Overcoming the inertia of indecision

In many areas of endeavor, high certainty is a rare commodity. Of that I am quite certain ….

The stress that goes with coming to decisions can stop people cold, effectively freezing them, their families or entire organizations till one is confident enough to proceed. This angst does not occur in a vacuum; it is the result of past failures and disappointments, complete with the criticism and shame that accompany them. It’s no wonder people wallow in indecision.

But as my manager once quipped (and this is a favorite of mine): “If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything.” Thomas Edison, after all, had thousands of “nice tries” on the way to the incandescent light bulb. His story is really one of persistence, not indecision. He was committed to a goal.

I’m writing about those who can’t even get that far. The inertia that can governs people is a dangerous habit that stops lives cold at each and every crossroad.  Over time, it is more dangerous than the mistakes that are so feared.

So it’s vital for someone who’s prone to this to develop steps to avoid it – to actively, progressively and quickly make decisions. Here are some of those steps:

  1. Gather intel – It seems obvious, yet the fear of proceeding even forbids the first clear action to come to a decision – learn about the parameters, procedure and possible outcomes of the different options before you. This can involve reading, searching the internet and most effective: talking with parties who have been there before. How truly bad is it to fail?  How truly great to “succeed”? It’s the testimony of those who’ve been there that can go a long way to encourage the procrastinator.
  2. Use pilots – There is no rule that says you have to commit everything you have to one path or another. A limited trial is an excellent way to test the waters and see how a decision would work if you fully made it. Of course a woman can’t launch a pilot pregnancy, for example. But she can try making the adjustments a pregnancy and parenthood would entail (except for the gestation part) – like taking care of someone’s young child for a weekend.  Of course many decisions are not as final as having a child, but the commitment level should be high.
  3. Fail quickly and cheaply – One of the precepts of the Agile development process is extremely useful in making decisions. This differs from the pilot approach in that the investment can be much higher. But it is the same in the limited time of such a commitment. It is obviously preferable to have a disaster after a month than after two years. Another perspective to this is that a limited time sprint of a project is a vital part of decision making. The truth is, none of us really know what it is going to be like down a certain path until we do it.
  4. Learn – Gathering intel is a first part of this, but formal schooling – even seminars – and learning by doing (see Fail quickly and cheaply) should all contribute to the knowledge of the decision maker. It’s also vital that what is learned is not only tactical truth but strategic principle. A single failure or success should contribute to knowledge and not stand on its own.
  5. Don’t personalize failure or “there is no failure” – Put simply, you must fail. It’s required. What culture does to people who fail is call them failures. Clearly that is extremely destructive thinking if you let it in. So … don’t! Things that didn’t work out are arguably more valuable than things that did. That’s not a “rose colored glasses” statement, it’s data. There are no failures really, just lessons learned. One set of objectives was not achieved, but another set was. Make sure you record the life lesson objectives. You’ll need them later.

There’s no reason to freeze in your tracks when it comes to choosing paths. Usually it’s the shame of past failures that keeps people stuck. No matter what faith (or “none”) you are, I want to share what I do with shame, as demonstrated by Christ:

Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God:

Scorn shame – HATE it. Not the people spewing it, but hate its effect on you.

That is a whole other topic, but it’s important to recognize what’s eating at you during points of indecision. And take steps to get out.

The prison called “I can’t”

There are those reading this that don’t believe in God. And those who believe in God but are suspicious of anyone claiming a personal encounter or even communication with God. I acknowledge and grant you the right to believe what you will, but ask you to grant me the same. And to suspend your beliefs long enough to read this story because it might well be for you.

In the early 90s, God gave me a dream as I slept. I know it was God because of the nature of the dream and the communication afterwards.

It was an intense, vivid dream of a little boy. He was only 4 years old or so, just learning how to draw.

And he took all his best crayons, and with all the love and hope in his young heart, he drew a wonderful, beautiful picture of his house, his family and all the trees flowers all around. In the dream I wasn’t just watching him do this like someone looking over the shoulder of a child and saying “Isn’t that cute”.  No, I was feeling his emotions as he drew. And they were absolutely beautiful.

When he was done, he was so proud of it, and it was so much a part of his young creativity that he took it to his mother to show her.

He had no way of knowing, but it was bad timing and she was not in good health emotionally.

Out of her own pain and hurt, she took her son’s beautiful picture, ripped it up into little pieces and said “that’s a piece of garbage”

God let me enter his little heart to feel how it broke, absolutely devastated that something he thought was so beautiful could be cast off as ugly and shameful.

And I woke up in horror, devastated, and asked God – “Where is that boy now? You’ve GOT to tell me” Because it wasn’t just a dream. It was the story of someone’s life.

In my spirit, I heard God say “He’s in prison. A prison called “I can’t””

I told the dream to 2 groups of people shortly after that – at MCI Shirley to a group of inmates and at church. In both cases, multiple people came up later and said that little boy was them. If not verbatim, then thematically.

So I said 2 things to them:

  1. That drawing was VERY GOOD and you have vital gifts that you have put away in shame.
  2. You’ve been in a prison of lies but today you’re going free.


Buried in shame – and how to dig out

“You should be ashamed of yourself” -universal saying following bad behavior.

The statement is intended to do good. When we do something bad, apply the “busted” feeling – being ashamed. And correct the action and the thoughts leading up to it. Then, maybe, we won’t do it next time.

But if it’s applied – and received – more broadly than that, there’s trouble. It is misapplied to failure. And it is misapplied to our entire person. People become ashamed of who they are.

We learn – falsely – that there are things we can’t be and can’t do. Pursuing even things we (might) enjoy becomes a futile practice. Destined for failure and embarrassing exposure.

Here are some aspects of shame. The aim is that you can recognize it:

  • Lingering memories of abuse and degradation – Verbal, sexual, emotional, physical – dark feelings persist. When we were powerless and vulnerable, we were violated. By someone who we should have been trustworthy. We were exposed and harmed. Bullied.
  • Repeated instances or patterns – It didn’t just happen once but over and over. Perhaps with different people. Then we internalized and made it our fault and something we deserved. If we’re part of a shamed group (tribe) then collective history enforces shame.
  • Tenacious faith in shame’s lies – We don”t even know they are lies. We just accept our inferiority. We quickly disqualify ourselves from happiness, competence and esteem.
  • High sensitivity about our areas of shame – We don’t want to talk about those things. We certainly don’t want to do them.

Now, pride feeds on shame. Those who consider themselves better prey upon those who think themselves worse. Entire institutions thrive on shame. Shame makes for very productive, enslaved people. Productive? Yeah, we’ll get into that part below.

How to dig out of shame’s dung heap:

  1. Find it – It’s usually not hard to recognize the emotions. Though we can certainly be depressed without shame, it’s one of the signs. Look at what you avoid. Both situations and pursuits.
  2. Dig at it – Identify the patterns that got you there. This can be painful, but the pain already controls you. So do it.
  3. Forgive – Not often easy. But holding grudges is like drinking poison and waiting for someone else to die. Learn the reasons why your abuser did what s/he did. It helps to know. It’s never because s/he was so happy. Abuse reproduces. So forgive relentlessly.
  4. Recognize shame’s symptoms – They can be subtle. For instance I said that shamed people can be very productive. That’s because they try to work off their shame. No one will do more. No one can be as competent. It sounds like the opposite of shame. Until you realize that it’s only a coverup. You’re trying to escape shame through work and achievement. There are many trying to please their dead parents. To finally win the approval of someone who never gave it and never will.
  5. Learn the truth – You were lied to. So much and so often and so powerfully that you believe it. It’s a lie. You’re awesome. THAT’s the truth. God says so.
  6. Accept your limitations – Well, you’re not awesome at everything. Though it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are things you cannot do. Traits that aren’t yours. Talents you do not have. But don’t let others define your limitations. Do NOT quit what you love, instead ..
  7. Work hard to develop – It is so easy to give up. But that is the only thing that can truly defeat you. Potential never goes away. You just need practice. That means you fail and try again. This hard work is quite different from the coverup above. It’s redemptive. You’re working to create beauty. And you’re part of the beauty yourself.
  8. Stop comparing – It’s devastating to measure up against others. By all means, recognize and celebrate excellence. But even more important – know the uniqueness of your excellence. And you are always at some point of development. No matter what your age. The only person to compare yourself to is you – yesterday. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. Just stop comparing.

I need to share one of my favorite verses from the Psalms. It applies to much more than shame. But it puts God squarely on my side in the battle.

Psalm 3:3 But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.