Every day presents new opportunities of all kinds. Some opportunities are big while others small, but for each, the same question must be answered: should I act or pass on this opportunity? Sometimes, this can be a difficult choice to make, while at other times the choice is clear. Having a simple system in place can help make the right choice every time, without complicated mental gymnastics.

Here’s the system I use. It involves answering three very simple questions:

  1. What can I learn?
  2. What can I earn?
  3. How many lives can I impact?

There are certainly other factors to consider that may affect your ultimate decision, but I’ve found that these three questions really do a great job of getting a big-picture idea about which choice is right. They also align with my value system and help bring clarity to otherwise murky situations.

To gain even more perspective, ask yourself the same three questions about your status quo and contrast that with your new opportunity: if you change nothing, is your situation today better or worse than it would be if you jumped at the opportunity?

You can practice with small opportunities—situations you may not even consider opportunities. Here are a few examples of small opportunities one might face:

  1. Going to the movies tonight with friends
  2. Picking up pizza for dinner tonight
  3. Enjoying spring break in Vegas with friends

In each instance, what would you choose, and why? Going to the movies with friends might deepen your friendships, but you’re unlikely to learn or earn. Spring break in Vegas isn’t likely to teach you anything, and you’re much more likely to lose money than make money, but you’ll probably again have a great time with your friends. Eating pizza isn’t going to help in any of the three areas.

Now, let’s apply this line of thinking to some big opportunities:

  1. Accepting a new job offer in another state
  2. Investing in your best friend’s early-stage startup
  3. Marrying the love of your life

At the job, you are likely to be challenged and learn something new, presumably would be making more money, and can make valuable connections to expand your personal network. Sure, your best friend’s startup may fail, but investing in it is also investing in him and in your relationship, and what could have been a 100% loss might also end up being a 1,000% gain or more. (Remember, somebody was best friends with Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page.)

Marriage is perhaps the biggest opportunity of all, and certainly one that should be considered more than all the others mentioned. Marriage isn’t for everyone, and marriage to the wrong person can be hell. Rather than hypothesizing, I’ll instead share a glimpse into my own life.

I have learned more from my marriage than I would have imagined possible—leadership, cooperation, negotiation, mediation, forgiveness, friendship, and humility, just to name a few areas of growth. While transition from two incomes for two people to one income for seven (we have five kids) has been difficult, I also fully believe that, without my wife’s love and support, I wouldn’t have the same sense of self-worth and consequently would not earn nearly as much as I do. Finally, I have a profound impact on the most important people in the world to me. This opportunity will pay dividends for generations to come.

In any case, I have always found the three, simple questions about learning, earning, and impacting lives to be useful in my decision-making process. I hope they are helpful to you as well.
What opportunities are you facing? Have these questions helped you make a decision? Share your story in the comments below.