On compliments, votes, and donations: When causes are bigger than choices

Life is a string of choices[1]. Some are very intentional, like selecting ice-cream flavours on a sunny day[2], some are relatively deliberate like picking a job, a mate, or a car[3], and for some, our rationales appear blurred and we ourselves doubt our influence on our decisions, so for lack of better explanations, we call it fate, destiny, karma, or science. Still, for most situations, most of us have figured out how to make our choices in ways that make us feel  consistent with who we think we are (or who we want to be)[4].

Today, I’m not going to talk about the seemingly “big” choices in life (or business)[5]. Instead, I want to talk about a particular kind of choice that presents itself the moment we deeply care about an ideal, a cause, or a principle. Imagine the following: You’re a strong believer in kindness. You also think that complimenting others in a direct, personal manner is a good way to express kindness. Now, let’s assume you’re meeting with two of your very best friends, and both have new haircuts. For the sake of the case study, let’s also assume none of the haircuts is a garish fashion failure. What do you do? Don’t read on – stop and think for a moment. Think again. There you go – it’s not all that easy, or is it?

Let me give another example[6]: I’m a strong believer in the value of diversity, in particular gender diversity. Let’s assume I’m presented with a list of 50 high-calibre business women out of whom I’m asked to vote for one (!) in order to narrow the list down to the 25 most promising candidates for a future CEO role. Now, what do I do? Don’t read on – stop and think for a moment. Think again. There you go – it’s not all that easy[7].

Now, for obvious reasons (or so I hope), not complimenting anyone, or not voting (or not donating[8]) are not good choices in any of these cases: They compromise the very ideal we set out to live up to, and we risk dying a slow and painful death, pretty much like Buridan’s ass who couldn’t make up his mind between the savoury haystacks[9]. At the same time, making a choice (and this is where these examples differ from the experience described in Buridan’s story) also puts us at risk of betraying (at least part of) the same ideal. So, how do we choose when causes are bigger than choices?

There are, I want to suggest, four ways to think about such situations that help us – if not to make the best possible choice (if such a thing even exists), then at least to be clear and transparent about why and how we choose. And, sometimes (just sometimes[10]), knowing why and how we’re doing something might be the next best thing to knowing that we’re actually doing the right thing. Let me illustrate the four approaches using my example of having to vote for the future woman CEO (and I’ll trust your ingenuity to make the translation to other relevant cases yourselves).

Here we go:

You’ve got a friend. Things might be easy if your very best friend (and only that one very best friend!) is on the list. You vote for her – and the rest is romance[11]. This is a very acceptable approach to the dilemma described above, and there’s nothing wrong with using intimacy, relationship, or mutual understanding as a criterion for choice. Quite the contrary: How weird would it be if under such circumstances we would not vote for those close to our hearts and minds? In this case, my only request to you would be to be open about the fact that you choose what you love.

Now, you might not have a friend. Or you might have too many. Or you might have a principle about not supporting friends in such situations (and this, too, this is a very acceptable principle to have). Again, not voting is not an option. So you might want to try telling stories. Most likely, you have an elaborate theory about what it takes to make women successful in business, and a gazillion insights into why they’re still not as present as they could. From this space of reasons comes judgment, so you can select your criteria for choice, and it’ll be crystal clear which person to vote for: Decision made – end of story[12]. In this case, my only request to you would be to accept that others will have different stories – and that this, too, is okay.

If love feels too fluffy and stories are too complicated for you, you might want to try the more practical and straightforward approach of fighting for justice. Who, among all those women, is most deserving of becoming a CEO? Who’s been underprivileged, underestimated, mistreated, misjudged, or otherwise caught in a turmoil of obstacles that they overcame with persistence, rigour, skills, and perpetual positive spirit? Who is Jeanne d’Arc, who is Pocahontas[13], who is Anne Frank? You’ll find your heroine, and you’ll be happy with your choice. In this case, my only request to you would be to not let your joy turn into disdain for those who did not have a difficult childhood.

If all this still seems besides the point, don’t give up. Remember: Not voting is not an option. As with all good datasets, there’s always statistics. You can try letting randomness work for you. Pick a number between 1 and 50, print out the page with the names and faces and throw a dart arrow, ask your child, your dog, or your favourite clairvoyant medium to select a candidate – do anything that does not involve deliberate choice on your part. You’ll be absolutely objective, your choice will be solid and sound, and you’ll contribute to the cause that you care for[14]. In this case, my only request to you is to not make a fuzz about the value of what you’re choosing.

And, of course, if you feel uncomfortable with the power of random draws, you’re free to go back and vote for a friend. Or for the friend of a friend. Or the friend of a friend of a friend. Or the person you’d have wanted to be friends with if you’d known them when you were little. Or the person you’d want to be friends with as you grow old. And if that doesn’t work, tell a story, or tell a story about telling stories, or tell a story about why you cannot tell stories. And if that doesn’t work, go out and cheer for the underdog. Or cheer for the person who didn’t become the underdog they were earmarked to be. Or the person who resembles the underdog you yourself fear most to become. And if that doesn’t work, throw a dice, toss a coin, read the clouds and the stars.

Whatever you do: Don’t give up on the cause, just because the choice is a challenge.


[1] I’m aware of the fact that this is a highly debatable thesis. There are many who disagree. I choose to ignore their arguments for now. Apologies. BACK TO TEXT

[2] The soundtrack to this particular kind of choice (at least for those who grew up in the 1980s) is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3Eaw-86tpw [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For a disclaimer, see footnote 1.BACK TO TEXT

[4] As a matter of fact, I’m convinced that understanding the ways in which we make choices is one of the most relevant criteria for understanding who we are. Of course, there’s philosophy (as well as other fields of study) that has looked into this before I came up with the idea. Maybe this is a topic for another post. You’ll find out when (and if) I write it.BACK TO TEXT

[5] If you’re interested in these, try the Google oracle and type “choosing a…” into your browser. The first completion suggestions I got today were “… a career”, “… a dog”, “… a business name” [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[6] My gratitude for this example goes to Edition F, a German online magazine for business women, who’re currently running a competition to find 25 women who people want to see as CEO’s in German DAX companies until 2025. For details, see https://editionf.com/stimmt-ab-fuer-25-frauen-2025-dax30-ceo-sehen-wollen [retrieved Jun 4, 2015]. Thankfully, the fact that I’m not on this list allows me to write this present blog post, another great case of the value of absence.BACK TO TEXT

[7] Still another striking illustration of this conundrum are the recent discussions among my friends and acquaintances as to whom to support in the wake of the earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25th, 2015: Everybody cares about the country a lot. Now, they’re presented with a plethora of potential recipients of donations (financial or otherwise). What do they do? Etcetera, etcetera.BACK TO TEXT

[8] See previous footnote.BACK TO TEXT

[9] This ass is a donkey torn (and therefore stuck) between two equally attractive haystacks – look it up wherever you want if you haven’t met the beast.BACK TO TEXT

[10] Please do me the favour and do not quote this outside of context. It is wrong in most other circumstances and therefore prone to be misinterpreted. To be very clear: I’m not saying that stealing, killing and lying are permissible just because we know why and how we’re stealing, killing, or lying.BACK TO TEXT

[11] Like, for example, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4mNDS5rIRU [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[12] If you’re a lover of stories, listen to this while you make up your mind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpeJAOZlLfw [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[13] I might have posted this before. It’s one of my all-time favourite songs. Just listen again, it’s worth it – it’s here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QS4t-a-w8ug [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[14] Try this as a soundtrack for this decision https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jk7wiDGuiQ [retrieved Jun 4, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

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