Here’s the thing. Figuring out how to deal with it would be easier if I had an outline. I could just move from point to point, only needing to fill in the details as I proceed. Knowing what I was doing wouldn’t be necessary. I would always just be following the outline. I could easily convince myself that I was my own person, acting on my own initiative, but that outline would always be there. Once I figured out how to complete the current step, I would know in advance what the next step would be, and the one after that, and the one after that. Maybe not my plan, but I could feel like it was my plan.

But what is the it in figuring out how to deal with it? Unfortunately, there is little difference whether it is life itself or the project I am working on today, whether it is how I spend my week or how to peel a banana. There is always an outline, a set of habitual steps or usual procedures. Most of the time and in most situations, I know what comes next. I need only follow the outline.

Now and then, I come across a situation, circumstance or problem where knowing what to do or how to proceed aren’t obvious. There appears not to be an outline. Nothing is telling me what’s next.

Here’s the thing. When the situation, circumstance or problem passes – and they always eventually pass – I look back at what I did or didn’t do, how I dealt with whatever was going on. From that perspective, I assess my actions or lack of action. I now see what wasn’t apparent. I understand why I did or did not do this or that, what I could have or shouldn’t have done. I am able to retrospectively recognize the outline I followed or perhaps the outline I should have followed. The outline was there for me had I been smart enough, clever enough or insightful enough to see it and then follow it.

I’m not thinking that there is always a best way or right way to proceed. Even so, I do think that there are always better ways and worse ways, more correct and more incorrect ways to deal with things. Sometimes the outline is explicit, including specific step by step instructions; and sometimes it’s little more than guidelines or implicit suggestions. Even so, the outline is there, encouraging me to follow along.

Here’s the thing. Since the outline is always there either prospectively or retrospectively, seeing it doesn’t seem like it should be such a hit and miss kind of thing for me. Even more confounding is thinking that I see the outline but learning later that the outline I picked was the wrong outline. I don’t get it. A good or at least sufficient outline is always there, so why do I sometimes pick the wrong outline or skip over the outline thing altogether?

I’m embarrassed to admit to how many times I have glanced at the instructions for one thing or another and tossed them aside or even worse, didn’t even bother with a glance. Granted, that usually works out but sometimes things don’t quite get the outcome I expect. More often than I want to admit, the outcome is far worse than I could have imagined. That happens with written instructions but also comes up when I don’t listen to the directions or advice of people who should and do know better than I do. I just plough ahead.

At other times, I know I don’t know what to do or how to do things but decide to proceed anyway. I tell myself things like I’ll fake it until I make it or perhaps convince myself that I can get away with making it up as I go along. Since I’m confessing, the truth is that I think I’m smart enough and clever enough to get away with just acting like I know what I’m doing.

Here’s the thing. There are times when the outline is not accessible and other times when the outline is accessible but suspect. The point is that outlines, instructions and advice aren’t always reliable, and following them would be a mistake. Just because I know what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to proceed doesn’t mean that that is automatically the best way to go. It’s that personal judgment and personal responsibility thing.

I suppose it would be easier or at least safer to always use the most familiar or perhaps the most popular outline for everything. I could just keep it between the lines, as defined by someone else of course. If I get a less than satisfying outcome or should things end up in a mess, I have a handy out. I can fall back on pointing out that I followed the rules, did what I was supposed to do, played the game but just had bad luck. The unfortunate outcome was certainly not my fault, not due to my poor judgment, not something I could have reasonably been expected to anticipate or avoid. Sure, it was just bad luck.

The upside of following the outline is that, if things work out for me, I don’t have to give any credit to the outline or to those who developed the outline before me. My success is due to my cleverness, my persistence, and general brilliance. It’s a neat package. When things work out, I’m awesome and when they don’t, I’m just unlucky.

Here’s the thing. I’m fine with following the outline, keeping it between the lines, most of the time, in most situations and with most things. The fact of it is that I’m about ninety–eight percent okay with sticking to the outline. If I make a thousand choices and decisions, nine hundred and eighty times I conform. It’s the other twenty times, that little two percent that is the sticker for me, my fly in the ointment.

Well, I know. I like to tell myself that I only ignore the outline two percent of the time, but that may be a gross under–representation. I don’t know what the right percent is but am pretty sure that it’s more than two percent. Whatever that number is, it has provided ample opportunity to screw up, along with plenty of chances to beat the odds.

It works like this. When I decide not to stick with the outline, I’m taking a chance. My best chance for an adequate or acceptable outcome is when conforming, when sticking to the outline. Tossing aside the outline is risky. Sure, the possibility of a better outcome is there, but so is the possibility of getting a worse outcome, and maybe even the possibility of crashing. It’s definitely chancy.

There is another risk or downside to skipping the outline. If things work out, people are unlikely to think that I’m clever and certainly not brilliant. Instead, they most likely think I’m just lucky. Conversely, if things don’t work out, do they think I was just unlucky? Of course not. They just shake their heads and wonder how I could have been so stupid. If I decide not to follow the outline, the odds of an acceptable outcome go down and, depending on how it turns out, I’ll be seen as either just lucky or stupid.

Here’s the thing. From time to time, I’m tempted to skip the outline, to ignore the path between the lines. Should I resist the temptation? Of course, I should. Will I resist the temptation? Usually I will, but now and then, I’ll take a chance.

The decision to take a chance can get complicated. It has to do with risk and reward for sure, but mostly has to do with the status quo. If the temptation represents no risk to the status quo, I might as well give in to the temptation. If there are no potentially negative consequences, why not? Even if there may be minimal negative consequences, I might go ahead so long as I’m not making a habit of taking chances. It keeps things from being too bland and boring. Besides, it might work out fine or just be a lot of fun. Even if not, things will still be okay.

If the temptation or opportunity potentially jeopardizes the status quo though, the risk versus reward equation comes into play. Like most everyone else, I have sometimes wondered why people stay in jobs they hate, continue living with people who they dislike or who hurt them, persist in behaving in ways that expose them to negative consequences, or more generally, take no definitive steps to disrupt their status quo.

But as much as I wonder, the answer is easy. They fear an outcome for themselves or perhaps for others that would be worse than the status quo. As bad as it is, trying to change would most likely make things worse for them or for people about whom they care. The risk reward equation strongly tips toward risk and bad outcomes.

Although I do ignore the outline now and then, I’m fairly conservative. I need to be dissatisfied with the status quo before doing much that represents any risk to the status quo. Furthermore, that dissatisfaction has to persist over an extended period of time. I need to be sure dissatisfaction is not just a passing thing. Even then, there has to be a high probability of re–establishing a satisfactory status quo after the disruption. I’m okay with a temporary disruption, but I need to have a clear plan for re–establishing equilibrium. I take some risk, but not a lot.

Why? Fortunately for me, the harshest negative driver I’ve had to deal with is needing to change jobs, including moving. Even then, the prospect of an equal or better job was either guaranteed or extremely likely. There was never much threat to what was for me, a quite acceptable status quo. Sure, I’ve been lucky.

Here’s the thing. Things do happen and situations develop that neither I nor anyone else could have anticipated or planned for. Life does have its random elements. Even so, for me and for other lucky folks like me, the likelihood of experiencing one of those random elements that I can’t manage or at least recover from is quite low. Nonetheless, the possibility is always there.

Unfortunately, for other people, the likelihood of random events or circumstances that they can’t manage or recover from is significantly higher. Why? They don’t have the resources or life experience that make me and others like me less vulnerable. There really is a fundamental unfairness that disadvantages some of us more than others of us.

It’s important for me to emphasize the point that infrequently there is no outline, no way of knowing how to proceed. The truth of this is real and unfairly disadvantages some of us more than others of us. This harsh reality not withstanding, my interest here is on choices and decisions I make and not so much on the randomness and chaos that rarely is at play for me and others like me. My point relates to those times when I knowingly and intentionally choose to ignore the outline, disregard advice or guidance from people who have relevant experience and expertise, choose to listen to my intuition and judgment, those times when I think I know best, whether others agree or not.

Here’s the thing. When I ignore the outline, don’t keep it between the lines, decide that I know best, I don’t proceed willy–nilly. I still need to know where the lines are that I need to keep between, what my personal guidance tells me I should do and should avoid. This is not the same as an action plan or knowing what specific steps I will take. Rather, it’s the template I always use when I have decided that I know best, know better than those who might advise me. I like to think of this as judgment mediated by experience.

There are a few elements in my When Taking a Chance Template that are not open for debate. They have no preferred order or priority. They just are what they are.

The status quo does not have a warranty. I have no assurance that things won’t change unexpectedly or adversely.

My status quo is organized and functioning perfectly to get the outcomes I am getting, no more, no less, for better or worse.

Circumstances and conditions necessarily change over time. I have no alternative but to adjust to and deal with those changes.

Before I make any significant changes or finalize any important decisions, I need to know the worst possible outcome and how I will deal with it if it happens.

Before I make any significant choices or important decisions, I need to know the likelihood of success and the potential harm or risk for me and for others in my circle.

There is a critical difference between managed risk and gambling.

Irreversible choices or decisions rarely have to be made right now. There is time to think about it. If I am feeling pressure to choose or decide immediately, my default response is, “No.”

Never discount the echo effect of choices and decisions, especially those that don’t work out as hoped. This means that negative outcomes frequently spawn negative outcomes which in turn spawn negative outcomes. It can sometimes take a long time for the repercussions to extinguish.

Here’s the thing. Making choices and decisions is not optional. Situations come up, circumstances develop, things happen. The river keeps flowing. We could just not make choices, could decline to decide. We could let ourselves and others in our circle drift wherever the currents take us. Of course, that would itself be a choice, a decision of sorts. Not an attractive option for me, but still a choice, a decision option.

Since not choosing or not deciding aren’t actual options, I prefer my judgment mediated by experience. I consider my options and opportunities and then bring out my decision template. Keeping the process inside the parameters of the template, I fall back on my judgment and experience to come up with what I think is the best choice or decision I can make at the time. At that point, it’s time to take a deep breath and follow through with what I think is best for me and for the others in my circle.

If things work out okay – and they usually do – all is well. If not, I already know what I’ll do to manage that contingency. That possibility was covered in my decision template.

Here’s the thing. All there is for me –– or anyone else for that matter –– is to do my best to do my best. Most of the time, I keep it between the lines, counting on the experience and wisdom of others. But now and then, I believe that I need to move out on my own, depending on my judgment mediated by experience to keep me between the lines I’ve defined for myself.

Is that a perfect strategy? Does it always get the outcomes I want and expect? Is my strategy the best there can be? Am I an expert at keeping it between my lines? No, but I’m getting better and better at doing better and better. I think that’s about as good as it ever gets.

Now you know, so there you go. Trust your judgment mediated by your experience. It’s your best shot at success.