One of my executive coaching clients is at the top of her field and looking to do something … else? More?

“How can I choose between these orthogonal options?” she asked me. “It’s not like I’m choosing between two houses and can just rank attributes. These are apples-to-oranges choices.”

I nodded wisely, making a mental note to look up “orthogonal” when I got back to my desk.

As she updated me on the the leads she was following, I listened for values. What does she actually care about? What matters to her?

Among all the details, I heard that she cares about all these things:

• Innovation

• World-changing technology

• Not doing the same things she’s already expert in

• Belonging

• Helping others

• Being part of a group

• Not traveling for work

• Not being in charge

• Having influence and impact

• Being compensated fairly (but money not being the most important thing)

“I’m sorry, I’m all over the place,” she said. She looked at the rat’s nest of her notes in confusion. “Maybe I do some kind of weighted list?”

“Let’s try something else,” I suggested. Benjamin Franklin sanctified the weighted pro/con list, which he called “moral algebra,” back in 1772. But the weighted pro/con list can be misleading since we can use it to rationalize a decision full of our cognitive biases.

“Let’s choose two values and plot them,” I said, drawing two intersecting lines on a piece of paper. On the x-axis, I wrote “same old” on the left and “innovative” on the right. On the y-axis, I wrote “Seattle” at the top and “virtual” on the bottom.

My client wanted to add a third axis, but my brain started to hurt.

“Once we identify the options in the top right quadrant (innovative and local), we can draw a new graph and plot those along two more values,” I said. “Let’s stick to two dimensions at a time — you can play in the third dimension at home.”

When we plotted her current options on those two continuums, clear winners emerged.  She can let go of dots in the bottom left quadrant (doing work she is already expert in with existing technology in a virtual office).

“As you talk to more people and get more information, we can replot and see whether the dots move,” I reassured her.

As soon as she left, I looked up “orthogonal.”

Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore

P.S.: After slogging through definitions from mathematics, physics, computer science and economics, I found one that shed some light in the Urban Dictionary: “Used to describe two things that are independent of each other. One does not imply the other.” It gave the following example: “Common sense and intelligence are orthogonal. I’ve seen plenty of smart people with no common sense.”

Full disclosure: Originally, I thought she had said “octogonal,” which made, well, no sense.

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