Sprinting in the grocery aisle

by Daniel Incandela via Flickr

This time last year, my wife and I were planning her escape.

We worked together at the same company, and she had a promising executive career track mapped out for her there. She’d been promoted several times, and would have actually been my boss (but for that bit about her being my spouse).

So when she talked about how unhappy she was, I resisted. I didn’t want to let her give up on a great career. We never loved the idea of conforming to stereotypical gender roles. And perhaps the fact that she brought in two-thirds of our income played a part.

Ultimately though, she helped me realize that putting our son in daycare and going to work was chipping away at her self-esteem and putting her into a pretty scary depression.

So, we started plotting her exit. If we could just pay off the credit cards, we could eke by on my income. It only took a few months of austerity before she was able to say goodbye to the golden handcuffs and stay home full-time.

A couple of weeks ago, while pushing Soren in the grocery cart, she ran up and down the aisles of the store to get a laugh out of our son, who invariably requests, “go faster, faster!” While speeding down the aisle and laughing herself, she nearly ran over a group of our former coworkers.

They stopped for a few minutes to exchange pleasantries, and she trotted off, a bit embarrassed for the display.

The picture in my head of that scene makes me a bit misty-eyed, remembering the depression and pain she was in while I was encouraging her to “stick it out”, contrasted with the carefree happiness of hurtling down a grocery aisle with our three-year-old.

My wife’s been a stay-at-home mom for nearly a year now, and it’s certainly been a tough adjustment. But as long as I can help it, I’ll never ask her to trade it back away. That was her dream, and she pushed herself and me until she reached it.

So now, I have to wonder: Is what I do every day the equivalent of running up and down the aisles? For sure, some days are like that. If not, what am I trading them for? How many of those days will I let pass without doing something about it?

Embracing the tradeoffs

Sometimes Seth Godin’s posts are a little too short and sweet.

His argument is that a decision without tradeoffs is not a decision. I assume the point was that without acknowledging that you’re giving something up, you’re probably deluding yourself into thinking you’re doing things “the right way” rather than “the best option given current understanding”.

I sort of have to infer that, because there’s no context or explanation. I would also assume that Seth would agree that those “decisionless decisions” are lazy and cowardly and optimized for shifting blame for failure, rather than a calculated risk with a specific reward in mind.

But I’d go a step further and say that unless you embrace the tradeoffs, you didn’t make a decision, you’re letting decisions feel like circumstances, and letting them push you around.

About a year ago, my wife and I made a commitment to getting out of credit card debt and letting her become a stay-at-home mom. She’s now been home for about 9 months, and it’s been wonderful in many ways.

But last night, I caught myself complaining about my financial situation. It’s our first holiday season on a single income, and some unexpected home repairs didn’t come at the best time.

The thing is, we knew this was coming. We knew we’d be making some sacrifices after years of high comfort and low worry. So it’s disingenuous to complain about it at all. It’s certainly not true of every couple, but in our situation, we’d much rather have a little stress about money and have the benefits of a stay-at-home parent. When I’m being mindful to embrace the tradeoffs, I’m immensely grateful that’s even an option for us.

Why embrace the tradeoffs?

It’s a formula for focus. Creating a product for a niche market imposes severe limits on mass adoption, but it lets you stop trying to be everything to everyone.  For my wife and I, embracing the tradeoffs gave us the vision we needed to get out of debt.

It provides strength when you need it most. When people undertake something without predicting and embracing tradeoffs, the first serious challenges come as a shock, and this is where most people quit. Understanding and remembering what you planned to give up is often all it takes to stick through those rough patches.

It puts you in the driver’s seat. Embracing the tradeoffs means that even when everything isn’t rosy, the decision was yours, and you also have the ability to change couse if necessary. You’re not the victim of circumstances beyond your control, you’re experiencing the effects of a decision you made.

How do you know whether you’re embracing the tradeoffs?

If you’re complaining about your circumstances, I can pretty much guarantee you’re not embracing them. Any time you catch yourself complaining about a circumstance, you’re probably complaining about the effects of a decision that you made. This is, in essence, complaining that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

If you’re choosing the lesser of two (or more) evils, it’s unlikely that you’re embracing them. This type of decision allows you to absolve yourself of the results of that choice, and lets you place the blame on the fact that your choices were limited. It’s nearly impossible to embrace the tradeoffs you make with this mindset.

If someone else is at fault, you’ve forgotten that you even made tradeoffs in the first place. This signals a serious need to dig deep and analyze the decisions you made that put someone else in charge of such a big part of your life.

This is a fundamental concept that means the difference between success and failure in business, and often between happiness and despair in life. It isn’t about taking control, it’s about taking responsibility and ownership for your decisions. Control simply tends to follow along for the ride.