“The Children of Israel at the giving of Torah at the foot of Sinai answered to the no (of the prohibitions) with no, and to the yes (of the commandments) with a yes. (Mekhilta Ex. 20:1). So the Messiah said it, the rabbis confirmed it, so that should settle it, right? It is not that simple, as most of us have found out. Precisely how do we know when to say yes and how to say no?
We often think of good decision making as the territory of strong authoritative types who are capable of ruling the moment. But in fact my life experience tells me that the best decisions are really determined long before choices present themselves. In fact I think being a good decision maker can be likened to being a good baseball pitcher. It is common knowledge that in baseball it is a big advantage if you can throw the ball hard. From little league, to American Legion ball, through high school, college and even the minor leagues big flamethrowers are proven winners. But in the major leagues where everybody throws hard and hitters can always hit a fastball, only those who “know the strike zone” are proven winners.
Let me explain further. The object of pitching in baseball is to make the bat miss the ball. So it is incumbent upon the pitcher to throw strikes, but not right down the middle of the plate where it is easy to hit. So the very best pitchers get to know the precise width and length of the strike zone. And because every umpire locates the strike zone differently, an ace pitcher must evaluate where the umpire sets the bottom and top of the zone, as well as the inside and outside edge of the zone.
So what does this have to do with decision-making? A good decision maker must determine long before they get in the game a firm floor and ceiling of both their tolerances and those they are involved with. Then they need to allow for small incremental adjustments in the moment. Let me lay out some parameters that I have found helpful. Though these do not constitute an exhaustive rulebook, they should provide a starting point.
How can anyone make an important decision if they do not have any idea what it is in life they wish to accomplish? This is not to say that all decisions are life altering, but all decisions should fit within the borders and boundaries of our value system. Value should not be loose moral fragments, but should fit with in an intentionally defined moral and ethical system. If we do not define success for ourselves, then the dominant culture will do it for us. It is no wonder that most Americans polled would consider their ideal life to be a professional athlete, music or film star. The viral nature of anorexia among teen girls is but another example. Sit down and right out your own coda of success and then allow that be a guiding map for your decision-making. Success does not have to be defined by money, appearances or celebrity. God has made each person uniquely part of His corporate image. There is nothing more empowering than determining what would make you the best you, you can be.
set a firm floor and a high ceiling
Back to pitchers, those who are successful “expand the strike zone." What this means is that they can find the very lowest point that the umpire will call a strike, and the highest point as well. I cannot emphasize enough the essential nature of having a firm floor. Most people who wind up in the sewer of life do so because they did not know where they were calling the gutter. Those who are not paying attention can slowly lower the bar until they are unaware of how much they have compromised the integrity of their standards. Every decision we make therefore affects the next decision. This is why people who have grown up with strong religious values are often less apt to wind up in jail or on drugs. They are not immune to societal ills but a firm floor is a good safeguard.
It is also important to note that the same people often have low ceilings for accomplishment. Once we have established our own ideals for success we should do all we can to make these a reality. Set your ceiling high but realistically. At 53 years of age and 5’10’ becoming an NBA point guard would be an unrealistic goal. In fact at 12 years of age and 5’7” it was also unrealistic; I just hadn’t yet learned to evaluate my potential. It is important to learn how to take queues from the umpires, and only the official umpires. At any baseball game there are tens of thousands of people in the stands trying to call balls and strikes. Fortunately only one opinion counts. So it is in life. Hashem is the only true ump but he gives us lots of coaches to help learn our strike zone. Learn who they are and take their direction and guidance in setting your strike zone. Don’t listen to all of the naysayers and critics in the stands, but leave yourself open to correction and guidance.
precious little has to be decided today
In 1982 a photographer came to our home and photographed our first child. We allowed them to do so to receive a free framed photo. Three months later a salesman came to our home to deliver our “free” 4x6 inch photo and to show us the various expanded packages we could purchase. The picture was awful. It was taken during a stage of our baby’s development when she had a single band of hair across the back and she was packing an excess of new baby fat. As a result the photographs did not look like the child she was in the present, rather she bore an odd resemblance in the picture to Winston Churchill. When I asked the salesperson “why would we ever spend $500 for those pictures,” he responded, “Because you will never see your child like that again.” We spent the $500 we could not afford and 28 years later still laugh about this ridiculous purchase. But the purchase was made the day we agreed to have the photographer come to our apartment for the “free gift”. The lesson learned could have been, “there is no free lunch” but regarding decision-making we learned that precious little must be decided today. I have now become a salesman’s nightmare since we live by that rule always. I am sure I have missed crawling through many “closing windows of opportunity” but we also avoid a lot of regrets.
Decisions must be made in the moment, but if we learn the strike zone, the best decision will often seem surprisingly obvious. Did I mention that the best pitchers make it look easy.