Trey Gowdy On How To Decide To Make Better Decisions


Before this day is out, how many decisions do you expect to make? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

If you count decisions involving which pair of socks to wear, whether to start your day with breakfast eggs or yogurt, or choices involving countless other daily routines, the number of decisions you make today is virtually impossible to calculate.

But what about decisions that have a significant impact on your life? Do you hope or expect to make any of those today?

It’s been said that life is a chess match. Every decision you make has a consequence to it.

It’s also been said that good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. (We might add that when we operate smartly, experience also comes from good decisions.)

Trey Gowdy has a lot of interesting—and helpful—things to say about decision making.

If you don’t recognize the name, there’s a good chance you’d recognize the face. After serving several years as a federal prosecutor, Gowdy was elected to the U.S. Congress where he served for several terms. His smart and persistent questioning of House committee witnesses earned a lot of airtime on C-SPAN and cable news channels. Today he puts his analytical and questioning skills to good use as host of “Sunday Night in America” on the Fox News Network.

So, what does Gowdy have to say about decision making? A lot. And it’s both thought-provoking and instructive, even for people who think they’re already pretty savvy on the subject. Gowdy’s new book is Start, Stay, or Leave: The Art of Decision Making.

Reading this book is like chatting with a trusted friend across your kitchen table. His advice on decision making—some of it surprising, some of it funny, all of it wise and user-friendly—will make you wish you’d had this book a few thousand decisions ago.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You write about three paradigms of decision-makers: Pyramid, Ladder, Mirror. Tell us about those.

Trey Gowdy: The pyramid model lures us into thinking success or significance occurs if we have unique accomplishments or somehow distinguish ourselves from others by way of education or employment or some other marker of perceived merit. It does not accept our uniqueness ab initio. It must be earned by doing or having what others do not.

The ladder is that traditional paradigm wherein we let others scale or measure success for us. We are told that being president or CEO is best even if our relative skill sets are not suited for either. We are told that running for “higher” office is best because someone said it was “higher.” It’s an external calibration of significance rather than an internally driven one.

The mirror model is just you and whoever is closest enough to you to fit in the reflection of a mirror. How do you define success? What is your definition of significance? What do you prioritize? Have you met your own expectations? Have you conducted yourself honorably even if the accolades did not follow? Is there peace in what you see rather than what you’ve been called?

Duncan: When people are contemplating an important decision, you suggest they ask themselves, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Why that particular question?

Gowdy: That’s my paradigm because I am natively pessimistic. I get the bad out of the way first. I’m also driven by failure aversion rather than success pursuit. It forces you to confront whatever you fear most. Do you fear ridicule, judged a failure, losing? Who has earned the right to assign those labels to you? I construct a safety net by which I can meet basic needs in life regardless of whether the law firm fails, the election is lost, the house loses value, or the investment plummets. Mitigating the “worst” allows me to move on to other variables.

Duncan: You’re a big proponent of logic-centered decision-making, but you also appreciate the value that intuition and emotions play in our lives. When making an important decision, how can a person be sure to employ an appropriate balance of those three elements?

Gowdy: It’s admittedly hard and requires significant self-examination. If we’re objective about it, we should know our weaknesses. Do we overthink? Under feel? Not trust our instincts enough? Decisions made on emotion are what I saw when I was a prosecutor. Those decisions usually resulted in prison sentences. Emotion should not carry the day. Logic should drive the car, but life is boring with no music (emotion).

Passion with no logic is unreliable. Intuition is a byproduct of life experience and education and may or may not be reliable.

Our decisions should get us closer to our desired closing argument in life. The speed with which we travel and the beauty of the trip won’t be determined by logic alone.

Apportioning judgment, reason and feeling is the challenge. Knowing which you lean more heavily on can help you construct a more fulsome paradigm.

Duncan: You say that as people weigh the decision to stay in their current career position, they must allow emotions and logic to temper their dreams—though never to extinguish them. Can you give us an example?

Gowdy: I studied for the South Carolina Bar Exam in 1989 with a classmate named Phillip. He was small in stature and would crouch in front of the television nearly every night watching a Major League baseball game. Catcher’s mitt on his left hand gently tossing a baseball into the mitt with his right. He was never going to be a professional baseball player. He didn’t even play baseball in high school, but he loved the game and dreamed about the what if. Fate dealt him the cards to be an attorney, but fate could not stop him from dreaming and that dream came alive for a couple of hours each night.

Even today I have (golfing) friends just north of 50 who are, in their dreams, one “magic move” or one lesson away from the Champions Tour. Never mind that they’ve not finished in the top 10 of our Club Championship. They pound balls and experiment with equipment because of this dream to play professional golf.

Dreams are, by nature, often illogical—but the slight prospect for success does not extinguish them.

I dreamed of being a federal judge. It motivated, drove, and encouraged me for what might possibly come. And when the chance did come … I took a pass. The dream was more alluring than reality. Dreams fuel our lives so long as they do not get confused with reality.

Duncan: “Means, motive, and opportunity” is a phrase that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a crime show. What role do those three factors play in decision-making?

Gowdy: It’s a simple experiment, but rarely engaged in.

What are you good at? Do you enjoy what you’re good at? Is there something you wish you were good at but are not currently? Can you through time, training, or education become good at it? If you do not enjoy something you are good at, are you willing to try to find some enjoyment in it?

We’ve seen folks who want to be great leaders, but they lack the talent, the temperament, or the experience (or perhaps all three). Opportunity does not make up for lack of means. We’ve seen people who would be perfect at something, but they have no desire. My generation was encouraged to do it anyway, as if squandering some talent was an affront to God.

My wife is a talented singer, with a magnetic personality. She hates being the center of attention. All the talent in the world cannot change the condition of what you desire. It’s okay to be good at something and still not do it.

Conversely, I served with prosecutors who thought they were Perry Mason but were not good at all. Could they become good? Perhaps. Did they have the self-awareness to know that motive alone is no substitute for a lack of means?

I served with people who wanted to be Speaker of the House. The desire was there. The opportunity was present, but is that really what you’re good at or can become good at?

Opportunity is easiest to discern. Motive or desire can be tricky but can be ascertained. It’s the means where we often lack objectivity. Are we really good, or well equipped, or talented enough? What we lack in talent, can it be made up for with effort? How good is your self-awareness?

Duncan: You advise people not to be afraid to explore and fail and audition, because that’s how they can discover what they are truly capable of. Please give us an example.

Gowdy: I have a dozen friends who have or are contemplating running for president. There have been slightly over four dozen men who have been president out of several hundred million who have been constitutionally qualified. Running and losing is not failure. Losing and failing are different. Chances are none will ever be president, but that cannot and does not mean their lives weren’t successful. Success comes from venturing.

Four historical figures I admire “lost” according to some standard of score keeping. Bonhoeffer. King was assassinated. Jesus lost a voice vote to Barabbas. Lincoln suffered losses before ultimately losing his life. Losing and failing are different and you should define those terms for your own life.

Duncan: In the context of decision-making, what can we learn from the Old Testament prophet Nathan?

Gowdy: We all need a Nathan. Nathan was an advisor to King David. He spoke “truth to power” before it became a popular phrase.

Nathan confronted David with his crime, with his murderous behavior. Nathan did it artfully, in a way in which David pronounced his own punishment before realizing he himself was on trial.

We need people to tell us when we are wrong before we make decisions or act. Do we encourage candor among our advisors and peers? Do we encourage constructive feedback? Who do we surround ourselves with or accept counsel from?

Duncan: What traits should people look for in the “Nathans” in their lives?

Gowdy: We need people who give us the best counsel for the fact pattern at issue. We don’t need “yes” people who tell us what they think we want to hear. We need people who tell us what we need to hear. They need to be persuasive. Some people like bluntness, others do not. My mantra is we all need one blunt friend but probably not any more than one. We don’t need people who invent problems, rather those who see them.

Seek those who give you good, reliable, evidence-based information, who can subrogate their interest for yours, who confess areas of information deficit they may have.

I advocate for a smaller group of advisors so long as there is quality in the group. I got a call one afternoon asking if I could attend a birthday dinner for the Speaker of the House. Birthday dinners were usually code for fundraisers with hundreds of people!

I said “yes, but not for long.” I never enjoyed those kinds of events. The address for the celebration came and immediately it looked wrong. The party was in the Capitol where fundraising is not allowed, and the room referenced was tiny. I double checked but the answer was “yes, the address is correct.”

When I arrived there was a single table with four seats. The meal was in a box. The Speaker of the House, the third in line for the presidency, one of the most powerful people in Washington was having his birthday dinner with three people. It wasn’t about fundraising. It was about advice and friendship. He didn’t need more money for his re-election. What he wanted and needed was the counsel of three friends.

Who would be your three? Who would pick you as one of his or her three? What are you looking for in an advisor or confidante? Do you provide that same advice and wisdom to others?

Duncan: Some jobs, you point out, have a “shelf life.” What questions can people ask themselves as they assess their current career situations?

Gowdy: Do you dread going to work? Is there anything left to accomplish or aspire to? Is your job the means by which you fund and fuel other passions unrelated to work? There’s nothing wrong with having a job as a means of enjoying other aspects of your life. But if your vocation is closely aligned with what you want to be remembered for, you should ask: is what you’re getting from the job worth what it’s costing you?

I loved being a prosecutor. And yet the cost of doing that job became too much. What does it profit a man to gain the world (or a good, fulfilling job) and lose his soul?

Are you being challenged? Are there avenues for movement either linearly or upwardly? Are you valued by your teammates? Do you have other options? Are you running from something or toward something? Are you trying to change your environment when what you really want to change is yourself?

Duncan: When someone is considering leaving a career position, what questions do you recommend they ask themselves?

Gowdy: Why and what will be different? Are you leaving the job, or the people with whom you do the job? Have you stayed too long? Are you dissatisfied with yourself, or is it really the job? Is the toll too high in other areas of life? The seminal question to always ask is whether a decision gets you closer to your desired closing argument in life. How does this move accomplish that?

I’d rather leave a minute too soon than a minute too late. I advise my friends that it’s hard to miss someone who never leaves. We like change but what is really changing? Too often I see folks who really do want a change but what they are trying to change is themselves or life at home or something else with the job just being a proxy.

Duncan: What question do you wish I had asked, but didn’t … and how would you respond?

Gowdy: I have more experience asking questions than I do answering them, so I’ll end with some questions:

How do you define success and significance in your own life?

Who defines failure for your life?

Can you distinguish a loss from a failure?

When you reflect on your life, what do you want to see or hear?

Do you have a workable, repeatable decision making paradigm?

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