snowman, but I didn’t care. Outside it was pitch black, and I walked her around in a big circle. I knew this place like the back of my hand and had always wanted to share it with her. We walked through the stables to see all the animals and moved to the back of the property, where the wooden A-frame chapel stood glimmering with soft candlelight shining through the windows. We entered this tiny one-room chapel that seated about twenty people and was set up exactly as I had drawn it out for the groundskeeper. The minute the door opened, she understood what was happening. We slowly walked to the front of the chapel, where I got down on one knee. We were surrounded by beauty, but I could see only one thing in that moment—the eyes of the woman I loved.
She said yes. Her decision changed our lives forever.
DECISIONS CHANGE EVERYTHING
It’s amazing how two words have the ability to change everything:
yes or no. Most decisions ultimately come down to the moment when you choose to say yes or choose to say no. I believe that the words yes and no are the most powerful words in the dictionary. They define what we love, what we will be known for, and what we will do with our lives. These words can both open doors to new places and close doors to old spaces. Yes and no begin new stories and end old plotlines. They are definitive words: words that significantly change the trajectory of life. When you say yes or no, you give new direction to where you are going and what is still to come. Yes or no determines the hours you will spend in a job. Yes or no makes a commitment to a lifelong relationship. Yes or no shapes your character in times of stress. Yes or no brings you breathlessly to the doctor’s office to hear the heartbeat of a child. Yes or no commits you to buy and pay for a car and even a house. Yes or no is what leaves you anxiously waiting to hear if an investor chooses to give your idea funding or supports your social cause to help people in need. Most decisions come down to two small words that define everything. Those two small words are yes and no.
Choices happen every minute of every day, but some choices have more weight than others. As much as we fret about what to wear in the morning or where to go on the next big date, those moments don’t compare with life choices that define where we live, what we do, and who we spend our life with. If you think about the last year, there is a good chance you can remember a minimum of three choices that defined your year. If you consider your entire life, you will recall probably ten to fifteen decisions that defined what you are doing today and the story you are living. They were defining moments in which you said either yes or no, turning points that forged a path in a different direction toward where you are today. Depending on which little word you use in each situation, it moves you either to a new place or away from that very same place.
Decisions are moments of choice. It’s this or that or the other option, and there are often more options than we realize. Decisions start and end with you. I can’t make a decision for you; it’s on your shoulders. Sometimes that weight on our shoulders is heavy. Oddly enough, the heavier the decisions, the higher our shoulders rise. The tension tightens the neck as the stress seems to yank shoulder muscles up toward our ears.
I like to group decisions into three categories: daily decisions, moments of tension, and transition times.
Daily decisions are mundane choices that happen in real time, all the time. It’s that moment when a server asks you if you would like a salad with your dinner—yes or no? These are moments of choice that require an instant response but often come from a number of value decisions made earlier. Have I prioritized nutrition, taste buds, or expense? In the book
Blink, Malcolm Gladwell referred to these daily decisions as “snap judgments … enormously quick; they rely on the thinnest slices of experience. But they are also unconscious.” He continues, “We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that—sometimes—we’re better off that way.” Often the cumulative effect of these daily choices or even snap judgments leads you to a destination. For the most part, however, we don’t read and buy books looking for answers for the daily decisions. Yet these are the decisions that effectively make us experts on our own daily lives.
From our childhood years, we begin making daily decisions—from what and when we will eat to how and what we will play with others. At times we need to rethink these patterns of daily decisions, but most often they simply become part of what makes each of us unique. We stop needing to learn them or even to think much about them as they naturally flow from who we are.
There are other times of decision, however, that change the trajectory of not only our lives but the lives of others as well. These can be paralyzing moments when we realize we need help. Most of this book will focus on the other two decision periods: moments of tension and transition times. Let’s begin unpacking these tension-filled moments when we struggle with understanding what to do.
MOMENTS OF TENSION
I was driving to a lunch meeting at a restaurant in a kind of mall that did not exist twenty years ago: a mall on top of a parking deck. I turned down the ramp to find my spot among the other cars in the concrete jungle. It was midweek and the deck was pretty empty. I intentionally pulled into a parking spot with not a single car around me. I turned the car off and sat motionless. It was one of those shoulder-raising moments. Everyone in my sphere of influence wanted me to make a decision. Nothing felt clear, and everywhere I turned, another problem, choice, or decision called out my name. The numbers on my latest project were lower than expected. My bookkeeper had printed off the latest budget numbers, and they were not looking good. Our next event was looking like it would lose money. My in-box was overflowing with endless emails from my team asking me to make decisions so they could move forward. I felt like I was being a bad father because my stress seemed to sap my ability to give my kids the attention they deserved. Andre (now my wife) was frustrated because I wasn’t helping with everything that needed to be done for our family and home. All around me choices yelled out my name, and though they each were yelling loudly, I couldn’t seem to focus enough to choose one over another. The options of life became more abundant than my ability to prioritize and choose.
In that moment, all I wanted to do was turn the car back on and drive out of the city. I wanted to leave everything behind. I wanted to quit. Instead I sat in my little Toyota Prius contemplating life. I didn’t want to make a decision about how to move forward. I thought,
I could throw my phone out of the window and just drive to a place where not a single person knows my name. I was done. And at that moment, I never wanted to make another decision again.
However, the other side of me knew I was doing what I was designed to do—I just needed a still moment to make the decisions. I had pushed off too many decisions and wasn’t being the leader I was designed to be. I didn’t know what to do; there were too many scenarios with too many questions.
So what did I do?
Pulled the keys out of the ignition, opened the door, grabbed my bag, and walked into the restaurant. I took a step forward. Did I have all the answers? No. But I kept walking. I made the next decision. I moved forward. Lee Iacocca understands: “So what do we do? Anything. Something. So long as we don’t just sit there. If we screw it up, start over. Try something else. If we wait until we have satisfied all the answers, it may be too late.” We don’t have to see the whole staircase, just the first step.
I chose to be a decision maker. I made a choice. I may not have had all the answers, but I had an answer. I decided to move forward and tackle the next question.
Moments of tension often include not just me but a plethora of other people. This is where decision makers emerge: in the midst of problems. As Brad Lomenick, a writer on leadership, has stated, “As long as there are problems in the world, there will be a need for leaders to make the hard choices.”
If you feel moments of tension and a responsibility to address the problems, there is a good chance you are developing the great responsibility of becoming a decision maker. You are a decision maker if you find yourself in the midst of problem-solving situations continuously and others are looking for you to bring solutions. You choose to solve problems. You see what others don’t see and make decisions to change things. You want to make decisions that influence your life, your family’s life, and the lives of people around you.
Let me warn you ahead of time: the further you go in decision making, the greater the problems that present themselves to you. But standing in the midst of those tensions is where leaders are needed the most. If you have the potential to be a decision maker, we need you. We need you to push through the tension, tackle one decision at a time, and choose to keep moving.
Every so often, the daily decisions and the moments of tension will add up to push you to a transition time. Transition times are often deeply personal when you are wrestling with your calling or career, personal finances, or a life choice like marriage, kids, or buying a house. Transition times have direct implications for what you desire to do, how you choose to live, and major choices of your personal story line. Donald Miller captured this on his blog when preparing for his marriage: “A wedding teaches us that in order to experience meaning we have to make decisions. We can’t keep looking at the menu forever, nor can we eat everything on it at once.”
That’s an incredible reminder of how short life really is. Transition times give us both perspective and pain—for example, in that semester when you are about to graduate from college and have to determine what you are actually going to do with your life and where you will live. Or the year you question whether it’s time to quit your day job to fully transition to your dream job. Or the month when your credit card bill is more than you can pay and you make lifestyle changes to dig out of a financial deficit. These are transition times—when you change the way you live, when the comfortable place you are in is about to radically turn around.
Both transition times and moments of tension are the points in life when we realize that we desperately need direction, discernment, and ultimately a decision. It’s often in these moments when we seek out knowledge, resources, and people to teach us how to decide. We pray and we pray and we pray, hoping for clarity to move forward. They are also the moments when we sometimes have to trust our gut and the wisdom of those most important to us.
YES AND NO
One beautiful November I flew to Los Angeles to spend a full day dreaming and planning a book with my great friend Charles Lee. We are both idea people with great admiration for one another, and we were going to write a collaborative book about idea making. (He has since written his own book on the topic that is excellent.) We outlined 80 percent of the book, and I thought it was good. Our individual homework assignments were to begin our first couple of chapters to further explore the tensions of writing together while working out our collective writing voice.
En route home that night, my adrenaline was flying just as high as the airplane. I couldn’t wait to tell Andre all about it. I vividly remember sitting down with her the next day and telling her all our ideas, fully expecting her to be as excited as I was. She quickly brought me down to earth. She had this sense that I shouldn’t do it. She said no. It wasn’t because she didn’t want me to work with Charles; she loves him. It wasn’t that she didn’t think the concept was good; she thought it was a great topic for both of us to share and explore. She just didn’t feel good about it. My heart sank as I called Charles to apologize and tell him I could not participate. There was really no reason, but we both knew the choice needed to be made. I chose that day to trust my wife, who we realized in hindsight had a hunch about something on the horizon that I didn’t see. It’s important to listen to the people we love; they often see or sense things we don’t.
Sometimes we make choices and sometimes others’ choices determine what life looks like for us. Not every decision is made solely by ourselves or for ourselves. As we accept that we live in a world where we are not islands but rather interconnected webs of people, we must learn to give and take with others as we make decisions. Sometimes when decisions are made for us, the only thing we can do is choose to respond to the new challenges. How we respond to others’ choices will reveal what we value and who we desire to become.
Just two months after that moment of decision, on a routine Thursday afternoon, I was in a meeting with two friends planning an event. My phone rang twice in a row from my wife. This was our previously agreed-upon sign that it was an emergency for which I needed to stop everything I was doing to answer. I walked into the other room as Andre burst out the words, “We have been matched.” Lost in event-planning mode, I did not quite pick up her train of thought. I asked, “To what?”
“We have been matched with a baby.”
“A baby?” I replied incredulously.
“Yeah. I just got the call. It’s a little girl. She was born ten days ago, here in Atlanta, and they are asking if we want to adopt her. We would pick her up on Monday.”
I am fully convinced that my eyebrows immediately lifted higher than my hairline. My mind started racing.
Monday? Baby? I’m going to be a dad?
Andre waited for a moment before asking, “So can I tell them yes?”
Yes! Yes, of course!”
Her name is Jada.
We called our family and close friends. Then we did what all good young Americans would do in that moment: We updated our Facebook status to tell the world that we were becoming parents—on Monday. And that we had nothing, no car seat, no diapers, no pacifier, no bottles; we had absolutely nothing for a child.
Over the course of three days, every corner of our community overwhelmed us with gifts. Their generosity was humbling. They gave us crash courses in bottles and diapers and even threw us the fastest-ever-planned baby shower. Through the entire adoption process, the greatest gift was not from our community; it was from a mother who had carried our Jada for eight months while she was homeless on the streets of Atlanta. While taking care of two other children who had great needs, she freely gave my wife and me her baby with nothing in return. She said yes to us. We said yes to her. Our community said yes to two that became three in a few short days. At some point around that whirlwind time, another wave of gratefulness came over me as I remembered how my wife had somehow known it was the wrong time to say yes to a book project. And I had trusted Andre’s intuition enough to listen and choose.
CHOOSE YOUR ADVENTURE
Day after day, you choose your future. Sometimes other people make decisions that affect you, but you still choose your response as a part of the equation of what happens next. Many decisions are easy, but some weigh more than others. I am thankful that we were created in a way to make decisions; we were given the choice of how to live and what to believe. I do believe that in the end God will have ultimate determination of the world, but we have been granted the freedom to live and make choices in this beautiful and broken world. Even in environments controlled by others, we always have the option to follow that law or direction, or not.
Choices are constant. What our lives look like will be determined by a series of decisions we make continuously. Life is a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Our lives can be great adventures. As in the book, we can go back and review the choices we have made and realize what may have brought us to where we are. The difference between our lives and a page-turning book is that we can’t go back and start over. The decisions we make are made. Therefore, it is in the page-turning times that we often need some guidance.
Our choices determine our future. Inevitably, a transition (and tension) time is in your new future. It’s simply a matter of when. Consider this list of some of the life-shaping decisions we all make in our lives, sometimes more than once:
Education: What school should I enroll in? What about my child(ren)? What should be the focus of my studies? How high of a degree should I complete?
Career: What job should I take? What am I made to do? When should I quit my day job to fulfill my dream job? I feel like my purpose is being unfulfilled; what should I do next? How do I balance career and kids? What problems do I want to solve with my life?
Relationships: Should I get married? How do I find a partner? Should I have children? When and how many? Do we feel a calling toward adoption?
Home: Where should I live and why? Should I go larger or downsize? Should I rent or buy? How are we going to renovate this place?
Money: What is enough? Where should I give? How do I get out of debt? How should I invest for the future? How do I make more? When should I retire? How are we going to pay this month’s bills?
Community: Should I tell friends my opinion on their situations? I want to give my time and talents to something significant, but where should I serve? What am I most passionate about for my community, and what can I uniquely give? Who do I spend my time with, and what do we do together?
Team: Who do I want to work for and with? Can we afford another person on the team? Which person should I hire? Which person am I going to let go from the job, and how am I going to tell that person? Should we dream bigger or tighten up our budget? How am I going to pay the bills at the end of the month? Can I get the funding?
The questions keep coming in every stage of life. Whether it’s far in the future or right in front of you, it’s always a good time to consider your process for making a crucial decision. Sadly, I can’t tell you what to decide. (Imagine how successful I would be if I could!) I do, however, believe I can assist you in becoming a decision maker.
The key question I am asking throughout this book is simply: What do you do when you don’t know what to do? My hope is to offer you some practical ways to navigate when the path to yes or no is difficult to discern. I want to give you action points to assist you in thinking through how you make choices not just on your own but alongside the people you love and trust. May the ideas in this book provide you with a framework for making decisions about life’s relentless choices, some more significant than others, but all creating the life you get to live each day.
At the end of every chapter, I will provide an action step to make the ideas concrete. What moment of tension or transition do you find yourself processing today?
What many of us do when we don’t know what to do is avoid the tough decision. Stop for a moment and consider whether you have been avoiding a decision in your life. It could be related to work or family or any other arena in your life. Take some time to write out the dilemma as you currently see it. Pinpoint the problem so that you can accurately address the issue at hand. Stick that paper right in this book so you can refer back to it. Let us commit to working through this problem together as you continue reading this book.
QUESTIONS FOR GROUPS