I was recently talking to an acquaintance, and had occasion to compliment her on what she was wearing, which I proceeded to do by telling her that her look was very Breakfast at Tiffany-esque. A second later, I panicked at the thought of potentially having put my foot in my mouth (which happens on a regular basis); I quickly added that my intention was to compare her to Audrey Hepburn, not a prostitute. She looked at me like I was from Mars, but politely thanked me anyway.

Foot, meet mouth.

As I said, this sort of thing is a regular occurrence for me. My unfortunate tendency to blurt out things is matched only by an irrepressible tendency to overthink things. A compulsion to store seemingly limitless amounts of useless information means that my brain has plenty of fodder at its disposal when analyzing the possible implications of a casual remark.

[For anyone who remains puzzled by my Breakfast at Tiffany comment, the original (literary) version of Audrey Hepburn’s character was, to put it gently, a high-class escort and unrepentant gold-digger. In the book, she does end up running off to Brazil, leaving the George Peppard character in the dust. Speaking of which, gratuitous photo time:
Fans self. OK, let’s move on.]

Pop culture dissertation aside, thinking about my shortcomings in this area reminded me of a guest post I read recently on one of the personal finance blogs I follow regularly. [This one.] The author proposed the following question as a means of recognizing what forms the substance of one’s sense of identity (which might be composed of any number of smaller or bigger elements):

What mind do you bring to a problem?

Let’s say you identify yourself in terms of being a teacher, a runner, a parent, a volunteer firefighter. When it’s time to tackle a problem, which of those traits or characteristics most informs your decision-making process?
Take me, for example. There are many ways in which I would normally describe myself, but only one that fully captures the essence of my personality, as judged by the “kind” of mind I bring to my everyday life. And, no, it isn’t the mind of a flaky trivia junkie. Generally speaking, whenever I am confronted with a decision (in its broadest terms), I typically have an instinctive reaction – a sense, if you will, of what constitutes the “right” answer. That instinctive reaction is almost always immediately countered by the reflex to defer action until I’ve had a chance to carefully analyze all available data. Essentially, the decision-making process is one by which I exhaustively check all relevant points to make sure that my first instinct is right. I am open to the possibility that it is not, but I’m not necessarily going to be swayed by a negative that isn’t written in stone. I just need to know whether my gut instinct can be reasonably justified. All in all, I would call this a lawyer’s mind.

Lawyering is often misunderstood. In the public eye, lawyering is often equated with being a glorified mouthpiece, a pit-bull-for-hire, a  … well, you can insert your own stereotypes here. With the possible exception of the folks who run ads during commercial breaks in the Maury show, this equation doesn’t bear out. From personal observation, it seems to me that good lawyers are successful because they’ve mastered the skill of knowing how to properly assess a client’s problem and, to the extent made possible by the law, taking the strongest position that serves to advance the client’s interests – both those interests of which the client himself is aware, and those he may not have yet considered. A gut instinct, informed by experience and close familiarity with the subject matter, is essential in knowing whether a case likely has enough merit to justify further action or not, and if so, what particular action is best suited to the situation. At the same time, that gut instinct is rarely if ever acted upon without additional research and analysis. It never pays to be rash … but neither does it pay to be timid or equivocal. Being able to consider and objectively evaluate other persons’ perspectives or reactions to a situation is also important, because it allows you to anticipate your opposition. It always pays to be prepared.

I was actually surprised when I realized that this was, in fact, an apt description of my approach to decision-making. I’ve always considered myself to be an odd dichotomy of impulsive and cautious, but it strikes me now that these are simply two facets of a process that is more than the sum of its parts. And it explains so much. I hate having to make decisions on the fly; on the other hand, once I make a decision, I’m usually able to rationalize it enough to be happy with it no matter what. I also hate pronouncing opinions on matters that are not cut-and-dried, because I dread the possibility that I might miss an important consideration only to have someone come along and point out the resulting flaw in my argument. Getting it “wrong” – whether due to a failure of logic, foresight or knowledge – is practically a phobia of mine. I hate generalizations; toss a sweeping statement of so-called fact my way, and my inner devil’s advocate bristles up like a riled bull before a red flag. With that said, you’re probably never going to meet an audience more inclined to be attentive to your side of the story, at least as long as it’s at least somewhat articulate and logical. Note that I said “attentive”, and not receptive. If I don’t ultimately agree with you, I will probably (politely) tell you why, point by point. I love a stimulating dialogue about as much as I hate ad hominem attacks – the last refuge of a person defeated by logic.

Giving some thought to the mind I bring to my decision-making has helped to make me more aware of both its strengths and limitations. For example, it’s made me realize that I need to be less hesitant about voicing an off-the-cuff opinion that I may later have to revise, if only because it can lead to an exchange of ideas that can enrich the discussion of the issue and help me better understand and articulate my own thoughts. It’s also made me understand that the decisions I’m less comfortable with always involve considerations of facts or theories that I have no means of knowing, understanding or verifying; in order to avoid paralysis of choice in those cases, I am going to have to up my “risk tolerance” and act more impulsively – within reason, of course.

Your turn: what mind do you bring to a problem?

5 Comments on Mind your mind

  1. Buyer. For sure.

    “I know what your gross margin is. I’m not paying the full price.”
    “This meets all of my mandatory requirements but the item at Wal-Mart fulfills way more of the nice-to-haves and is only 10% more expensive.”
    “You forgot to sign your quote, let’s just get your John Hancock on that.”

    • Thanks for checking out the post! I really enjoyed yours, so I hope I can say that I returned the favour 😉