I got a new pair of roller blades for my 8th birthday.
Immediately, I begged dad to take me to the park. The street no longer presented a challenge.
Marching directly to the playground, I climbed up the steps to the tallest slide, slipped on my blades and stared toward the bottom.
“Should I do it?” I asked my dad.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Mitch,” he replied.
That’s all the encouragement I needed. I jumped to my feet and lurched forward.
The moment ended as quickly as it began. I ate it – hard. But at least I tried.
The experiment earned me several scrapes and an important lesson: bad outcomes hurt less when they result from your own decisions.
My dad and I laugh about that incident to this day. Still, I can’t help feeling a little pride. Yes – I made a reckless decision. But I made the decision.
Outsourcing Your Decision-Making
Contrast my example above with another story.
Several years ago, I worked in an office next to a warehouse. We shared street parking. Signs clearly marked the tow away zones. But we rarely saw them enforced.
On one occasion, a few new employees asked others if they ran a risk parking in the tow away zones. Some tenured employee told them they’d never seen a car towed – so the new folks parked there.
That afternoon the city towed their cars. The new employees acted outraged. What an injustice!
One requested reimbursement from the company for the incident. This confused me at first, but the longer I thought about it, the more it sank in.
This individual wasn’t mad just because of the car towing – he was also mad because he’d relied on someone else’s judgment to inform his decision. He saw the tow-away signs. But he made a calculated risk based on the information from what seemed like a credible source.
In short – he allowed someone else to make his decision for him. On that day, his proxy turned out wrong.
The individual felt justified in his outrage because he had a scapegoat upon whom he could blame-shift. Had he never asked anyone and chosen to park in the tow away zone, he would’ve bore full culpability.
Instead, by outsourcing his decision, he relived himself of responsibility for his poor decision.
Stuck Holding the Bag
We all rely on proxies to inform our decisions from time to time.
Consider product reviews as a small case and point. Or referrals from friends about the best dentist or auto-shop.
Still, we ultimately bear the cost if we act on the information and the choice turns out poorly.
What about the bigger decisions?
Like who to marry, whether or not to go to college, which company to work for, or which city to live in.
We all know people who’ve made decisions like this by proxy. Sometimes it works out. But when things go poorly, the person who provided information is rarely stuck holding the bag.
No – we have to live with the choices we make, even if we relied on information from someone else.
Skin in the Game
For big life decisions, I try to avoid advice from people without skin in the game. Sure, I’ll ask for movie referrals. But for the big stuff, I do my best to own my decisions.
If the choices blow up in my face, I have no on else to blame but myself.
Still, occasionally it’s useful to seek out third-party opinions – if even just to shock-test your ideas.
I’ve found over time that people who have no skin in the game as to the outcome tend to give advice based solely off their own experience. They don’t account for the arbitrage of their experience adjusted to yours.
People who have an actual investment in your outcomes, on the contrary, bear some of the risk if shit goes awry. I think something about that risk makes them simultaneously more affected, and more level-headed. They have to live with the weight of their opinion.
No – this does not mean you should fully outsource your decisions to them. But it does increase the odds that their advice is better suited for an outcome that’s good for you (not just them).
Proxies Don’t Pay
Whether you heed others’ advice or not rests on your own shoulders. When you request advice, you still get to choose what to do with it.
You’re never obligated to make decisions you don’t agree with. Don’t forget, you own the final say.
But, if and when you make a poor decision, if you relied on someone else’s faculties, remember: it’s you who has to bear the full cost.
Though they may “feel” guilty – you have to live the decision, not them.
So don’t be flippant. Proxies provide additional points of view. But they don’t have the power to make the call – you do.
Own your decisions. Even when you make bad ones. Don’t cede responsibility to anyone else.