11. Might what suits Barack Obama suit faculty development?

In faculty career development, choice itself is a challenge that behavioral tactics can help meet.
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

MICHAEL LEWIS: ““Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

BARACK OBAMA: “…You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy.”[1]

In his book Work Rules,[2] Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations for Google, uses the above quote to advocate checklists[3] that eliminate the need to decide. Bock writes (p. 297):

By telling [people] what to do, we actually took one item off their to-do list. They had less to think about and focus instead on acting. …The results recently moved a manager to shoot a quick thank-you note: “…We really appreciate how easy you make this for us.”

Faculty development is a decision-rich environment. Faculty are pluripotent and must choose how to differentiate. Plan A, B, or C? Become an expert in your field – but exactly which field and how? The stakes are high. Faculty lore is rife with success stories about making the right moves, and horror stories of careers undone by poor judgment. Is it any wonder that a common complaint of faculty seeking academic promotion is: “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it. We shouldn’t have to figure this out!”?[4]

This is a good problem to have, of course; it forces faculty to innovate, and innovation is the life-blood of thriving academic institutions. Faculty developers become overly prescriptive and stifle spontaneity at their peril. At UChicago our expectations are sufficiently flexible to accommodate a broad range of prior training, aspirations, interests, aptitudes, and circumstances. We promote on the basis of outstanding contributions to our missions and enhancement of our institutional stature. Promotion thus considers the magnitude and quality of these contributions and enhancements, but not the mission domain in which they occur. We have no rigid, one-size-fits-all criteria that are exclusionary because the job description precludes their achievement.

Besides, faculty think they are entitled to “academic freedom”, even when it complicates their lives and burdens them with choices.[5]

Evidently Barack Obama’s and Laszlo Bock’s solutions are not intended for academics. If so, how can faculty be helped to make decisions?   For that matter, why are the decisions of faculty development so difficult? Why are decisions in general so difficult?

Because that’s how our minds work. Our minds’ System 1 craves resources[6] and opportunities, and is highly averse to losing them. System 1 prefers no decision because a poor decision might (a) squander the resources and opportunities of alternatives not chosen, (b) cause regret at having chosen poorly, and (c) make one “look stupid” and hence risk professional stature. The professionals call this “decision paralysis” or “analysis paralysis” (for an excellent introduction click here)[7].

Aids to Decision-Making in Faculty Development (i.e., Magic Feathers)

How can we decide between having our cake and eating it? A Google search (on 8 June 2015) of “overcoming decision/choice/analysis paralysis” yields 10757 results. Evidently answers are not uncommon.[8] Some are applicable to academia; some aren’t.

Sheena Iyengar has literally written the book on the art of choosing.[9] Her principal recommendation[10] is, in any decision, to limit the number of possible choices. Her research has shown that consumers choose much more readily (versus not buying anything) when the variety of jams or shampoos, for example, is limited. A corollary of this recommendation is to structure the decision tree so that choices with fewer options precede choices with many options. When buying a car, first choose among transmissions (manual versus automatic, 2 choices) and last choose among colors (20 choices). When choosing a career goal focus in academic medicine, first choose among mission domains (scholarship versus education versus patient care, 3 choices) and last choose among highly specific diseases or topic or clinical subspecialties.

I’m no Sheena Iyengar, but here are my additions:

  1. When confronted with career development options, go with your passion. Go with your core values. Go with what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s not just a data-driven business decision, amenable to a logical consideration of costs, benefits, resources, and risks. Career development is a long distance hike[11], a marathon and not a sprint. You will need motivation, drive, ‘fire in the belly’ to sustain it. Have your System 1 push you, not oppose you. If a potential option does not excite you, avoid it – no matter how sensible it may be. If you choose it, you will lack the motivation to do it well (or do it at all) and not enjoy what you are doing.


  1. Work backwards. Gilmore and Shea suggest a “history of the future”.[12] That is, imagine a future celebration of your success (promotion, a professional accomplishment, etc.) at a specific future time. Work out the events that immediately preceded the accomplishment, the events that preceded them, and so on until the present. This can be very helpful in working through the choices and planning options that result in the future success. Because you’re operating hypothetically and in the future, System 1’s vigilance against present threat is less likely to be activated and interfere with System 2. Moreover, because celebration of future success is the starting point, not a possible endpoint, you are that much more confident. Also, according to Sheena Iyengar, having a discrete destination or outcome in mind makes choosing easier in and of itself.10


  1. Approach goals by successive approximation, and flexibly. That is, take an educated guess at a best option and move forward tentatively in small steps. After each step, be ready to maintain course, reverse course, or move in an unanticipated direction as dictated by experience and/or newly-apparent knowledge and opportunities. Try out options for a month or two; if they are irretrievably problematic, abandon them and try another [this is the counterpart of the sales world’s no-risk 30-day free trial]. Because no step represents a major irrevocable commitment, System 1’s aversion to threat and loss is less likely to interfere. The academic career playbook does not mandate rigid, detailed, long-range plans, but allows for successive medium-range plans with frequent mid-course corrections. Be open to and watchful for unexpected opportunities.[13]


  1. System 1 can be your ally in that it is enormously susceptible to social facilitation. System 1 will go to great lengths to avoid looking weak or indecisive in front of others. Use this aversion. Tell others (peers, chairs/chiefs/deans/mentors/coaches) that you are suffering from decision paralysis, and ask their help in (a) setting and keeping decision deadlines, and (b) insisting on regular progress reports. Form a peer group to which all members report their decision-making and support one another.  If everyone else is doing something, your System 1 will often insist you do the same.


  1. If you are a Myers Briggs Personality Type aficionado, you know that strong Js will accept the first feasible option without awaiting a potentially better one, and strong Ps will comprehensively investigate all options, eliminating bad ones but choosing the best only with difficulty.[14] Each type has strengths and weaknesses that can be anticipated and exploited or countered – but first you need to discover your type.


  1. The only truly bad decision is not to advance in any direction in any way. Academic faculty are like some sharks in that they must keep moving forward to stay alive.



People are prone to decision paralysis.  A special challenge to academic faculty is that, because of their talents and accomplishments, they and their developers may believe themselves to be less prone to decision paralysis than other people.  Accordingly, they may be less ready to try the interventions suggested above.  “We have met the enemy and he is us.”[15]


√  The next time you (or someone you mentor) can’t decide which career development to pursue, try one, just one, of the tactics summarized here.

[1] Michael Lewis, “Obama’s Way,” Vanity Fair, October 2012. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama

[2] Bock, Laszlo. 2015. Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, Twelve. http://amzn.com/1455554790

[3] Gawande, Atul. 2009. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Holt, Henry & Co., Inc. http://amzn.com/0312430000

[4] Letters of reference from Mayo Clinic faculty suggest that 60 peer-reviewed publications (and nothing else) are sufficient for promotion to full professor there. While this is a model of a specific and unambiguous promotion, I would be surprised if it has been accurately characterized. Often, criteria are far less explicit, and ambiguous in their terseness. In fact, as James Madara (pers. Comm.) observed, “there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of an academic institution and the number of words in its promotion criteria.”

[5] Daniel McFadden, an expert in how we make choices, says, “people appreciate having choices as long as they don’t have to make one.”   [Quote from Ariely, Dan. Arming the Donkeys podcast, 12/1/2008. https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/arming-the-donkeys/id420535283?mt=10#

[6] https://decannomics.com/2015/02/18/17/

[7] http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice?language=en

[8] A brief random survey of the blogosphere yields the following consensus advice:

Set and keep a deadline for making the decision

Ask the opinion of others, and their help in forcing a decision

Eliminate the worst options, leaving a smaller number to choose among

Stop striving for a perfect solution; a good solution is good enough

Reduce anxiety by desensitization, practice, deciding in small steps









[9] Iyengar, Sheena. 2010. The Art of Choosing. Twelve. http://amzn.com/B0085RZDMK

[10] http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_choosing_what_to_choose

[11] Bickel, JA. Career development as a long distance hike. J Gen Intern Med 24(1):118–21 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607504/pdf/11606_2008_Article_834.pdf

[12] Gilmore, TN and Shea, GP. 1997. Organizational learning and the leadership skill of time travel. Journal of Management Development 16: 302-311. http://www.cfar.com/sites/default/files/resources/Time_Travel.pdf .   See also http://www.theoryofchange.org/wp-content/uploads/toco_library/pdf/Histories_of_the_Future.pdf

[13] As Bokonon wrote: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Vonnegut, K. 1963. Cat’s Cradle. Holt, Rinehart and Winston http://amzn.com/038533348X

[14] http://users.trytel.com/~jfalt/Ene-med/j-p.html

[15] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walt_Kelly

©Martin E. Feder 2015

One thought on “11. Might what suits Barack Obama suit faculty development?

  1. The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz (HarperCollins, 2004) is another helpful resource. Schwartz does a nice job of explaining why Americans are feeling less and less satisfied – even as their freedom of choice expands. Schwartz offers information on how and why choice can make us suffer – and suggests what can be done about it.


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