Use the Triple As Checklist to Help Make Decisions

By Marshall Goldsmith

When I was 27 and living in Los Angeles, I didn’t properly weigh the risks of attempting to ride my boogie board, as the waves got higher and more forceful. As a result, I suffered a terrible mishap that left me hospitalized with a broken neck. 

I should have used what I’ve now identified as  the Triple A’s of Action, Ambition, and Aspiration to help me consider my options. 

Aspiration refers to what we do in the service of a higher purpose in our life. The time horizon for Aspiration is infinite — we always aspire; we are always becoming something and someone more.

Ambition represents focus on achieving defined goals. It is time-bound, determined by how long it takes to achieve a goal. 

Action represents our activities at a specific moment in time. Action’s time horizon is immediate, forever in the now

If I had appreciated how Action, Ambition, and Aspiration work together when I failed to properly consider the power of the waves and my own lack of experience, I might not have been injured. At least I would have fully considered what I was doing, rather than rush into it. 

The risks we take in life should be the most informed decisions we make—because so much is at stake and the consequences can be life-changing. Using the Triple A’s to review our best and worst risk decisions — as I should have done with my surfing accident — is as easy as checking off a very short shopping list. 

Here’s how the Triple A’s would have helped me when I decided to tempt the waves back when I was 27: 

  • Does the risk I’m taking represent an Action that aligns with my immediate need? Yes. 
  • If so, does my Action align with my Ambition? No. 
  • Does the risk align with my Aspiration? No.
Marshall Goldsmith Meme

When the noes outnumber the yeses, it’s time to rethink the risk you’re about to take. (In my case, I would have concluded that my only immediate need for taking on the big wave was to impress my buddies.) At the very least, you’ll be surprised at how often you fall back on raw emotion and thoughtless impulse to take a risk. 

The bigger takeaway from this split-second Triple A’s checklist is obvious in hindsight: When we overfocus on Action at the expense of our Aspiration and Ambition, we tend to make very poor opportunity-versus-risk decisions. This is the classic conflict. Our anticipation of a short-term benefit is engaged in a tug-of-war with our long-term welfare, and short-term is winning! And it leads to foolish risks and often to hard, unacceptable consequences. 

Our other classic risk assessment error is the flip side of the same coin — it occurs when our fear of the short-term cost (the risk) stops us from seizing the opportunity to achieve a long- term gain that would materially further our Aspiration.

This is where Richard went wrong in failing to show up for that first date. I’ve discussed it with him since he first shared the story (the young woman’s name was Cathy), and we agree that the raw in-the-moment emotion governing his regrettable choice was a potent cocktail of fears, each one a variation of short-term fears.

When you start experiencing fear in pursuing any opportunity, ask yourself why. What are you afraid of, exactly? If it’s the possibility that you’ll experience a short-term setback, such as being rejected or looking stupid, change your time horizon. 

Try to view the experience as if you were years older. Will your rejection scar you for life, or just produce the momentary discomfort of a nick of the skin that heals quickly? Then consider the opportunity from the same vantage point. What’s the best-case scenario if you seize the opportunity? What does your resulting life look like? And how do you feel about it? 

The Triple A’s checklist is a simple tool that improves our opportunity to get risk right. 

But don’t let its simplicity lure you into underestimating its importance in resolving seemingly insignificant decisions. After all, when we’re making decisions that affect our ambitions and aspirations, we are dealing with some of our most major issues. 

The truth is, we are not very good at sifting the insignificant choices in our lives from the significant. In the moment of decision, we grossly overestimate the impact of some choices that end up being meaningless and grossly underestimate others that turn out to be life-altering. 

I casually decided to paddle farther from shore to catch a bigger wave — and nearly destroyed my life. In the same way that we are very bad at predicting what will make us happy, we are also bad at foreseeing the consequences of what we assume are minor decisions. 

When Ambition and Aspiration are in the mix, there are no minor decisions. 

Employing the Triple A’s checklist may not make us perfect decision-makers — but it will eliminate some of the surprise we feel when the seemingly inconsequential decisions turn out to be very consequential. 

Marshall Goldsmith Meme
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