How To Question Your Way to The Right Decision

Cartesian Questions

“I think, therefore I am”. Rene Descartes dropped the mic with that one in 1637. Had his hometown named after him. A pretty strong result for the overthinkers and wonderers, in my book. Almost 400 years later, you can use another concept he gave his name to – Cartesian Questioning – to help you get unstuck in the face of any big life, career or relationship decision.

We’re all familiar with asking “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” – and not just because of the Dr Pepper adverts. We’re naturally cautious animals and have a keen eye for risks – which has enabled us to survive and thrive, but also tends to hold us back too. Extrapolate this to the sector of society we work with at Mightify, first responders whose profession is to spot and intercept risk, and the effect is multiplied. It’s a running joke that anyone who’s been in the police will have to choose seats in cafes where they can see the room and the door – but this just proves how hardwired that state of alert is.

When it comes to career change, going freelance, setting up a business and so on, this caution can be debilitating and can lead to a state of “analysis paralysis” – a mountain of “what if” scenarios that stop us ever taking the leap. There is never a right or perfect time to jump.

This is a tool we often use in our coaching to strip away the surface reticence and get into some cold, uncomfortable and brutally necessary thinking – which usually yields a whole lot of positive motivation too.

Here’s how it works. I suggest you take a whole page (or screen) and split it into quarters. In each segment, there is a question to ask yourself (or someone else) about the issue you’re facing. Try and make it a very clear topic or dilemma. These are your questions:

1. What would happen if you did X?

2. What would happen if you did not do X?

3. What would not happen if you did X?

4. What would not happen if you did not do X?

Confused? No need to be, it’s much more logical as you work through it that it might first seem. This is about looking at an issue from different perspectives and getting past your initial reaction to explore what’s in your subconscious as well as what’s on the surface. Most people find that they’ll easily come

up with an instant, simple and slightly defensive answer for each. That’s fine – but the real gold comes from digging a little deeper, so the key to this is to keep going, keep asking and follow the thread somewhere you might not immediately want to go. Make it a conversation founded on genuine curiosity and a willingness to lean into both positive and negative answers.

Let’s work through an example of this tool just to give it some colour. You may well come up with lots more points in each quarter than this, which is fine, the more information the better at this stage as we’re still considering every option and every eventuality. In late 2013 my own personal question was “should I leave the police?”

So, taking the questions in turn:

1. What would happen if I did leave the police?

The immediate answer for me was that I’d get my life back. In the most basic terms, I’d have control of my time and whereabouts, ownership of my days and maybe even the ability to attend weddings, Christmas and all the other things I’d missed. I’d have time and space to think, to decompress and to sleep. I might meet new people and begin a healthy relationship, reconnect with my social circle. All of that represented an attractive proposition. On the flip side, I’d have no source of income. I’d lose the job satisfaction and status of something I’d worked hard and been through a lot for. I’d have to contend with the locker room voices saying I was making a mistake, quitting, walking away and not completing the traditional service “deal”.

2. What would happen if I did not leave the police?

I’d never know what else was out there. I think that was the flame that refused to completely die, however weakly it flickered. The knowledge – or blind faith – that wherever else I went; it couldn’t be as miserable and crushing as where I was. It’s no exaggeration to say that not leaving would have led me at the least into serious negative mental health impacts if not an altogether more final decision. Becoming another number that generally isn’t even recorded by police forces (but more anger about that later). I didn’t hate my job, I didn’t hate all the people around me, not by a long way – but it was totally untenable.

3. What would not happen if I did leave the police?

The world would not end. Distant and unattainable though they may have seemed, I knew other jobs existed. I would not suddenly lose the bonds with the people I did (and still do) consider great friends. I would not lose the achievements of the preceding 5 years nor the life lessons and transferable skills

they had taught me. I would not feel so broken forever (this one is much easier to say several years on).

4. What would not happen if I did not leave the police?

This one was really all about that existential wondering (and wandering) I’d invested so many hours in. Not just in policing but in the years before as a student, working in a call centre, living and studying abroad – that sense of wanting more was back. It caused me a real internal conflict to leave something I truly believed in and wanted to thrive in – but the door of future growth and fulfilment was locked, bolted and chained in front of me. Trying to batter it down was only going to yield one winner, and it wouldn’t be me.

Give this a try and see what new perspectives you might discover. If it works for you, let us know what came up – or if it gives you that kick of motivation to get moving, we can help you with that too.

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