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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Three things I learned about solving dilemmas

It’s Soulful Sundays! Replacing this week's Wise Wednesdays which was delayed as I had to focus on the launch of the Royal Society of Art's Coach-Link - a project to promote coaching for social impact by offering pro bono coaching.

Dilemma thinking… You know the type: “If I do this, then I get that but I don’t get the other thing; and if I do that, then I get this but I don’t get that other thing”… And on you go around and around to the edge of frustration and back. This can be a career decision, life decision or which pair of shoes/car to buy. Dilemmas can be addictive, by the way, (see video). One of my five 2017 goals was to take part in a sports competition (fencing). The opportunity came up and I was encouraged to take part. It was the logical thing to do. But I wasn’t convinced and brain fog set in… It took me back to my career wranglings when I really wanted to do international public health but the logical thing to do was NHS/community public health; mainly because that’s where the consultant jobs were and jobs were scarce. I was given the following counsel by the person who was to open doors at the United Nations…Her exact words were: “You can do it, Amina, but you’ll have to get out of your comfort zone”. Extrapolating from that advice, getting out of my comfort zone meant going to the competition, right? The slogans were ringing in my ears: “get out there and do your best!”; “give it your all!”; “face the fear and do it anyway!”; “yay!” But it felt hollow and off. So I decided to sit on it and stay in the decision-free space… You know, the space you probably avoid (because of the uncertainty). These are three things I learned.


Often the dilemma is about whether you should step out of your comfort zone but sometimes you might not recognise what your comfort zone is.

My comfort zone is the achiever’s comfort zone: ready, aim, fire, repeat. I love having a goal and working towards it and I’m pretty good at delaying gratification.

So sitting out the competition was the more uncomfortable thing to do for me… (trust me, it was hard facing the touts; and the expression “throwing down the gauntlet” came into its full meaning!)

Western culture has turned us into human-doings rather than human-beings. So not taking action often feels uncomfortable. If you face a problem, you’re likely to ask: “What should I do?” rather than “What should I not do?”

So if you’re used to a goal-driven, hectic pace of life, slowing down and looking inwards will be outside your comfort zone because it challenges your identity.

For doctors/lawyers/high performing service professionals (including myself and the clients I work with) leaving the comfort zone involves getting out of the habits that have made us successful in the first place like overwork and heroic rescuing.

This is very scary.

It’s one thing letting go of a habit that you absolutely know is causing you trouble; it’s another when it has clear payoffs as well, not to mention its forming a major part of your identity to date. Legends in the making: Congratulations to Dr G who after a medical degree went on to acquire two PhDs (including as a Gates Scholar at Cambridge) is now officially a Member of the Royal College of Physicians.I love working with Dr G because I know the dedication required to navigate both a challenging career AND adapt to a culture that isn’t your own. Combine inspired vision with courageous action and a bit of help and you can pretty much achieve anything.


Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman said it loud and clear: you can’t rely on the rational mind; it’s riddled with bias. In fact, his research suggests that you never really make a decision, you just think you do…

One of the scientific reasons for this is that your logical mind is often hijacked by your amygdala/limbic system/the survival brain which is constantly scanning for danger and is quick to feel under threat.

It will make things seem logical and create all sorts of stories about how to stay safe, but it doesn’t really know what it’s talking about. You have to stop and recognise that you’re in survival mode to start thinking more clearly.

The implication of the cognitive bias research (that many spiritual traditions have pointed out), is that the best you can do with your mind is to develop your self-awareness, bring the cognitive biases to light and try and undo or replace them…

This is quite a commitment.

It puts you firmly on a path of growth and development.Most people enjoy reading the occasional thought provoking book or listening to a podcast but unless you implement the insights and reprogramme your thinking, it will have an infinitesimally small impact…


As I sat and relaxed about whether to compete or not, I realised that it was never about the competition in the first place. There were other demands running in the background that I needed to attend to. Sitting through the confusion helped the big picture become clear again and I was back in flow. It’s OK to say no if it doesn’t feel right for you, even if it doesn’t seem logical and you’re not sure why you don’t want to do something. You don’t have to defend your integrity or competence with explanations. You just need to own our decision and know that you will work things out and be able to handle whatever consequences. Had I followed my bias for action instead of slowing down, I wouldn’t have gotten my clarity back. In hindsight, sitting out the competition was the right thing. As meditation master Chogyam Trungpa said: sit, sit and sit some more. WHERE CAN YOU STEP BACK? So where are you experiencing a dilemma at the moment? Did something trigger it? Can you let go and step back without any expectation for an answer? Remember, it’s not always about being proactive and doing the logical thing; sometimes, it’s about sitting in the unknown, allowing space for a little mystery and waiting to see what emerges. You might surprise yourself. Have a great week, Amina p.s. Tired of being stuck or want to start a new phase of your career and life with confidence? Email me ( August is a the start of a new cycle of my deep transformational career coaching programme. Remember: “It always seems impossible until it’s done” (Nelson Mandela) See here for what people are saying:

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