The term ‘decisive moment’ was coined by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He used it to describe that fraction of a second when a photographer is able to capture the magic of a person or an event he is photographing.
As he put it to the Washington Post in 1957: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know, with intuition, when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever. That decisive moment makes the difference between a good picture and a great one. It is also true of life. Each of us faces decisive moments, when we have to make critical choices in our lives.”
My brother Ivan, when talking to students, explained the difference between memorable moments and decisive moments. He used a few examples. Here’s one — Dhoni’s last ball six to win the world cup in 2011. It capped an incredible campaign and the whole country rejoiced. But was it a decisive moment for Dhoni? No, Ivan explained. It was a memorable moment.
The decisive moment came years earlier when Dhoni, who used to play football, was encouraged by his coach to try cricket. When he made that decision to switch to cricket, that was Dhoni’s decisive moment, which led to winning the World Cup and many more memorable moments.
Choice you make
For many of us — business students and business managers — who are beginning our careers, our decisive moments are happening right now. Are we being watchful of them? Do we recognise them? And more importantly, do we grasp the moment and act on it?
Some critical decisive moments are our choice of academic courses we pursue, of the specialisation within the course, the choice of career and our first job. How do we make the best of those decisive moments?
Jim Collins outlined a great framework, drawing three circles that intersect. It took the Hedgehog concept that he used so effectively in his book Good to Great to demonstrate how great companies, despite their size can harmonise the three circles. He went one step further to adapt it to the personal level. These circles represent something we all have.
This circle represents our strengths, our special skills, our special talents, all the stuff we are good at. How can our strengths inform and influence our decisions? Am I choosing to specialise in HR just because my classmates are choosing it or because I have specific strengths that will help me succeed as a future HR professional?
Are these strengths going to be marketable? Will companies or customers be willing to pay for the benefits I can create using these strengths? In simple terms, it means being aware of these strengths, focusing on them and sharpening them.
The second circle stands for passion. Careers are marathons, not sprints. Passion is what fuels marathons. Sometimes we make choices that are money driven, but self-defeating. But will money matter when we neither find nor lend meaning to life? Will I care enough about this path to stick at it through not just the good times, but also the tough times? Ten years down the road, will I still love going to work, doing this and making a difference?
Steve Jobs, for example, took a decision to attend a calligraphy class at Stanford, and credited that decisive moment with creating the design philosophy that helped Apple become aspirational for the world. It helped him make money and gave him meaning. The relentless focus on it helped draw great talent and build a great company.
Perhaps this is the most powerful circle. Jim Collins explains, ‘It is that which you are genetically encoded to do’. Some people go through their entire lives just living in their proficiency circle, others in their passion circle. But only the rare few get all three circles to intersect.
For example, Elon Musk believes his purpose is to revolutionise the way humans travel. It’s what drives his two companies — Tesla, which is seeking to make electric vehicles the transport medium of the future, and SpaceX, which is literally busting the boundary on travel. His purpose powers his decisions, schedules his time, prioritises allocation of his resources, guides his hiring decisions and governs the risks he is willing to take.
Discovering our purpose is a journey. We need listen to what life tells us, draw lessons from our career highs and lows, mine the field of our competence to dig out nuggets of strength. We need to discover the needs we are drawn to, and read signals others send us. When this plan of action is followed consistently, we unlock the mystery of our purpose.
Walking the wrong path
Some of the unhappiest people are those who have ignored these guidelines in profiting from the decisive moments. They are trapped in careers they hate, in companies they would rather not work for, and do things that give them no meaning. Their sad experiences should prompt us to make the most of the decisive moments that come our way and handle them with care and patience.
One shocking reason people offer to justify a wrong path is, “But I’ve already come so far”. This excuse is re-phrased in different ways. “But I’ve spent years preparing for the entrance exam to get into this course”; “But I’ve spent years in this career”. I have a simple trigger when I’m tempted by a similar rationale — “Just because you are two-thirds of the way down the wrong road, is no reason to continue going down the rest of the one-third.”
As veterans will tell you, when you near the sunset of your life, your regrets are not the things you did but often the things you didn’t. So let’s pledge to recognise and seize those decisive moments in our lives.
They rarely come calling again.