The Most Important Question

David Palumbo

This might sound really obvious, but I still stop and remind myself often enough that I thought it might deserve a short post.  As a freelancer (though I expect this is a universal feeling) I often find myself faced with temptations or difficult choices and desiring advice.  What do I say to a rude client?  Do I take a very appealing super rush job even though I‘m already busy?  Should I ship my work to the next convention or drive it?  For that matter, should I even do (insert name of convention)?  Do I make time for this group gallery show even though the piece might not sell?  What direction should my next personal piece go in?

You get the idea.  I’ve noticed that, for many “should I go with A or B (or C, D, or E)?” questions that are also somewhat abstract in nature, the major anxiety is in uncertainty over the best course of action.  Once a plan is in motion, or even a decision made, the anxiety lifts and then it is just about getting to work.  Before that can happen though, it is the fear of making the wrong choice that makes me pace in circles and discuss pros and cons with my cats.  So often, the anxiety inducing situation is as simple as “what do I say in this email concerning a delicate situation?” and the hours tick by while I avoid committing to a decision.

But the solution is always the same, and that is to ask myself: “What is it that I actually want?”

Like I said, obvious.  But I forget this all the time and, when I remind myself, a solution is usually soon to follow.  The funny thing is that these problems are usually easy to give advice on, but I lock up when they concern me.  I get distracted by emotional nuances and peripheral maybes and forget to just look at the big obvious picture.  Also, my form of advice is usually asking questions to boil things down, so I guess it’s not too different.  In the end, it always comes down to “What do I want and what steps will get me there?”

I want to stress that a tremendously useful place to remember this is in communication, and especially business related communication.  Sometimes we want to be right or we want the other person to know they are wrong.  That’s just in the moment though (never answer an email angry) and it is usually an obstacle to whatever you actually do want.  Even when a client or collector is being obnoxious or nitpicky or their idea won’t work, simply pointing out what a pain in the ass they are to deal with isn‘t really accomplishing anything other than making me look like a petty jerk.  So I’m right and they are wrong (theoretically), so what? Good for me, I get nothing useful from that.  Usually what it comes down to isn’t “I want to be right” so much as “I want accounting to send me that check that is three months late” or “I want this client to trust me enough to quit micromanaging.”  When I identify what I really want to get from the exchange, the best path forward almost always requires diplomacy for the best chance at success.  Even in a pointless argument on Facebook (which I probably would not have waded into if I’d asked myself that one big question at the outset) it should ultimately comes down to asking what is to be gained and let that guide me.  If the only thing I’m fighting for is to be the smartest person in a stupid argument, it is possible I could find a more productive use for my time.

Besides controlling ego, this really is helpful for the gut-check business decisions that happen on a regular basis.  How I attend a convention is all about having a clear goal.  Doing work below budget or when the deadline is uncomfortable almost always becomes a clear “yes” or “no” when I determine if it is both possible AND worth the sacrifice (making inroads with a new client/industry or working on a property which adds enough to my big picture identity as an artist for example.)

The next time that you find yourself facing a nebulous cloud of options, take a moment to ask what the ideal outcome is and see if it doesn’t bring things a bit more into focus.