People-First Decision Making

The mental model that has been most helpful to me in making big life/work decisions is what I think of as “people-first decision making.” This just means that given the many dimensions that factor into a decision, I try to prioritize the people more than anything else.

This is pretty intuitive when it comes to personal relationships — of course we should prioritize people above all else when it comes to our life partner or close friends!

But let’s say you’re making a big work decision, like deciding if you should stay at your current job or leave to start a company. What are the major factors? It could be financial — how much money you think this new company could make vs. what you make now. If you’re in tech, maybe it’s important how interesting and challenging the technology is. Maybe you’re excited about the idea — i.e., the mission behind the company excites you.

To me, while those are all considerations, by far the most important factor is the people you’re working with, whether it’s peers or your manager or potential co-founders. How aligned are you in terms of values and priorities? Is there a personality fit? Is there mutual trust and respect? Do you feel you can learn from those people (and they can learn from you)?

The thing is, you never know what’s going to happen. Ideas change. Impact is hard to measure. Money can lead you down short-term paths.

People are the invariant.

Jeff Bezos asks "What’s not going to change?" when evaluating Amazon’s strategy. This is a similar idea, but for people. People don’t really change (if they do, they do so more slowly than other things). So if you ask yourself “what’s not going to change after I make this big decision?”, the answer is almost always: the people.

This is true of teams too — the dynamics between people, while somewhat more malleable than the individuals themselves, tend to stay the same (a poor relationship is hard to salvage and a good relationship is resilient). When it comes to starting companies, a great team can weather storms of uncertainty and come out the other side with a completely different idea, a different way of making money, a different impact.

The people you work with and spend your life with are a big (if not the biggest) influence on your happiness. Everything you do as a business or organization is a function of the people involved. All the ideas you have, the choices you make (good and bad) — product, strategy, tech, business, sales. It’s a direct result of the people involved, and their relationships with one another.

I’ve found that choosing people first, even if it means letting go of an idea, or working with technology that isn’t cutting edge, or taking a path where you might make less money, has made all the difference in my life.

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