Deferring to Jefferson

I like it when I find a quote that really means something to me.

Thomas Jefferson said – “Delay is preferable to error.”

It’s quite possible you could sum up much of my character in that quote. Indeed, I get this very feature of my character picked up in personal development reviews year in, year out.

Paul, they say, people have commented that you don’t get involved enough in meetings. The other day, they’ll inform me, when we had that meeting with so-and-so, you didn’t say anything for the first half of meeting.

I don’t consider ‘delay’ a weakness. I know for a fact that other people have commented on those very individuals who launch into the fray simply to add something without really adding anything or perhaps who just want to hear the sound of their own voice. I’d ask the people who question my approach exactly what the people speaking for the sake of it really add to the occasion.

I recently attended an interview for a job where part of the assessment involved participation in a group discussion. Assessed and assessors all sat around a table in a large room facing each other. A non-participant handed out a sheet to each of the assessed and told them to read the outline for the session, then clicked a stopwatch and walked out of the room. The sheet explained the situation for discussion and explained what outcomes the assessors expected – namely a high level plan to resolve the situation outlined.

Now, I’m a slow reader. I frustrate myself with this trait, but I haven’t managed to find a way around it. I faced a piece of paper with three or four paragraphs on it – so, I just got down to reading, knowing that the others would likely finish long before me. Halfway down the sheet, everyone else started talking about the situation. I half listened and half read, knowing as I went that I’d need to read it again before all the detail sunk in.

Yes, I could have improvised. I could have taken a stab at throwing ideas out there, half-formed and potentially ill-advised. I could utter the first words and sound like an idiot. Or I could choose to keep quite and continue to absorb the incoming information.

The others in the session started having an entirely reasonable discussion about the situation, while I finished reading once and then started from the top again. I slipped a piece of scrap paper off a pile, drew a Sharpie from inside my jacket, and proceeded to scribble a mind-map type web. The hub of the diagram contained a note about what I needed to consider here – finding some kind of high level plan of resolution – and from there branches and twigs reached out to bubbles that outlined the key issues and how they interrelated.

I daresay, it might well have been 5 minutes before I managed to say anything at all. By then, I had read the paper three times and scribbled out a map of the whole situation. I took my Sharpie, stood up from my chair and suggested I bullet point the situation, fuelled by our discussion, as a means to outlining a plan of action.

I’m certain I did other things that day that might have supported by suitability for the role; but, in that moment I felt I had made the right decision, to read, consider and reflect before saying anything.

I delayed for good reason – and I often do. I would rather utter my first word with confidence. Other participants might get in dozens or hundreds of words before I offer a single input to the session; but, I prefer to offer something considered and constructive, with ideas and evidence to support what I have to say.

So, thanks Mr Jefferson. You uttered something worth saying, and it made my day.






One response to “Deferring to Jefferson”

  1. Chris Tregenza Avatar

    Not the Jefferson quote I expected and one I wasn’t aware of.

    Like you I tend to consider and plan over most decisions but nonetheless I would amend the quote to:

    “Delay is preferable to error but error is preferable to indecision.”

    Delay can easily turn into prevarication and indecision which leads to missed opportunities.

    Most decisions can be reversed if made in error and for those that can’t, the consequences of indecision are likely to be as bad as the consequences of a mistake.

    Of course choosing to delay to gather more information, as you did in your interview, is a decision in its own right.

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