I grabbed my design file, rolled up the plan sheet, and ran up the stairs. I was fresh out of Rose and barely twenty-two. Walking into the big office, my heart raced. There was my boss, Jim, an imposing man who was a couple of years younger than Dad. Like Dad, Jim was a farm raised Purdue grad. Throughout the go-go 60’s, he had designed rural water systems. Thousands of folks in southern Indiana now have ‘city water’ thanks to Jim. Along the way, he earned a reputation for getting things done, for being a hard driver. Although he could be a task master, he was respected by his employees and loved by his clients.
“Here’s the Hazelton Report,” I said, laying the file on his desk. It was my first preliminary report, and I nervously wanted to find out how I’d done. Without looking at it, he fixed me with his steely gaze.
“Good, tell me about it,” he asked. I was caught unprepared; I had expected to turn it in and come back later for his comments. Swallowing hard, I proceeded to explain. The small town of Hazelton had a water treatment problem; my report identified three alternatives that would solve it. Confident that I had done a brilliant job, I concluded my presentation and waited. Jim nodded, leaned back in his chair, and stared at me for a moment.
“Which Alternative should they build?” he asked.
“I-I-I’m not real sure, but I suppose Alternate A,” I stammered.
“Then say that. Hazelton hired us to solve their problem. Make a decision.”
That was the most important skill Jim taught – to be decisive.
Engineers are perceived to be problem solvers so you would think that decision making would come naturally. After all, that is what engineers do – we decide how to build things. Ironically, engineers can be indecisive. We over think things; we fiddle, we tweak, we obsess. In short, we are perfectionists – a great trait for an inventor, but a lousy one for a businessman.
I took a FORTRAN class eons ago. Way- way back; back in the days of punch cards. Professor Moench, who taught the class, was a long time fixture at Rose and reminded me of a cross between my grandfather and Col Sanders. Well, at least he had the goatee. I remember his lecture on ‘do loops.’ These innocuous statements were vital to our programming; however, they were the bane of the computer staff. I remember Dr. Moench’s warning – without an exit, our program would be caught in the loop, where it would cycle endlessly, burning valuable computing time. Ultimately our work would be unceremoniously dumped by the computer center staff.
I have seen great engineers trapped in the ‘do loop’ of perfection, endlessly fiddling and tweaking their design, burning precious design dollars, and blowing important deadlines.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
To live is to make decisions; never a day goes by without a myriad of choices. Some are mundane, Coke or Pepsi, coffee or tea, large or small, red or blue. Others carry more weight, stay or go, fight or flight, right or wrong, believe or disbelieve. We are forever making choices, and in so doing create the persons we are.
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Free will is God’s gift to man. It is both a blessing and a curse. It is what defines us, elevates us, and in the end condemns us.
We are a binary species, our brains composed of neurons that either fire or don’t fire. Is it any wonder that our greatest invention is the computer? A box containing a collection of micro switches -switches that are either open or closed, either a 1 or a 0.
“Any sufficiently crisp question can be answered by a single binary digit-0 or 1, yes or no.” – Carl Sagan
Yes or no? True or false? Heads or tails? The odds are 50/50. Could it be any easier?
I suppose the difficulty lies not in the answer, but in formulating the question itself, teasing it out of the baggage of our lives. Perhaps that is where we lock up, paralyzed by the magnitude of the decisions we must make. We fear to make a wrong choice, but choose we must – for even failing to decide is a choice.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
A long time ago, in a Mayberry far, far away, Goober decided to buy the gas station. Having made the purchase, the new executive became paralyzed with indecision, afraid to make a mistake. Locked into the cycle of indecision his business spiraled out of control. Luckily, by the end of the episode, Goober realized his error and began to make his own decisions, to trust in himself. Like Goober, we must be honest with ourselves. Yes, we will occasionally make the wrong choice, however, not making a decision can often be much worse.
“How can I be decisive?” you ask.
I have no magic bullet, no easy answer. All you can do is gather the best information available, clinically evaluate the pros and cons, factor in your sense of right and wrong, and then do that which you think is best.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston S. Churchill
Once you make the decision, forge on. There will be ample time for midcourse corrections later.
Read about Olivia’s Story: Protector of the Realm