Thinking Like a Consultant: Paralysis by Analysis


It was 5:45am on a Wednesday in June this year. I had a flight out, but it wasn’t the one I should have been on. I had a chance the day before to go big and love someone extravagantly, but I didn’t finish strong. I exhibited the one dark downside of thinking like a consultant: paralysis by analysis.

Sometimes, being a consultant is the worst. The way I view the world often paralyzes me. And while I love all that my training as a consultant gave me, please don’t fall into the trap that says “thinking like a consultant” is the best way to approach every area of your life.

The week before, I had arrived in Atlanta for a work conference focused on MBA career professionals. The conference was well-organized and well-attended – but I had a side story unfolding.

My husband and my 4-year-old son came with me on this particular trip, and we stayed with my sister-in-law and her family in Atlanta. (One of the privileges of owning my own consulting business is that I can now always answer that I’m traveling for business and pleasure.) I have a good relationship with my husband’s family, but there is a gap between good and great that I long for us to cross. I am the first to confess that I don’t always know how to demonstrate love to his sister or her family, and I don’t always feel loved when I am with them.

But that’s another story. In this episode, I want to share how I am learning about communication, passion, conviction, and scenarios – and the paralysis that comes from applying a consulting paradigm to your personal life. It’s the one dark downside to the power of the structured, rational approach of a consultant. 

In the first few days at their house, I made 2 realizations:

1. My husband and I, although we have been married for 7 years, aren’t really sure who should be the primary communicator with his family. As a female, it’s natural for me to communicate with his sister, but they’ve known each other for 40+ years. Where exactly am I supposed to fit in?

2. No one in the mix communicates well. I am too direct for their family style. My husband is too indirect (he is a peacekeeper). My sister in law is vague and positive but not clear.

All of this led to a big miscommunication about a family vacation happening just after the conference. The original plan was to either go to my grandparent’s rustic cabin in the North Carolina mountains, or to go to the beach – our only constraint was that we needed to fly out on Wednesday.

One day in May, my sister in law called and said she was planning to book something at the beach to check in on Monday and check out the following Monday. It involved a 5-hour drive, complicated flights, general drama – and ultimately, only 2 days there. So we opted out, and just planned to spend time with them during the conference and head to the mountains on our own.

The problem was, I had no idea it was my South African mother-in-law’s 73rd birthday on the Tuesday we would have been at the beach together – and birthdays are a big deal to her.

Although the whole vacation-planning process had happened months before, I realized my omission during the conference. All of a sudden, we were stuck not knowing whether or not we should change our flights and just screw the mountains or to proceed as planned.

I looked at a bunch of scenarios, didn’t come up with good options, and we scrapped the idea of changing plans. It was just too hard, too impractical and too much work. I was 7 months pregnant, exhausted, and couldn’t muster the energy.

On Saturday morning, we headed to the mountains – just the 3 of us – for our final vacation before we become a family of 4. They left for the beach on that following Monday – driving 5 hours in the opposite direction.

Our first few days were great, relaxing, beautiful, and adventurous. We swam in mountain creeks, tried out new restaurants, and went boulder hopping. We had no TV or wifi connection, so we played cards and had a blast with our imaginations. I even cooked and cleaned and declared that I like doing it on vacation (my husband now wants to be on vacation forever). There were a few times I really thought about (and even brought up) making the 8-hour drive to the beach for his mom’s birthday, but it still didn’t seem to make sense.

But then in the middle of an adventure, creek hiking to a waterfall, my husband slipped and fell. Instead of making it to the waterfall, our third day was spent mostly in a hillbilly urgent care clinic. He got some X-rays and some stitches, but he was fine, albeit sore. As a man points bonus, he also looked like he’d been in a street fight, thanks to the sweet gash above his eye.

The next morning we got up early to do a real estate signing (it seems we always have to do these when we are not in the location where we are buying). It was the day of his mom’s birthday and after calling her, he said, “If you want to go, let’s go. It’s nuts, and it’s an 8 hour drive to hang out for less than 24 hours, but let’s do it.” Inspired, I checked numerous flight options, and even a charter service to avoid the drive, and we opted to just clean up, pack up and drive the rental car down – figuring it out along the way.

8 hours of driving in lots of traffic? Who cared?

After 2 quick stops in town, we had a moment to finally decide – fly (via Atlanta) or drive. We had thought driving was the best option, but given my 20 minutes to consider the options, it all of a sudden felt like we would get there late, so we just opted to head for the airport and hope for the best.

It was just over $1000 for the one-way flight for the 3 of us, but we would have gotten in at 11pm. The drive got us there at the same time. A $6500 charter flight would have bought us 3 hours to hang out. 

And we still had to fly out the next day – me to speak in New York, my husband to work on a real estate project in California.

I weighed all the scenarios. I really wanted to go – we all did – but after a final last-ditch stop at the general aviation center, where we found out you have to be licensed to run an air taxi service (they weren’t) – we called my husband’s mom and bailed on the plan.

That 4 hours of my day – deciding to go, and working on plans – were some of the most exciting and passion-filled of my life. But we didn’t follow through. Sure, we had a nice meal that evening on the river in Asheville, and we stayed in a convenient corporate chain hotel near the airport, but I couldn’t sleep that night.

My damn scenario planning had kept us from just going for it.

So I woke up in Asheville with this sadness hangover. We had missed an opportunity to show amazing love and maybe break through to better relationship with his family – and we didn’t take it. When I woke up, and all throughout that day, I was wondering why I wasn’t at the beach with my family-in-law.

What is the price tag on doing the right thing? $1000? $6500? Something more or less?

Did we have the 8 hours in the car or the $6500 to spend? I mean, yes, but it was RIDICULOUS.

At the same time – I realized I have become great at talking myself out of things that require courage, and even better at weighing scenarios until the process just honestly isn’t fun anymore.

And in the end – who cared? How many chances do we have to do something wildly extravagant for a 73-year-old who lives in South Africa? Don’t we have time to make the money back? Even if we hadn’t dropped the $6500 on the charter flight, if I had just said, “Drive to the beach and we’ll figure it out along the way” – we would have been late, but we would have made it to hug her on her birthday.

Is she not worth 8 hours in the car?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not beating myself up over this because I think it was a life and death decision. I’m not even upset because I never take risks. (I love to take risks – even absurd ones.)

It’s because for the 2nd time that I can remember, I talked myself out of the wild and wonderful option because I couldn’t decide until I’d looked at all the scenarios.

Fast forward to the present: this past Friday was my son’s birthday, I took the whole day off, and it was awesome.

I sat there at the pool, on a Friday, with all the other stay-at-home moms, thinking about how fortunate I am to have the life I have. If I were still at Bain, I might have been out of town, or presenting to a client. Instead, I put in those years so I can now make him pancakes, take a nap at the same time he does, and read him a book about birthdays on his birthday. I can be present, and extravagant with my time. I have a lot to be thankful for.

But what else do I want my life, and my relationships, to be known for?

Just 2 days later, I woke up on my birthday thinking about the year behind and the year ahead.

You guys – it’s time to take this life thing to the next level. Consulting is awesome – but it helps you learn how to analyze everything, play it safe, and come up with middle-of-the-road smart decisions that get you a long way on a straight road with just a little too little adventure on the way. 

Let’s stop talking ourselves out of crazy things. Let’s start doing more, and thinking at least just a little bit less.

For my birthday, I decided to take it up a notch this year. Courage first, scenarios later.

Want to join me?