The Cohort: Making decisions when you’re in a cone of uncertainty
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
I made the call to get the hell out of Florida and drive to Atlanta last week. Hurricane Irma was projected to make landfall by the weekend, and I was scheduled to fly to Atlanta for work that Sunday. Driving meant that I would escape the storm, make it to my work meeting and take my champion of a dog, Henry, with me. Plus, I could work remotely from my mom’s apartment and make up for the time I spent on the road.
It was a pretty obvious choice to make, and yet I went back and forth, over and over, on my decision to drive to Atlanta. I dreaded leaving my house in case it suffered severe damage, and I wondered whether it was ridiculous to evacuate early if the storm wasn’t as bad as projected. I worried about heavy traffic, gas outages and missing important work. I second guessed and doubted myself until I finally — finally! — decided to leave.
As soon as Henry and I got to Atlanta, I knew that I had made the right choice. But I wasn’t alone; nearly all of my colleagues had to make similarly tough calls whether to stay or go.
All of that mental back and forth got me thinking about how we make decisions in the workplace. Making choices as journalists — decisions that affect colleagues, bear financial weight and impact audiences, many times under the pressure of breaking news — can be especially tough. How do you know what’s best for you and your teams? What’s the best way to project confidence, even if you’re unsure about the choice you made? And what if you do make the wrong choice?
I asked my Poynter colleagues for their thoughts on decision making at work, and collected some great advice. Whether you’re indecisive (hi, friends!) or someone who makes decisions with confidence, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind the next time you’re at a crossroads.
Trust your gut. Listening to your instincts is a good place to start. There’s proof that intuition can help you figure out the right choice in a given scenario. But relying on intuition alone is short-sighted. Ask yourself: What feels like the right choice? Start from there.
Do your research. Big decisions, especially ones that affect others, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Before I evacuated to Atlanta, I assessed local forecasts, plus the gas and traffic situation on the roadways. Having more information helped me feel more confident in my choice to leave. Another approach is to create pro/con lists, as fact-checking reporter Daniel Funke suggested. “Sometimes they take the form of written lists, sometimes they’re just a series of texts to someone outlining how I’m thinking about a situation,” he said. “But looking at how you feel about both/multiple sides on paper really, really helps.”
Find your Alexios. “One thing I do when I’m uncertain is ask Alexios,” said former colleague Ben Mullin, referring to coworker Alexios Mantzarlis. Mullin, who’s spontaneous and often takes the short-term view, is in many ways a polar opposite to Mantzarlis, who’s a planner and usually thinks long-term. Together, they make a great team. Finding someone who you trust, but whose approach differs from yours, can be invaluable in the workplace.
Give yourself a time limit. Journalists know how to perform under deadline. “One trick for me is to remind myself that certain decisions are only worth so much time,” said Poynter vice president Kelly McBride. “Once I’ve gone over that time limit, I just need to make the decision.” If you’re struggling to come to a choice, setting a deadline and letting others know (“Team, I’ll have an answer for you by EOD today.”) will help you take action. Remember, though, that the best decisions aren’t always the fastest ones. “Sometimes it’s wisest not to make a decision at all,” added leadership faculty Butch Ward. “We tend to value people who make quick decisions. I think more highly of people who make good decisions.”
Even ‘wrong’ decisions can be valuable. Even if you follow all these steps, there’s still a chance you might make the wrong choice. “My decision may not be the right one,” said NewsU manager Vidisha Priyanka. “I am ready to admit a mistake and change course. I see it as an organically evolving process.” But the wrong choice still has its benefits. Many times, there’s an opportunity to learn from a mistake and apply those lessons the next time you’re faced with a similarly tough decision. Embrace the potential of failure — it takes the pressure off, and makes it easier to adjust plans as needed.
Being decisive is hardly a hot-button gender issue, but there can be a double standard in how we view men and women’s approach to making choices. “Women get externally penalized more for being over-confident. Men get externally penalized for being self-doubters,” explained McBride.
If you struggle with imposter syndrome — or, more accurately, are a high-performing person who experiences that phenomenon — it might be tough to make decisions with confidence. If that’s the case, it’s helpful to know where the second-guessing is coming from, and remember that it may not always be justified. Equip yourself with information, find a trusted ally, establish a deadline, remind yourself that you can always learn from failure and, if all else fails, fake it till you make it.
Things worth reading (and watching)
“So why are the well-employed, ambitious 30-year-olds of my acquaintance feeling so adrift?” I haven’t entirely decided what I think about this piece from The Cut, but it’s worth reading. (Anyone want to grab a drink afterwards and discuss?) A memorial fund has been set up to honor slain journalist Kim Wall — they’ve already raised more than $30,000! Beth Mowins just became the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game and the first in a national broadcast. Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth is kicking all sorts of ass. And this future weather reporter/camerawoman duo couldn’t be much cuter if they tried.
I first met Masuma Ahuja in 2015, when she was part of the inaugural class of the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Since then, I’ve been watching her career with awe as she’s found new niches, experimented with new platforms and told stories in new ways at both The Washington Post and CNN.
Ahuja, 27, is now about to become a freelancer in India. We caught up on her latest job change and how she decided to take such a big jump. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Today is your last day after two years at CNN. What are you up to next?
I’m moving from New York to Mumbai, India. I plan to freelance and report on (mostly) women’s and girls’ lives in the region, hopefully still in varied and compelling ways — with words and video and voice messages and social media and disposable cameras and more.
That’s a huge move! What went into your decision, and how did you ultimately decide to make the jump?
Over the last year, I slowly shifted how I thought about my job, my life and my career. Instead of thinking about what job I wanted or what I wanted my career to look like, I started thinking more and more about how I wanted to spend my days. And the answer was pretty clear: I wanted to be out in the world, reporting stories about women’s lives. The stories I wanted to report on didn’t fit neatly into one beat, one medium, or one organization, so freelancing felt more and more like a natural choice.
Figuring out how to make it work was the hardest part: Did I have enough money saved up to last me a few months? How would I get health insurance? What outlets could I pitch the types of stories I wanted to report and tell? Where could I move to? Finding answers to those questions helped make the decision feel less overwhelming.
Would you consider yourself a decisive or indecisive person? How does that affect you?
I’m pretty decisive. It comes in part from having a good sense of what I want and also from really thinking things through and making as informed a decision as I can. But just because I’m decisive doesn’t mean I’m not also anxious about the future or nervous about change.
What’s your best advice for someone who’s prone to second guessing herself too much?
Try and figure out what the underlying cause of your anxiety or second-guessing is. Are you afraid of change? Are you afraid of making the wrong decision? Are you afraid of upsetting others with your choice? Understanding why you’re indecisive will hopefully help you make better decisions. Also, deadlines are great!
Do you have a person (or people) who you tend to ask for a gut check when it comes to making decisions? Tell me about them. Why are they so helpful for you?
I have a handful of friends who are former colleagues — some peers, some mentors — who I turn to when making big career decisions,
What I find so helpful about talking things through with all of them is that they don’t tell me what they think is best or what they would do in my situation, but instead they help me figure out what I want and what makes the most sense for me. And it’s so helpful to turn to people who’ve worked with me, who’ve seen me through different jobs, who know what gets me excited and what frustrates me. Because when I’m mired in the specifics of a decision, they can help me step back and see the bigger picture.
What are you most excited about in your new adventure as a freelancer living in India? What makes you most nervous?
I’ve spent so much of the last few years thinking and talking about the types of stories I think we should be reporting and how I think they should be told. This is my chance to actually try and do that! I’m also excited because it’s a going home of sorts — I have family in Mumbai and spent a few years living there growing up, but I’ve never lived there as an adult, which I’m hoping will be a lot of fun! But I’m so nervous about … everything about freelancing and moving. What if nobody wants to run my stories? What if my ideas are bad? What if I make no friends? What if I fail?
Is there a big decision you’re facing right now? How are you planning to tackle it?
Every decision feels like such a big decision right now because I’m starting over, in some ways. The next few months will be full of firsts for me and I want to make sure I do things right. I’m hoping I can give myself space to fail a little so each decision doesn’t seem so overwhelming. But in reality, I’ll probably be anxiously texting friends in different timezones late at night asking for life advice, career advice and pep talks.
What would 18-year-old Masuma think of this move? What about current-day Masuma?
I think 18-year-old Masuma would be proud of me. And maybe wonder what took me so long to do this. Current-day Masuma is proud that I’m trying something new, even if it terrifies me.
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The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Thanks to editor extraordinaire Kristen Hare. I can’t wait to give her a post-Irma hug.