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Suzy Welch: How to make a difficult decision

Based on her own experiences, Suzy Welch reveals her secret to life management — "10-10-10." She explains that thinking about the impact of our decisions in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years helps us figure out what we really need to do. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Recounting poignant stories from her own life and the lives of many others, Suzy Welch reveals her secret to life management — “10-10-10.” She explains how thinking about the impact of our decisions in multiple time frames invariably surfaces our unconscious agendas, fears, needs and desires — and ultimately helps us identify and live according to our deepest goals and values. An excerpt.

Chapter One: It was what? 10-10-10 in the light of day
To tell you the truth, I ­didn’t know precisely what 10-10-10 was at the moment of its inception, except that I suddenly felt as if I had a new, different, and massively better operating principle in my (albeit tenuous) grasp. I had come upon, it seemed, an enhanced thinking process of sorts, a methodology for getting systematic about things. All I really had to do to reclaim my life, I realized that morning on my Hawaiian balcony, was to start making my decisions differently — proactively — by deliberately considering their consequences in the immediate present, near term, and distant future.

In ten minutes ... ten months ... and ten years.

If I did that, I figured with a fair amount of wonder, I might actually have my very own “life management tool.”

And thirteen years later, that term continues to be how I define 10-10-10 in quick and easy shorthand. That said, I’ve certainly heard 10-10-10 described in other ways. One dedicated 10-10-10 practitioner I know calls it “a road map for clarity and courage,” another, “my little guilt eraser.” A grandmother from Houston once told me she refers to 10-10-10 as her “kick-start to get unfrozen.” A Canadian minister who has preached about 10-10-10 describes it as “a great bridge enabling us to put things in perspective.”

But none of those handles for 10-10-10 — mine included — really describe the nitty-gritty logistics of the process. So before we go any further, let’s break them down.

The how of 10-10-10
Every 10-10-10 process starts with a question. That is, every 10-10-10 begins with posing your dilemma, crisis, or problem in the form of a query. Should I quit my job? Should I buy the house with the great backyard and leaky roof? Should I hold my son back a year in school? Should I stay in my relationship or end it?

Having a defined question is essential to 10-10-10, I’ve come to discover, because so many messy problems are intertwined with side issues and sub-issues, distractions and digressions, red herrings and bit players. Thus, the most effective 10-10-10s always tend to start with determining exactly what issue, underneath it all, ­you’re trying to resolve.

The next stage of 10-10-10 is data collection. Not to worry; you can conduct this part of the process in your head, on your computer, with pen and paper, or in conversation with a friend or partner — whatever works. The only real “requirement” is that you be honest and exhaustive in answering the following prompts:

Given my question, what are the consequences of each of my options in ten minutes?

In ten months?

In ten years?

Now, to be clear, there is nothing literal about each ten in 10-10-10. The first 10 basically stands for “right now” — as in, one minute, one hour, or one week. The second 10 represents that point in the foreseeable future when the initial reaction to your decision has passed but its consequences continue to play out in ways you can reasonably predict. And the third 10 stands for a time in a future that is so far off that its particulars are entirely vague. So, really, 10-10-10 could just as well be referring to nine days, fifteen months, and twenty years, or two hours, six months, and eight years. The name of the process is just a totem meant to directionally suggest time frames along the lines of: in the heat of the moment, somewhat later, and when all is said and done.

The last step of the 10-10-10 process is analysis. For this stage, you need to take all the information ­you’ve just compiled and compare it to your innermost values — your beliefs, goals, dreams, and needs. In short, this part of 10-10-10 impels you to ask: “Knowing what I now know about all of my options and their consequences, which decision will best help me create a life of my own making?”

And with the answer to that, you have your 10-10-10 solution.

And with that, I formed the concept of “10-10.” I was going to start making my decisions based on a balance of short-term and long-term considerations. What nonsense it had been, I told myself, to have schlepped the kids five thousand miles for a few piddling swims on the beach together. If I had left them home, their pouting would have lasted a day at most, had there even been any.

Almost instantly, however, I became aware of the incompleteness of my emergent idea. Over the next few months, I was actually going to be away from home twice more, for a wedding and then for another conference. Maybe my trip to Hawaii, taken cumulatively, had me absent from the children too much. Maybe, for true balance and perspective, my new decision-making process needed to consider a more middle-term horizon as well.

Thus 10-10-10 was officially born.

With nothing to lose, I started applying the process to all sorts of dilemmas both at home and work as soon as we returned to Boston. Should I stay at the office for an emergency when I promised the kids I’d be home at six? Should I spend the holidays with my parents or my in-laws? Should I confront a difficult writer about a late manuscript? Should I focus my time on an article submitted by a promising newcomer or a steady old-timer? Much to my surprise, I found that the process invariably led me to faster, cleaner, and sounder decisions. And as an unexpected bonus, it also gave me a way to explain myself to all the relevant “constituents” — my kids or parents or boss — with clarity and confidence. “Let me tell you how I came to that decision,” I could finally say, and go from there.

Within months, 10-10-10 had served me so well that I ­couldn’t resist sharing it with my sisters, Elin and Della, as well as a cadre of close friends and colleagues.

And so it was that the process first started to spread. One of my coworkers told his wife, who used it to untangle herself from a state of job-search paralysis. A friend “gave” 10-10-10 to her just-married daughter, who was struggling with whether to continue working or return to graduate school. Another acquaintance of mine described 10-10-10 to her husband, a doctor, and he brought it to work, where a group of nurses adopted it to confront — and resolve — a contentious dispute over patient visiting hours that had been simmering for months.

Eventually, 10-10-10 stories from outside my immediate circle began to trickle back to me. One day, for instance, I answered my phone to hear, “Are you the 10-10-10 lady?”

When I figured out that I was and said as much, my caller burst into friendly laughter and identified herself as Gwen, the sister of one of the nurses. “Sorry to surprise you,” she said, “but I’m calling because I’m sitting here wishing you could see me. I’m smiling for the first time in months.”

Gwen, it turned out, was a stay-at-home mother in Chicago. Like her sister, she had started with a career in nursing, but she had changed course after a few years to become a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. The job was a perfect fit for Gwen’s outgoing personality and professional drive. “You ­couldn’t peel me away from my sales rounds,” she told me. “It ­wasn’t work to me. It was fun. Oh — and the money! It ­couldn’t have been better.”

Gwen enjoyed her career so thoroughly that she barely missed a beat through the pregnancies and births of her three children. Sure, there were challenging times when her job and motherhood collided, but she always felt supported by her husband, who was also a sales rep, in her choice to keep working. The couple hired a live-in nanny and communicated with her constantly by cell phone. They spent weekends reconnecting with each other and their kids.

One evening when Gwen returned from yet another long stretch on the road, however, her nanny put her ­fifteen-month-old son in her arms and he ­didn’t recognize her, shoving her away with an angry squeal. Gwen was shaken to her core. Her husband, looking on, was too.

Overwhelmed by a growing sense of guilt, Gwen soon resigned. “I’ll be back in a few months,” she promised her boss, “just as soon as things get back to normal at home.”

But weeks passed, then months, and bit by bit, Gwen found herself ever more entrenched in the “back to normal” she was trying to build, her days busy with driving the kids to lessons, friends’ houses, and various and sundry appointments, her nights taken over by dinner, homework, baths, and story time. Her office off the family’s garage, piled with the industry trade magazines she vowed to keep reading, began to fill up with skate sharpeners and costumes for the school play.

After a year at home, Gwen’s heart started to fill too — not with sadness, but with a vague, persistent longing for the big career that could have been. Occasionally, she would reread an email from her old boss she ­couldn’t bring herself to delete from her inbox. “­We’ll take you back whenever you want,” it said. “Your old team needs you and misses you.”

Gwen missed them too, but how much? Weeks passed with her mind seesawing in debate. Had she really chosen stay-at-home motherhood, she wondered, or had she fallen into it by not choosing otherwise?

In the middle of this quandary, Gwen’s sister mentioned 10-10-10 to her, suggesting she might use it the next time she felt stuck.

That happened a few days later. “I was cleaning the refrigerator, my hands and face covered with cold water and detergent, everything melting all over the place, and Sammy was crying his head off. I just lost it,” Gwen told me. “For once and for all, I needed to decide if I should keep being a full-time mom.”

Gwen soothed Sammy and put him down for a nap, finished with the refrigerator, and poured herself a cup of coffee. Then, with an hour to spare before her daughter arrived home from school, she sat in her kitchen and started to 10-10-10.

Her very first emotion, as the process unfolded, was dread. “Short term, if I stayed home, I knew I was looking at a lot of diapers and spit-up, with my brain not really in high gear,” she told me. “I was looking at a bit of boredom, and a lot of wondering about what might have been.” As for the long-term, ten-year scenario, “I knew the kids would basically be on their way out the door by that time,” Gwen said. “They would be gone, and so would my career.”

But a different kind of revelation began to emerge as Gwen considered the ten-month scenario. “Suddenly, as I sat there thinking about it, I became conscious of how much I cared about the time in between the first and last 10s,” she said. “When Sammy makes his first goal, Emma has her first flute recital, and Alex learns to shave, I’ll be there. I realized I was giving up one dream, but I was getting a reality I ­couldn’t walk away from in return.”

Another mother might have landed at a different conclusion that day in the kitchen, but for Gwen, 10-10-10 crystallized her priorities. Her decision ­didn’t mean she would jump for joy every time the baby cried; it ­didn’t mean that she would delight in the hours spent waiting for ice hockey practice to end. It simply meant she had made a values-driven choice that she could — and wanted to — live by.

The tough stuff
No wonder Gwen was smiling when she first tracked me down. Her ambivalence was gone — and in its place, the peace of mind that comes with intentionality. But for the sake of full disclosure, you need to know right here and now that every 10-10-10 process ­doesn’t end so neatly. Sometimes the solution you arrive at will be an outright surprise, as the process can surface values, agendas, fears, and dreams ­you’ve never confronted before, or it can send you down paths ­you’ve long avoided in order to keep your world under control. Some 10-10-10 solutions can even be deeply challenging, as they “require” you to come clean with others about what you truly believe and how you want to live. The truth is, transformation ­doesn’t always come easily.

About a year ago, I gave a speech about 10-10-10 on a college campus. Afterward, one student lingered, waiting to see me alone.

He was, it turned out, an aspiring entrepreneur from Romania named Razvan, who wanted to launch a mobile phone company back home. The problem, he quickly told me, was that his longtime girlfriend, a waitress waiting for him in Bucharest, wanted to launch it with him. “What happens when Mihaela makes a mistake with a contract or something? She’s not very tough when it comes to money; her family was all Communist,” he reported matter-of-factly. “Then I have to say, ‘Mihaela, ­we’re trying to make a profit here,’ and she starts yelling, ‘Profit, forget profit — what about ideals?’ And we have a fight, like always. You know what I mean?”

I got the picture, at least enough to get started. I gestured for Razvan to step closer, so we could conduct a 10-10-10 together about whether he should work with Mihaela on his new business venture.

In ten minutes, a “yes” answer was enormously appealing, Razvan said eagerly. Mihaela would calm down and, at least for a while, throw her best energies into the project. A “no” answer would cause, in Razvan’s words, “World War Three,” as Mihaela’s family and his own — they were close friends — were sure to get involved and lobby him to change his mind.

The ten-month picture was less mixed; it would be grim no matter which choice was made. If they worked together, Razvan said, he and Mihaela would likely be back to their quarreling. But apart, there would be misery too: “­We’ve been together for many years and there is love between us,” he reflected wistfully.

We turned to the ten-year picture, and right away Razvan grimaced as if he was seeing a photograph that disturbed him. If he asked Mihaela to join his venture, they would surely be married by then, an outcome guaranteeing, as he put it, “a life of daily battles.”

“Because your hopes and dreams are fundamentally different?” I asked.

“Because all we really have is history,” he replied. “And I know that’s not enough. We will spend our lives hurting each other.”

With that, Razvan’s 10-10-10 decision was made.

Was he happy? Of course not. Indeed, as we parted, I could see tears welling in his eyes. But I could also tell he was relieved in some measure, and resolved too, about taking control of his life and his future. Happiness, he seemed to know, awaited him. Sometimes, that is all 10-10-10 can promise.

From “10-10-10” by Suzy Welch. Copyright © 2009 by Suzy Welch. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. Learn more about Suzy and her book by visiting her Web site: