Before You Do
one Before You Take the First Step—Reflect, Discern
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”
I can trace every success or failure in my life back to something I did or didn’t decide effectively. Whether in the course of developing relationships, doing business, selecting investments, or accepting invitations, I’ve found a direct correlation between my location on life’s highway and my decisions to turn, exit, stop, or start. Extenuating circumstances beyond my control were always involved, yet more times than not, I was a victim or victor of my own making, achieving or failing because I did or did not put in place the necessary prerequisites to accomplish my desired goals. Now, to be sure, I am not a self-flagellating individual who uses this premise to blame and belittle myself for past decisions and their consequences. No, I am saying that my decisions set the course of my life.
I have now been married to the same woman, the mother of my children, for over twenty-five years. That relationship decision has set the climate of my life much like a thermostat on a heating system sets the temperature in a room. In keeping with this concept, persons in a room may not know that the temperature is affected by the smallest incremental movement of a drop of mercury in a device at an unnoticed location. In spite of its invisibility to the inhabitants of the room it still affects the comfort level of everyone present. Similarly, my key relationship decision, and many other decisions I have made, affect me and all those around me. Good results are a direct reflection of my ability to think through, discern correctly, and move succinctly from the trajectory of my last decision.
WE ALL HAVE OUR OWN UNIQUE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS
Sometimes we have to make a small decision such as choosing a new hair style or whether to paint the bedroom sky blue or periwinkle. Other times decisions are larger, such as whether or not to move to a new city for a better job, or to keep an old one. We each have our own style and ways to approach the decision-making process. Some of us tend to know exactly what we want. We make up our minds quickly and act immediately. Others prefer to deliberate for a long time, weighing all the angles and options before deciding what to do.
Good decision making in relationships, business, anything, results from a process of reflection—discernment—decision. This truth recently emerged in a new light for me. I have had the same COO in my for-profit company for nearly ten years. It was interesting to me to note an observation he made about me. Often people who work with you notice things about you that you have not realized about yourself.
He advised some business constituents that it was unwise to approach me with a presentation that was long and laborious. He had noticed what I jokingly refer to as my ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), that my attention wearied quickly during presentations like those that included the history of a company and who the founder married in 1802. I really would rather be spared the guillotine of losing my head in the details that are largely irrelevant to what I need to decide. In other words, cut to the chase, answer my questions, and leave me to my own thoughts.
He also shared with them that the hardest part of doing business with me was the millions of questions I ask in the name of doing due diligence. I smiled at my COO’s remarks and thought they were an accurate depiction of my inward reality. Even my staff members on the not-for-profit side of my organization have learned to come to me expecting multiple questions and to be armed with the answers before setting the meeting.
I do not apologize for this proclivity; I believe that good leaders anticipate tough questions and have at their disposal the answers that predict issues, struggles, and maladies that are inherent in the normal processes of doing business.
Sound decisions are based on great information, so the more significant the question, the more due diligence I require. I believe important decisions demand stewardship. If we are to be good stewards of great opportunities, we must show respect for those opportunities by the level of diligence to which we prepare for the next move.
Relationship decisions are among the most opportune choices in your life, and I remind you that no others leave as many footprints alongside your own on life’s journey as those you make to unite yourself with another person emotionally, sexually, spiritually.
Several years ago, my wife and I purchased a new home. We did so after selling our previous home and nearly doubling our initial expenditure for it. I searched ardently through the better neighborhoods in our city trying to find a home that would yield a similar return in the future should we decide to sell. I had found a good house in a great neighborhood and began to discuss with my friends and family the possibility of purchasing it. To my surprise, one of my friends advised me against getting the house. He said, “I know you so well that I can hear your uncertainty in how you explained the value of the proposed home. You seem as though you are trying to convince yourself that the deal is a good one. In other words, thou dost protest too loudly.”
My friend seemed to know that I wasn’t totally happy with the decision to buy that house. It was a great deal, the house would sell easily later, and would no doubt yield a return. The problem was that I didn’t really like the house. I liked the deal—but not the house!
After this observation, I had to reflect. My goal of getting a house with curb appeal—that was marketable for resale—was not equally important as getting a house that I liked. Ultimately, I decided that my enjoyment of the house was a significant consideration that I had minimized.
Friends, many times we make poor decisions because we have decided what success looks like. Due diligence must include a heart check. Is the goal good looks or good character? Wealth or happiness? Safety or excitement? Is the goal a matter of marrying someone who looks good on paper or looks good in person? Is the goal to find a person who is economically sound or emotionally stable? Yes, you are right. It is possible to have both. But neither is possible if you don’t decide that these are the goals. What does success look like to you, what comprises a successful relationship to you?
After looking at over twenty-eight homes all across the metroplex, I made a choice. By the time I was ready to choose, I had examined the return rate on my investment, the likelihood of foreclosure from my loan, a feasibility study that looked at fair market value (FMV), and comparable properties similar to my investment. The difference this time was that I also factored in the importance of liking what I was going to spend a good number of years paying for.
You may not be able to imagine buying a home without this vital consideration. In fact, some people make how they feel about their home, how much they like their home, their number one criterion for its purchase. They don’t consider the kind of neighborhood it’s in, its potential resale value, or where the market for homes in their metro area will be in five years. They only know that it has a great view, new appliances, and feels bright and cheery. Maybe you are less inclined to focus on the business of real estate and have little regard to the profitability of a house. Perhaps you gravitate by nature to the cosmetics of the house and your ability to enjoy it and decorate it. I realize that there are many buyers who are more interested in the feng shui of a house, the convenience of a functional kitchen, and the nearness to schools, and who never consider the resale value.
Both sets of factors—your head and your heart—must come into the equation in making this or any significant decision. You must consider both the hard data as well as the intangible internals.
So with both sets of data in mind, I finally bought a beautiful family estate on some extensive farm land! Farm land here is a good buy, and the house was all my rather large family would need as we grow into grandchildren and in-laws. My new property, with its extensive acreage, provides a home for bobcats, coyotes, and a few hungry Angus cows. Every morning when I wake up to the sound of squirrels playing in the tree outside my window and rabbits scurrying across the grounds, I know that the value of my home is not just the appraisal. It also includes the happiness for which there is no price tag. This reminds me of the MasterCard commercial in which the price of numerous items are listed followed by the value of the total experience, “priceless.”
SMALL DECISIONS VS. LARGE, FINANCIAL DECISIONS
There is certainly a difference between making small daily decisions such as what to wear or what to order at dinner versus making a larger decision that will have greater consequences in your life. Large decisions, like making a major purchase such as buying a house, can have ramifications for your financial health for years to come. Moving to a new town or community could affect your relationships with your family and friends and could impact your kids, if you have them, for the rest of their lives.
You are also going to have to make decisions about relationships in your life. Considerations such as whether to enter into one, get out of one, or change the status of a relationship are decisions you’ll have to make throughout your life. And those choices are not as easy as the prevalent Hollywood romantic movies today would lead you to believe. In the movies, things typically turn out happily ever after.
This is not to say that won’t be the case for you. There is nothing more gratifying than a relationship with someone you love and trust, with whom you can share your innermost thoughts and feelings. Having a partner to rely on, to have your back through life’s ups and downs, is one of God’s greatest gifts. But choosing that person, whether it is in a friendship or a love relationship, is a decision. And because life isn’t like it is in the movies, always romantic and easy with a happy ending, you have to make that decision carefully.
Deciding to enter into a committed relationship such as a marriage is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. “Til death do us part” is serious. When the tingly, euphoric feelings of new love wear off—and they eventually do—you have to know who you are and who your potential mate is. Knowing things such as what kind of person they are, their character, their life goals, their moral and spiritual beliefs, whether or not they are emotionally stable and available, any health issues they might have, are all important considerations that we don’t often see discussed in the movies, that aren’t considered very romantic, but that are in fact a very real part of life, and are issues that can wreak havoc on a relationship if not considered.
Spenders marry savers, risk-takers marry conservative investors, and it’s often not until after the wedding that people discover their sweetheart is in thousands of dollars of debt. And in many states, once you marry someone, their debt is your debt! Yet, while couples spend countless hours talking about china patterns, whether they should seat Uncle Bob next to Aunt Winnie at the reception, and whose parents they’ll spend the holidays with, money is something few couples talk about before they head down the aisle. Yet, the number one reason couples give for divorce? Financial disagreements.
The Cost of Priceless Decisions
Too often we overlook these priceless variables in our decision making. In Luke 14:28, we’re told that no one desiring to build a tower will do so without first counting up the cost to see if they have enough to finish it. Counting the cost is very important; however, it is not enough to count the cost solely for the purpose of insuring that you have enough to finish. You must count more than economic costs. While most things that make money cost money, dreams and goals often involve more than monetary expenditures. Many line budget line-items do not add to the bottom line but are priceless considerations in the process of decision making. You will never enjoy the thrill of a priceless experience until the intangible items between the lines are counted in the cost.
If you want to make priceless decisions, be sure you have accounted for the intrinsic value of incalculable expense and return. I cannot tell you what it is worth to watch the squirrels play in my backyard. I know that they will not affect the appraised value of the property, but they definitely contribute to my satisfied smile as I drink my coffee in the morning and watch them dance.
My point is that whether you are a very practical pragmatist, like me, or an emotional idealist, if you do not weigh in on the sum total of what you want, you will never achieve your dreams. Dream deeply. Examine your head and discern what is in your heart. It will help the actual dream to be realized without the nightmare that comes from making a decision that is not well thought out and balanced.
Another example further illustrates the significance of preparation and deliberation like no other: parenting. While we will explore this topic further in chapter 14, consider, for now, the multitude of decisions confronting you when faced with the prospect of parenthood. When you are expecting a child for the first time, you must prepare yourself, your household, and the lives of those around you to be forever changed by the new life you are about to birth into this world.
Foremost, expectant mothers must take responsibility for their own health in order to insure the health of the growing child inside them. They must make sure that they get proper nutrition, including vitamins, protein, and folic acid, all of which have proven vitally important to the proper development of the baby in utero. Mothers-to-be must get proper rest and exercise, refrain from smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking any other substances that would injure or impair the precious cargo within them.
Beyond the mother’s health, numerous other considerations must be addressed. Has the household been babyproofed? Locks and safety guards must secure the potentially dangerous contents of drawers, cabinets, and closets. Hard surfaces and sharp edges must be removed from baby’s path or padded enough to prevent hard knocks. Gates must contain baby’s curiosity as she learns to crawl and toddle from room to room.
You must also consider the daily needs of your new little bundle of joy. Will you use formula or breastfeed or both? Do you have the necessary paraphernalia—changing table, diapers, diaperrash ointment, bassinet, clothes, booties, blankets, and heaven forbid you forget the power of the pacifier!
Beyond the security and suitability of the environment, there are larger concerns about your child’s well-being that must be addressed. How far is the pediatrician’s office? The hospital? To what school will you send your child? Many private and now even some public schools have waiting lists that span several years before they have an opening. What about higher education? Have you established a college fund for your child or at least initiated some type of savings plan for his or her future?
Parenthood requires planning. God provides the very first and best example of the ultimate parent, preparing for new arrivals. Our Creator did not make Adam and Eve first and then build the world around them. No, the heavens and the earth, the sky and sea, the animals and plants, and all that we have in our world was created first. Then on the sixth day God created humans in the image of the divine. God had already prepared a place and insured that they would have provisions.
Similarly, in order to be responsible parents, we must prepare our world for the new creation God allows us to bring into this world through the miracle of birth. The demands of parenting are challenging enough. Without adequate planning, preparation, and deliberate changes in anticipation of your baby’s arrival, you will be overwhelmed by the process, left to survive by default, providing poorly for your child and neglecting your own needs. Parenthood must be a planned endeavor if it is to produce a healthy and happy child.
Too often we see young ladies who view having children as a means to an end. Children are not bargaining chips played in Vegas to secure a man or his attention. Nor are they the faddish craze that I see in Hollywood where it is now chic and in vogue to have a child without a family to surround it with love. Friends, each life is precious and important, and the statistics show that children need to be reared in a stable environment with loving parents who want them, nurture them, and are ready for the lifelong task of parenting them.
I don’t say this to make anyone feel bad who has had a child in less than ideal circumstances. I understand that we are human and anyone can make a mistake. And I know countless people who, against all odds, have made it work in spite of the stats that show it is a perilous choice. But why put yourself knowingly and willingly in an uphill race with a broken tennis shoe just to prove you are able to beat the odds? Especially when a little planning and patience would avoid compromising your life and the well-being of a child, conceived prematurely, left with less-than-ideal advantages, destined to spend his or her life trying to overcome obstacles that were out of his or her control? Life is hard enough when the stage is set and the players are in place!
Life is filled with challenges, but baby momma drama is far worse than you might imagine. It has been the source of many people’s pain for years. We must begin to teach our daughters and our sons that actions cause reactions. The consequences of teenage pregnancies and unwed pregnancies at any age can be intense and detrimental to all involved.
When I was growing up, people who made mistakes found themselves in such compromised situations. But today, we see too many young girls listening to the titillating lyrics of songs suggesting that having a man’s baby is like buying him a tie. Who would have thought that the time would come that a young girl would walk up to a guy and tell him, “I want to have your baby!” This is ridiculous!
Neither hip-hop nor R and B songs tell you the truth—that babies grow up, ask questions, shed tears, and many times start searching for the missing part of their identity. The family secrets are cumbersome and often lead to bouts of depression and a lifetime battle with low self-esteem.
I am glad to say that such mistakes are not terminal and regret doesn’t signal the end of the world. Many people have, in spite of such adversities, become productive contributors to society and have made countless strides for the betterment of all.
However, more times than not, such difficulties require the whole family working to tip the scales and give the innocent child a better chance of success. I confess I have had this situation in my own family and will discuss that in more detail later.
But I earnestly warn you that the stats on prisons, suicides, and drug abuse show that the numbers go up when morals break down and the child comes from a single-parent home! For the sake of all the grandparents who are on fixed incomes and walkers and who are trying to keep up with grandbabies on Big Wheels. For the sake of grandmothers who are trying to find a ride to the school for a conference instead of tending to the garden in their backyards, let’s stop the madness.
One wrong decision can sentence your whole family to a lifetime of homework and heartbreak. It could all be avoided by just waiting a little while longer to do things right! If you are not ready to lead another life for the next thirty years or so, slow down. Babies who have babies lose a lot of important experiences and often are faced with the too-much-too-fast syndromes that leave our communities on life support and our marriages on respirators!
WE ALL HAVE REGRETS
We all have regrets. It’s a part of life’s learning process. But as we get older and progress through life, hopefully, we learn to stop and recognize situations that feel familiar, where if we go on, we might regret our actions or something we’ve said. Then, when presented with a similar situation we choose to behave differently. You’ve heard the saying “The definition of lunacy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.” The same holds true for regrets.
Each of us can think back over our life and point to a few regrets. Perhaps there was a phone call you should have made to apologize to a friend whose feelings you hurt. But by not doing so, the friendship ended and now you regret it. Or maybe you lied to your last partner about something you did, they found out, and left you saying they could never trust you again. You realize you hurt them badly and now you wish you had done things differently.
It is important to make peace with our regrets by taking ownership of what we did, apologize where necessary, and then work to put an end to repeating the same mistakes again. Dr. Maya Angelou said something very profound about looking back over our mistakes: “When you know better, you do better.”
We All Have Needs
God included companionship in human creation. It is as vital a need as food and water. It is more than a want and is for many people such an absolute need that they often make rash and irrational decisions. They are more horrified with being alone than they are with being unhappy.
It is impossible to make good decisions when the decision is rooted in the fear of being alone or the fear of being rejected. Worse, still, is the embarrassment that many of us feel that stops us from admitting our need to have someone share our lives with us. Lately our society has lost its compassion for those who express that need. It seems far more fashionable to act as if we don’t need anyone. But while this may get you a good amen at the water cooler in the office, in reality, it doesn’t reflect real facts.
We were created with a need for socialization. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling that need. The problem begins when the need has you. Many people today are compulsive when it comes to attracting attention to themselves in order to fulfill their needs, often by someone who doesn’t really fit who they are or where they are going. When you ignore warnings and compromise your principles, it leaves scars that may not ever fully disappear.
Society’s latest craze of detachment and denial of any need for others is not a good goal. And you and I should avoid the tendency to demoralize people just because they want love and socialization in their lives. Many who do admit to being lonely or wanting to be loved are met with stern words and harsh rebuke and told to change their way of thinking. Loving someone is not weak. We must began accepting ourselves for having that need.
You may then go even further by acknowledging that you are someone who flourishes when you are in social environments. Others need a person to support them and, if they have that person, this is all they require. Many people would like a support group that affirms them and gives them a sense of belonging. Either way, it is not wrong to have the need. Most of us get a degree of gratification when we are contributing to someone else’s well-being, and when that effort is appreciated, we feel warm and affirmed. It is not wrong to need either one. It is important to know thyself!
The first step in making life-changing decisions, even the most personal and emotional ones, without regret is research. Research fuels your decisions by yielding the information on which you can base a sound decision. This is similar to a court case in which the lawyer’s job is to present the evidence on which the jury will reach a verdict and the judge will hand down a decision. The case is no stronger than the evidence that is gathered. The strategy for the trial is formulated on the evidence.
In choosing relationships, make yourself a hard jury, one that is not easily convinced and that requires concrete information before reaching a verdict. The decision rendered by your verdict may alter the quality of your life. It is better to lengthen the deliberation process and insure that the decision is appropriate than to reach a hasty conclusion that traumatizes all those involved.
To those of us who often procrastinate on the decision because we feel intimidated by lack of education or any area of weakness, I would relieve you with this statement: It is not how much you know that arms you with the tools of great decision making, but rather how much you ask. Ask questions. The most intellectual people I’ve ever met were people who asked questions of science, art, religion—questions that most others took for granted. You can never know more than you are willing to ask.
A friend of mine who is a college professor tells me that usually his brightest students ask the most questions. In fact, he tells his pupils on the first day of class that there are no stupid questions in his classroom. He works hard to create a safe environment for inquiry, due diligence, reflection, and problem solving. The smart ones ask question after question and end up challenging and educating the teacher. What we often characterize as the “terrible twos” when a toddler runs behind a mother asking, “Why, why, why?” is nothing more than the child’s active mind accelerating at a remarkable rate, accumulating and categorizing the received data based on the questions that she dares to ask.
Knowing who you are and what you want is vital to participating in a successful relationship. While it seems counterintuitive to focus on who you are versus on who the two of you are as a couple, the whole is only as strong as the parts. This is especially true for women. Women have made tremendous gains in our society. After all, it’s not uncommon for a women to be a CEO, a race car driver, or even a presidential candidate. Yet our society, advertising, TV shows, and popular books and magazines still suggest that a woman who is accommodating and demure is far more acceptable and desirable than one who speaks her mind and asks for what she wants.
Truly successful and mutually beneficial relationships are based on each party being truthful and up front about their real wants, desires, and feelings. While certainly as a couple you must make decisions together, decisions about who you are as a person and what you want your life to be are yours alone to make. Allowing someone else—a relationship partner, a friend, a parent, or anyone else—to make decisions for you is a mistake. When you let someone else decide who you are and what you want, you give away the power that God gave to you.
And doing nothing is not making a decision. Sitting back and pretending not to see a situation for what it is or procrastinating about what to do until something happens where you have no choice but to go one way or another is just as bad as letting others make decisions for you. It’s passive and in the end won’t likely serve you very well. Sometimes circumstances are what they are, but you always have the choice to decide who you want to be within them.
We must never attempt to silence that toddler within each of us that continues to question our adult surroundings and selections. That inquisitive process often leads me to consider factors I had never before considered. With my real estate purchase, I had taken a crash course in real estate—asking questions about those twenty-odd houses. I came to understand the laws of zoning and planning in our city. I knew a little more about architectural design. Terms like “finish out” were now part of my vocabulary. “Fair market value” and “comparables” were now in my vocabulary because I kept asking, “Why?” before I made a decision to buy a home that would leave me with a note for the next twenty years.
If you are to make decisions that you will never regret, then you must be willing to think through all the criteria—professional and personal, scientific and subjective, data driven and self-satisfying. Much of the anxiety and later regret that come from the weight of your decisions can be alleviated or avoided altogether if you assemble all your information—that which is clearly consequential as well as that which may seem inconsequential—before you do.