President Obama on how he makes tough calls on Afghanistan, healthcare, the economy, and more
...There are two aspects of this job that I think are relevant to this discussion. One is that if the problem has a clear solution, then it doesn't land on my desk. Somebody else has solved it. So the only things I'm deciding on are things that are tough. And the second and related point is that because these are tough questions, you are always dealing to some degree with probabilities. You're never 100 percent certain that the course of action you're choosing is going to work. What you can have confidence in is that the probability of it working is higher than the other options available to you. But that still leaves some uncertainty, which I think can be stressful, and that's part of the reason why it's so important to be willing to constantly re-evaluate decisions based on new information.
How do you know when you have enough information to make a decision?
If you're asking good questions and somebody doesn't know the answer to it, then you can probably rest assured that they'd better get an answer to you [laughs] before you make the decision. And there are occasions where, as good as my staff and team are, where there's something pretty simple or seemingly obvious that people who have been too close to it may not be asking. And you've just got to make sure that you're curious and you're not afraid of looking stupid by saying, "I don't understand what the underlying assumptions are here."
No one would tell the president he looks stupid.
Well, they're not going to say it to your face, but the point is that one of the things that I'm never bashful about is saying, "I don't understand this. What exactly does this mean?" And usually, during the course of a roundtable, you can spot where you've hit a weakness in an argument or a position because people start hemming and hawing a little bit. That's when you know that you need to do a little more work.
How do you get away from the stress?
Exercise every day. Seeing my family. Keeping things in perspective. Reading history. Reminding yourself that this is a long-term proposition and you're not going to get everything exactly right, but hopefully, if you're moving things in the right trajectory, that things usually work out.