You think you have to make stressful, high-stakes decisions for your work? Just imagine what it's like to have to make the call to send young soldiers into harm's way or weigh bailing out bankers who deserve a jail sentence more than a rescue boat against tanking the economy?

How on earth could any mere mortal make such impossibly tough decisions? There are only five Americans in the world who can speak to that, and one of them just opened up.

Speaking at a gathering of tech workers, former President Barack Obama spoke in detail about how he handled the crushing pressure of presidential decision-making. Every call was horrible -- "If it was an easily solvable problem, or even a modestly difficult but solvable problem, it would not reach me, because, by definition, somebody else would have solved it," he recalled -- but he figured out a constructive approach to thinking through some of the world's most intractable problems.

1. Swap certainty for probabilities.

Psychologist David Dunning, of Dunning-Kruger effect fame, is known for studying stupidity, but through the power of contrast his work also illuminates how smart people think. Dumb people, he recently opined, see the world in black and white. Smart people think in probabilities.

"Not 'Will X or Y occur?' but 'What is the chance of X or Y occurring -- 10, 50, 80 percent?'" he said. Obama agrees with him.

The first step to making a truly tough decision, he told the gathering is "being comfortable with the fact that you're not going to get [a] 100 percent solution, and understanding that you're dealing with probabilities, so that you don't get paralyzed trying to think that you're going to actually solve this perfectly," Quartz reports.

2. Get the smartest people in the room.

"I'm old fashioned. I believe in these Enlightenment values like facts and reason and logic," Obama went on, offering a not-so-subtle dig at his fact-challenged successor.  

"If I had set up a good process in which I could get all the information, all the data, all perspectives, if I knew that I had around the table all the angles ... then I could feel confident that even if I didn't get a perfect answer, that I was making the best decision that anybody in my situation could make," he continued.

How do you get the best information? From the best people, of course, and that means putting your ego aside and not insisting you know everything or have the biggest brain. Obama insisted that "having the confidence to have people around you who were smarter than you, or disagreed with you," was "critical."

3. Ask dumb questions.

Just humbling yourself to seek out expert advice and actually listen to it isn't enough, however. You also have to understand it. That often means going a step further and asking a lot of seemingly dumb questions.

"I always would say to somebody, if they're talking about a really complicated issue, 'I don't understand what you're saying. Explain it to me in English,'" Obama relates. "I think one of the problems with people who are in big jobs is they start feeling as if they have to project that 'I have every answer' when, in fact, most of the time, you may not."

Looking for more information on how this process played out in regards to some of the most high-profile decisions of his presidency, such as the bin Laden raid and the Deep Water Horizon oil spill disaster? Check out the complete Quartz article for lots more detail.

Published on: Mar 8, 2019
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