Picture this. A friend or family member has come to you for advice. They are struggling with a decision or a persistent problem that they aren’t sure how to handle. They lay out the issue, the options they are considering and the reasons they are conflicted. You listen sympathetically and do your best to tell them your sagest advice. You leave the exchange feeling great because you have helped a person who is important to you. A week later, you run into them again and ask how things are going expecting to hear how well your suggestion worked. Instead, they are as conflicted as ever and have completely ignored what you told them to do. Argh!
I bet it wouldn’t take you long to come up with an example like this from your own life. We’ve all been there, frustrated why someone can’t see things clearly when it’s so obvious to us what they should do. As maddening as that can be, the odds are you’ve probably been the advice-ignoring person to someone else, too. I know I have been. Our own decisions just aren’t as clear cut as they are to others, for one very big reason – we’re emotionally invested. For all the effort we put into being objective, when it comes to ourselves the lens is always a bit distorted.
This point was illustrated perfectly at a conference I attended a few years ago. Dan Heath, co-author of books like Made to Stick and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, was speaking and he told us a story about a guy who walked into a college classroom and took a seat next to a girl he thought was attractive. They talked to each other during class and found out they had a friend in common. Before the class was over, he thought about asking her out but couldn’t muster the courage. Later that day, he reached out to their mutual friend and got the girl’s phone number but couldn’t quite bring himself to call her. He was worried about whether she would like him, or if she would think he was weird for getting her number from their friend after little more than a polite conversation in class.
Dan turned to the audience and polled us. He said, “Imagine you are the guy. Would you make that call?” Maybe a third to half the audience raised their hands. Then he said, “Now imagine you’re this guy’s friend. How many of you would tell him to call the girl?” Almost the entire audience raised their hands.
Imagining ourselves as the guy in this story, we can easily sympathize with his nerves and his desire to avoid rejection. As the friend, we can see more clearly that the risk of calling her is pretty low. Sure, he might face unpleasant short-term emotions if she rejects him, but he’ll survive that. It’s not worth sacrificing the long-term potential of living happily ever after with her just to avoid some temporary discomfort.
Decisions like this that involve short-term emotion and long-term outcomes occur frequently in our financial lives. Question like: Should I change jobs to something that pays less but makes me happier? Should we help our adult child financially? Should we spend money on this big trip or invest it? These decisions are hard because we often focus on what we want now – comfortable income, to help our kids, to go on vacation – and ignore what we want in the long run – job satisfaction, self-sufficient kids, financial independence. If we don’t want our immediate emotional needs to be the only driver of these choices, we need to distance ourselves from the emotions to see what the more rational side of our mind has to say.
Since we seem to have better perspective on our friends, and they on us, we can use that to our advantage. When tough decisions like this come up, consider this question: “What would I tell my good friend to do if he or she was in this situation?” This subtly different approach helps us put our analytical hat on, not so we completely ignore the emotional side of the argument, but so we can evaluate it as one of many factors that go into a good decision.
Say for example, you want to retire but can’t seem to resign because you are afraid you don’t have enough money. That fear of not having enough – the short-term emotion – might lead you to work longer than necessary. Would you tell a friend just to keep working? Probably not. Instead you might remind them of how much they want to spend time enjoying retired life with their spouse or suggest that they address their fears by going to see a financial planner and determining if they can afford to retire.
A friend can shift our focus from the immediate emotion back to the big picture of what we want from life. When we see our decisions as part of a larger plan to give us the life we dream of, it puts an entirely different spin on temporary pain. Unfortunately, we’re geared to think about avoiding pain, especially in the short term, so it takes effort and intention to flip the script. If thinking of what to tell a friend doesn’t get you there, the 10/10/10 method invented by Suzy Welch is another great trick. Ask yourself, if I commit to this decision how will I feel about it in 10 minutes, 10 days, and 10 years?
Life wouldn’t be much fun if we never sprang for the massage or the vacation or even the fancy car, but we can’t make all our decisions by satisfying our immediate emotions. Next time you’re faced with a tough call, get perspective by imagining what you would advise a friend to do. The rest of our friends might not take our advice, but we can at least listen to a bit of friendly advice from ourselves.