Everything You Need to Know About Making Good Decisions

change creator amani institute decision making

What decisions are you making? How do you know you are making good decisions?

Understanding why you want to make a difference and the internal and external options you have right now to make it happen can show you what you can do today to get on the path to bringing your vision to life or narrowing down what it is exactly.

However, it’s one thing to say I want to change my life—or the world—and another to follow through with it. Life happens no matter what we do. And if we don’t bring consciousness to our decision making, we will forever live based on external stimuli and internal patterns we don’t recognize as they are playing out in our daily lives.

Daniel Kahneman, arguably one of the most important contemporary psychologists, demonstrates clearly how we like to think of ourselves as rational in our decision making while the truth is that we are subject to many biases in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

As Change Creators, we can’t afford to ignore the intricacies of our decision making.

The Twin Sister of Decision

When Ilaina Rabbat and Roshan Paul decided to build Amani Institute, they were both working at Ashoka. They used their vacation time to do initial sensing, spent nights working on the concept, connections and strategies, hosted meet-ups to come up with a name and logo and finally moved to Nairobi, Kenya to start building the Institute on the ground.

In the process, they had to make a million different decisions. Literally.

The most important one, however, was to commit to making it happen.

Commitment is the twin sister of decision.

Your fears, internal and external options, your strengths and interests, and real or perceived opportunity costs all color the decisions you are making. What makes them count, however, is your commitment.

The Visible and Invisible Leap of Faith

Decisions don’t have to be literal leaps of faith.

Roshan and Ilaina didn’t immediately quit their jobs to start their social enterprise; they took time to prepare the ground. The visible leap of faith—relocating, starting the program, and such—was preceded by an invisible one that was the commitment to creating an answer to a problem they perceived: the lack of the equivalent to a medical training school for people who want to build careers of meaning and impact.

For some people, it helps to publicly say they want to run a marathon to actually follow through with it.

But others experience a sudden lack of energy after sharing with someone that they want to write a book, for example, or want to tackle a difficult problem in the world.

Sometimes, sharing your invisible leap of faith too early and with too many people can also take energy out of it as you get confronted with everyone’s opinions about your decision.

Ground yourself before you make it public.

A compass for decisions:

1. The Cause

When I asked Tosh Juma, who is launching Nairobi Design Institute, an Impact Design Academy in Kenya, what he thinks when he hears “decision making,” his answer was fast as lightning: “The cause.”

If you are aligned with something that is bigger than you, your fears, and your shortcomings, you will figure things out.

Sometimes, that means continuing with your job and moonlighting your idea.

Sometimes the “cause” is not a specific social change topic but just the commitment to doing work that is impactful.

Or it means figuring out that you actually are not a social entrepreneur but rather an intrapreneur, and there is nothing wrong with that if it still furthers the cause you are committed to.

2. Fears, Values, and Happiness

Double-check your story to see if your decision is disguising a fear that you can actually face.

In my last column, we spoke about a fear practice you could develop to make sure you are familiar with your fears and build courage to face them.

For example, one of our alumni decided to build a career working in the nonprofit sector but realized that she would really have more impact in her previous company that wanted her back.

She faced her fears of falling into old patterns and negotiated a new role that allows her to innovate from within and create cultural impact through a very large media company in Europe.

Her decisions pivoted as she worked through her fears, but the commitment to the cause (creating positive social impact through her work) didn’t change.

What is crucial when we talk about fears and commitment is Peter Senge’s distinction between creative and emotional tension. Your fears can create an emotional tension causing you to lower your vision or giving up altogether in the worst case.

Focusing on your commitment, accepting reality, and remaining open to different ways to making your vision come alive will help you build the ability to remain in creative tension that inspires finding better solutions to achieving your goals.

Sometimes, we think we don’t do something because of a lack of courage.

An interesting reframe of such a situation happened when I ran into an alumnus who remained in his family business instead of starting his own social enterprise as he initially envisioned.

He shared with me that he realized it wasn’t really a lack of courage but a very strong value around family that kept him there. A clash of values doesn’t have to create “either-or” situations for you.

In my last column, I shared the “Third Horizon” framework that can help in such a situation: You can build towards a more significant shift of your work in the future by including small things in your daily or weekly routine that help you build expertise and experience.

Read here for more about how values affect your decisions.

Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert presents some very interesting research on how our beliefs about what makes us happy are often wrong and how that translates into bad decisions.

Watch his TED talk – Why We Make Bad Decisions

Decision-making tools are only as good as you know yourself

There are many tools that can help you with the actual decision making, ranging from flipping a coin to elaborate frameworks that can help you weigh your options. I particularly like these 52 skills on mindtools.com or this great “Beginner’s Guide to Better Decision Making” by James Clear.

Oftentimes, you won’t know all the answers and have to follow your gut instinct, or you are someone who always does that but needs to start being more analytical in how you are making decisions.

In the context of the Inner Journey, this type of self-reflection is crucial to understanding where your strengths and weaknesses lie. And in the context of social change work, this sometimes translates into a matter of life and death of people you are working with, or puts you in an ethical dilemma that you can’t resolve but still have to act on.

Decision fatigue is a reality and can be a serious problem. Taking a hard look at all the decisions you make on a daily basis and seeing which ones you can eliminate can be very helpful. Remember: Habits replace willpower and making decisions requires a lot of willpower!

Community of Practice

Last but not least, a community of practice and support is incredibly important when you are making important decisions.

Join a group of likeminded people such as the Change Creator Facebook Group – I Am A Change Creator, a Fellowship, or make a point of getting your friends together to support you when you are taking the leap.The ones that will pick you up when you get knocked down and encourage you to try again.

As Brene Brown puts it in her talk “Why It Isn’t Your Critics Who Count”:

“yes, it was as terrible as you thought it was, but you were brave, and now let’s go try it again.”

Don’t let noise distract you.

Know who the people are who are also in the arena and keep on building a better world!


Asking for feedback from experienced professionals and friends, finding your blind spots, and checking your assumptions have to become habits if you want to improve your decision making.

You can google decision-making tools, but they are only as good as your ability to self-reflect and your commitment to making change happen.

Understanding why you want to create change and exploring both your internal and external options to making it happen can help you understand what decision you need to make next as a Changemaker.

Expanding your ability to be increative tension instead of letting emotional tension snap you back is crucial to honoring your commitments.

Creating Change from the Inside Out as a Social Entrepreneur

change creator self development

“When it comes to action” he said, “you have to think about building a team, partnerships, testing your idea, developing your business, a business model, raising funds, creating an advisory board and a board of directors or scaling your work…” James gets nods of agreement from the rest of the Fellows, some offered additional points to consider.

All of them had shared ideas of what is needed at each point of the framework underlying the course we call the ‘Inner Journey of the Changemaker’ at Amani Institute. I took a deep breath. This was my fourth year facilitating the course and each time this is the moment when I get excited because this is where things get real.

It’s not difficult to think of the elements needed to start, build and grow a social enterprise. What we usually come to think of way later, when we are in the midst of what they call ‘baptism by fire,’ is how we as a person affect the outcomes of all the above. To a large extent, our work stands and falls with ourselves.

change creator amani instituteBuilding a team – how do you choose the right people? How do the ways you have come to learn to communicate, resolve conflicts and navigate people’s strengths, and weaknesses affect the outcomes of your work? How does your weak follow-up game affect your partnerships? Or are you too eager? How does your fear that they might not like your work, or worse, yourself, affect your communication and strategy with them? What about your relationship to hearing ‘No’ and general rejection?

How does your fear that your idea may not be that good affect your prototyping? Or maybe you don’t have fears but are overtly confident and don’t know it, but you are a terrible listener, and your design thinking prototype sucked and just served to check a box but didn’t provide you actual information to co-create a solution to the problem you want to address?

What about developing the business? Are you prioritizing things right? Wait, did you already burn out? Do you know how to sustain your health, relationships, and family while pursuing that dream of change?

What about your relationship with money? Do you know how to understand potential funders and how your story connects with their desires? Did you learn how to pitch but you still find 1001 reasons to procrastinate building the pipeline? Do you over-promise? Do you sleep at night?

Do you have the courage to ask the right people to join your advisory board or board of directors? Do you know when is the right moment to ask them? Are you self-deprecating or too pushy? Do you know how to listen?

“The quality of your work, no matter as an entrepreneur or as an intrapreneur, depends on how you can navigate yourself and grow into who you truly want to become.”

Do you know yourself? Do you know that changing the world requires changing yourself?

Looking at James and the 18 other Fellows from 10 different countries and incredibly diverse backgrounds, I said: ‘Welcome to the Inner Journey of the Changemaker. In this course, we will explore what it takes to unlock your potential and sustain your work in the long run. To every external aspect of our work is an inner aspect that is determined by our story and who we have become. The quality of your work, no matter as an entrepreneur or as an intrapreneur, depends on how you can navigate yourself and grow into who you truly want to become.’

It blows my mind that we still don’t have curricula in mainstream education – from Kindergarten to University – that take advantage of the vast knowledge out there on how to unlock our potential, become more resilient and flexible in how we communicate and resolve conflicts, instead of depending on replicating our families’ and communities’ patterns. There is a reason we have a multi-billion dollar coaching – and therapy – industry.

In this ongoing column, I will share insights we have gathered at Amani Institute teaching ‘the Inner Journey of the Changemaker’ which is an integral part of our Postgraduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management aimed at helping people to build careers of meaning and impact.

Next, I will explore the issue of passion and purpose and how understanding your true north can set the direction and impact of the change you want to create.

Put yourself out there and do work that creates value for people and the planet with the skills you already have: This is an instant recipe for meaning.

Moment of Obligation

“I do this because when I got raped and when I got my diagnosis, I wished there was a safe space where people had shared their narratives that I could tap into and get the strength to move forward.” Sitawa Wafula, Amani Institute alumni and New Voices Fellow at Aspen Institute, shares her personal story as a rape survivor and mental health diagnosis as part of her work championing Mental Health in Africa and beyond through ‘My Mind My Funk’ – a information and support hub located in Kenya.

In her story, she didn’t really see any other option but create a solution for something she needed – her life’s purpose revealed itself in her greatest struggle.

Stories like this carry immense power in their vulnerability and in how they show how the medicine you create for your wounds sometimes can become your biggest gift to the world. However – not all Changemakers have such stories or are aware of the power of their own.

In a world of which we speak a lot about passion, more and more people are asking how they can connect this to purpose. A reason to get out of your bed every morning that is larger than yourself.

I work with people who are looking to switch their career from the private to the social change sector as well as professionals who have hit a wall in their work as a social entrepreneur or NGO employee or students who know that they ‘want to change the world’ but are not sure yet really how.

There are two reasons why better understanding your underlying motifs and the values that guide them is relevant for you as a Changemaker:

  • There are many, many, many challenges – and tackling them is incredibly challenging. So, first of all, if you get lost in the jungle of options, it helps to know what is most important to you to make decisions.
  • And secondly, of you get tired and lose all hope it helps to remember why you are doing this to refuel and recover.

So you need both – a guiding star and an anchor. You need your vision and your why. In his book “Sharing Wisdom From Over 125 Outstanding Leaders”, acclaimed former Medtronic CEO Bill George calls this the ‘True North.’

One thing we can learn from people who have a track record in sustaining a career in creating social change is that they are deeply aligned with their ‘why.’

One of our instructors, Jerry White, who is known for leading high-impact campaigns including the historic International Campaign to Ban Landmines that won a Peace Nobel Prize in 1997, points out that most social entrepreneurs are very clear about what they want to do and how they are going to do it but not why.

Why you do it is an inquiry into who you are, something that in philosophy and wisdom scriptures all over the world is at the core of transformational leadership narratives. He claims that if we use technical solutions in a knowledge-based approach, we often create more damage than good and miss a wiser approach that arises when we are aligned with our ‘True North.’

Watch him speak about this in detail in this video taken during an Ashoka Fellowship Program:

Not every story is as seemingly clear-cut as Sitawa’s. Some people have a single transformative moment; others have a feeling it has always been in their cards to do what they do, and others have more of a slow burning that reveals itself over time in the conviction that a fulfilling life includes answering the question what the world needs from them.

For those who are desperately looking to find a name for their purpose, I strongly recommend to taking the pressure off the Quest. As Dr. Vincent Ogutu, Vice Dean Executive Talent Development at Kenya’s Strathmore Business School shared with our Fellows at Amani Institute: Put yourself out there and do work that creates value for people and the planet with the skills you already have: This is an instant recipe for meaning. You may stumble over your deeper ‘why’ in the process, as he did when doing an impromptu speaking engagement in a prison – but you don’t need to have it to start doing meaningful work.

Ways of inquiring your moment(s) of obligation include identifying your values and vision through biographic work or looking into what we call the ‘wound-gift’ concept. You can do it by yourself or with a mentor or coach. In any case it is a process of inquiry that needs your engagement with the world to fully reveal itself – reflection alone doesn’t cut it.

This article was originally published in two part for issue 4 and 5 of Change Creator magazine by Geraldine Hepp of the Amani Institute.