Secrets to Success from 5 Famous Decision Makers

Nadav Shemer
Famous people earn their success by making good decisions

It’s been estimated that the average American makes around 70 conscious decisions per day, from minor decisions like which route to take to work to major ones like where to buy a home.

Whether you’re a big-shot CEO or just a regular Joe, every decision affects your life. Finding a better route can give you more time each week to spend on things other than sitting in traffic. Buying a home in the right neighborhood can make you happier and give your kids greater opportunities.

Searching for decision-making tips? We can turn to famously good decision makers for guidance.

Be Like Ike and Do, Decide, Delegate, Delete

Dwight Eisenhower

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A big problem many of us face in our lives is analysis paralysis, i.e. the inability to make a decision. This typically happens when our to-do list gets too long. We look over the list, see how much there is to get done in such a short amount of time—and panic. Instead of crossing out part of the to-do list, we end up getting nothing done at all.

Dwight Eisenhower, popular World War II general and later president of the United States, had a good antidote to analysis paralysis. “Ike,” as he was best known, suggested dividing all tasks into 4 quadrants based on their level of urgency and importance. 

The “Do” quadrant is for tasks that are both important and urgent. “Plan” (or schedule) is for tasks that are important but not urgent. “Delegate” (to other people) is for tasks that are urgent but not important. And “Eliminate” is for the tasks that are neither urgent nor important.

Eisenhower died in 1969, but his matrix has lived on. Millions of people know about it from the world-renowned 1980s best-seller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” There’s even an “Ike” app in the Android and Apple stores.

Be Like Mike and Learn from Your Failures 

Michael Jordan was one of the most successful athletes in history. In an NBA career spanning 15 seasons and 2 comebacks, he led the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA championships, was named NBA Finals MVP 6 times, overall NBA MVP 5 times, and was the league’s scoring champion 10 times. He also found time to star in the original Space Jam film (successfully) and try out for Major League Baseball (unsuccessfully).

You don’t get to where MJ did without learning from your failures, and according to his own admission he had plenty of them.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career,” Jordan said in a famous Nike ad. “I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Even if you never take one shot in a pro sports game, the message is simple: learn from your failures. Make one bad decision and it’s a learning experience. Repeat that bad decision and you haven’t been paying attention.

Lean In to Feedback Like Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The phrase about “standing on the shoulders of giants” is usually associated with 17th-century English physicist Isaac Newton, although it can be traced back to 12th-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres. The point is nobody gets things done on their own—we all build on discoveries or decisions made by other people.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and author of the best-seller “Lean In,” understands this principle. That’s why she’s one of the biggest proponents in the business world of giving and getting feedback. 

The ability to take feedback is one of the biggest skills Sandberg looks for in employees. As she has said, “People who can take feedback well are people who can learn and grow quickly.”

You don’t have to be applying for a job in Silicon Valley to benefit from feedback. Even the most basic decisions can be made easier if you get help from others. 

Think about your daily routine. You might use Waze or Google Maps to find the best route to work. You might ask a colleague which top or tie looks best for an important business meeting. And you might look at a comparison website before buying a product or service. In all these cases, you’re acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers, and getting feedback from the crowd before making a final decision.

Think Long Term Like Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Warren Buffett isn’t just one of the world’s most successful investors, he’s also the most respected. Millions of people, from Wall Street bankers to mom-and-pop investors, scour Buffett’s annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter for clues on what to invest in and what not to invest in. 

Buffett has succeeded largely because he takes a long-term view on all decisions. “Our favorite holding period is forever,” is one of his most well-known quotes. Another is: “If you aren’t thinking about owning a stock for 10 years, don’t even think about owning it for 10 minutes.”

In the bestseller “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman shows how human beings have 2 systems of mental processing: System 1, a fast system, and System 2, a slow system. System 1 is the emotional brain. It makes quick decisions without any conscious thought. System 2 is the logical brain. It makes slower decisions, taking the time to analyze the available information. Buffett and other successful decision-makers know when to deploy System 2 thinking.

Trust Your Gut Like Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz

Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

It might sound contradictory, but don’t ignore your System 1 brain. Sometimes your gut (or, more formally, your intuition) knows best.

Ask Howard Schultz. The ex-Starbucks chief is known for working on instinct. It’s worked for him many times, most famously when he ignored conventional wisdom about charging $3 for a cup of coffee (which was a lot of money in the 1990s).

Schultz isn’t the only successful businessperson that listens to their gut. As the Harvard Business Review has noted, former Chrysler chief Robert Lutz let his emotions guide him on multi-million dollar investments. Billionaire investor George Soros claims back pains have alerted him to troubles in the stock market. 

This doesn’t mean you should only listen to your emotions. But if you’ve done thorough research before a big decision, it’s good to trust your instincts to a certain degree and try not to not second-guess yourself.

Conclusion: Good Decision-Making Leads to Good Outcomes

You don’t need to be a president, business magnate, or sports star to make good decisions. All of us face multiple decisions every day. The path we take can have consequences for us and our loved ones in days, months and years from now. We can all learn from the best decision makers.

Nadav Shemer
Nadav Shemer specializes in business, tech, and energy, with a background in financial journalism, hi-tech and startups. He writes for where he discusses the latest innovations in financial services and products.