The Golden Key: Comparing Alternatives

Making the right comparisons leads to making better decisions.

Competition is based on the psychology of comparison. Before any choice is made, people compare alternatives. This comparison is at the root of what we call "competition." All alternatives in every human decision can be said to be in competition with each other. This is true in large matters, such as choosing careers and life partners, and, in small matters, such as choosing a TV show to watch or what to eat for lunch. All these competitions have winners and losers as decisions are made. The only way to avoid winners and losers in to avoid deciding.

The opposition of competition is not cooperation. Even cooperation requires competition because we must decide who we cooperate with and how that cooperation will work. This competition must take place before there is any form of cooperation can be put into motion. The true opposite of competition is having no choice. If there are no alternatives, there is no competition among them. 

As people, we find more success in life when people choose to support us rather than oppose us. This is their choice, but it is based upon our choices. Golden Key Strategy is a system for understanding how our choices affect the choices of others. The think strategically, we must not think merely about what to do in each situation, but how others will react to what do: the choices they can make based upon our choices.

Because real-life situations are complex, we can never know all the information people use in making their decisions. In real life, we almost must make our choices quickly. In many cases, we must be said to react, not choose in a systematic way. Any system of strategy that requires ever more information and longer and longer decision cycles is simply not practical. Yes, information is valuable, but it is in infinite supply. The key is knowing the right information and deciding based upon limited information.

Knowing the right information is based upon the deep psychology of the human survival. What forces shaped our human survival instincts? How are those instincts afford our decision making and the decision making of those around us? While this is a deep study, it starts with a simple change of perspective.

As Sun Tzu wrote,

Creating a winning war is like balancing a coin of gold against a coin of gold.

Or as Marth Beck wrote more recently,

Comparing and contrasting is a valuable human skill - and not just during high school English exams. Our ability to rank-order things is invaluable in making choices and setting priorities.

Making good decisions should be as easy as comparing gold to silver. The goal is developing a gut instinct for making the right decisions quickly. We know where we must focus our attention in each situation, comparing key information, popping out a fog do data because we know what to look for. 

What to Compare and Why

There are nine areas in which we must make comparison.

  1. Competitive positions.

    A "position" defines the situations of a competitor, or, more specifically, how their situation is seen by themselves and others. It is a mental construct that people use for making decisions. As competitors, we have a position in every mind of every person who makes judgments about us. In our own minds, our goal is to advance our position, moving it toward what we desired by winning supporters and discouraging opponents. As we make choices between alternatives, we are comparing the positions of others in determining how they might react to our decisions.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    • An employee has distinct positions with the company, his/her boss, fellow employees, customers, and others.

    • A business owner has distinct positions with customers, employees, suppliers, the bank, and so on.

    • Romantic partners have positions with each other, their families, their friends, and so on.

    • Children have positions with their parents, teachers, classmates, as well as positions in any competitive sports or events they take part in.

    • Salespeople have position with their customers, with their prospects, within their company, and so on. 

  2. Key information

    Our decisions can be no better than our information, but there is an infinite amount of information. Our minds must be primed to look only for certain types of information. Our information can be no better than our frameworks for collecting it. Unfortunately, our education system has failed us in terms of creating such a framework for strategic decision-making. Indeed, it often destroys our more useful innate perspectives, replacing them with priority systems that do not work outside the narrow confines of the school room. Most people must spend a lifetime rebuilding their instinctual decision-making capabilities from trial and error. What they learn is good strategy: how other act based upon our actions.

    Some examples to problems with collecting the right information:

    • An individual pays too much attention friends when they are no better educated than he is.

    • A business owner pays too much attention the most outspoken employees or customers when the fact they are outspoken makes them atypical.

    • Romantic partners hear each other's comments only through filters of expectations and fear.

    • Everyone pays too much attention to mass media rather than the people whose decisions affect their lives.  

  3. What is changing

    If nothing changed, no new opportunities would arise. Opportunities are openings that allow us to advance our position with a minimum of effort. People do not see their opportunities because they do not understand how to use change to spot opportunities. Opportunities are invisible because they are the absence of something, rather than its presence.

    • Too many employees ignore changes in their external dealings with customers and supplier while fearing changes within existing operations.

    • A business owner cannot see changes within their marketplace and general decaying of their position while focusing on the day-to-day operations.

    • Romantic partners too often focus on substantial changes in commitment rather than incremental changes in relationship.

    • Children see change as predictable part of the aging process but external changes as frightening.

    • Salespeople fail to realize that change in the environment is the only basis for customers changing their past buying decisions. 

  4. The probabilities of success

    Once we learn how to see opportunities, we will see them all around us. However, we do not have the time or resources to choose them all. We must compare them to pick those with the best probability of success. These probabilities are based upon the effects of our actions on the decisions of others.

    • Employees too often want promotions into position that pay better or look more satisfying while failing to consider their fit with those positions.

    • Business owners too often copy what has been already been successful for others losing to the law of diminishing returns.

    • Romantic partners rely upon tests and ultimatums; no matter how likely they are to blow up relationships.

    • Children do the same. Sales people oversell their products, creating dissatisfaction and distrust.

  5. The red flags

    Opportunities come both with a potential for success and a potential for failure. The goal of this comparison is not eliminating our mistakes as much as minimizing them. 

    • Employees take jobs with shaky companies because they pay better.

    • Business owners make business commitments that require more resources than they have.

    • Romantic partners overlook faults hoping their partners will change.

    • Children think that all dangers are as trivial as their parents' rules against eating candy or staying up late.

    • Salespeople overlook red flags and invest too much time in selling customers who are not qualified for the product.

  6. The most appropriate responses

    Campaigns to advance a position go through certain stages of development. At each stage, the relationship between a competitor and the environment evolves in predictable ways. Common competitive challenges are best met with a specific type of response. The right plays are chosen by recognizing these situations and reacting appropriately.

    • Employees do not realize that an employer's expectations change as they gain more experience, get promoted, and earn more.

    • Business owners don't know when they should work with competitors or work against them.

    • Romantic partners think of their relationships in terms of the dating they did as children not as partners, parents, and mutual caretakers they will become.

    • Children think that the current situation, good or bad, is the only situation, not realizing how each leads to the next.

    • Salespeople, like generals, think the the methods that were successful in the last sales process will work as well in the next one.

  7. The creation of momentum.

    Most people misunderstand what momentum really is and how it is used to make progress. Therefore, they do not see their alternative in terms of combining proven techniques and innovation to create momentum. Properly played, momentum allows us to turn temporary triumphs into permanent improvements in position.

    • Employees must leverage their successes not just into a pay raise but into a career.

    • Business owners too often look to maintain a level of success without realizing that businesses can only go up or down, seldom remaining the same.

    • Romantic partners must understand how to leverage dramatic moment into emotional commitments.

    • Children must learn how to build on what they are good at instead of focusing on where they are embarrassed.

    • Salespeople must view the sales process as one of building customers relationships over the long term. 

  8. The winning of rewards

    The goal of all our choices in winning rewards. However, simply being successful in advancing our position doesn't automatically guarantee that we will gain the rewards we had hoped to gain from advancing our position. The goal is not only to be rewarded for progress, but to maximize those rewards.

    • Employees must leverage their increased productivity into more compensation.

    • Business owners are not compensated for doing what they want but for doing what their customers want.

    • Romantic partners must reward their partners and find their relationship rewarding.

    • Children must learn that all the most rewarding success is that for which they work.

    • Salespeople sell what they are best compensated for selling but realize that all compensation isn't found in the next paycheck. 

  9. The defense of positions

    Every position has both strengths and weaknesses. We advance our position based on its strengths. However, we must evaluate our position based on its weaknesses, its vulnerabilities. While it is easier to defend than to advance, we cannot choose the right forms of defense without understanding where our weaknesses lie and the dangers they represent. 

    • Employees must realize that they cannot be successful if their employer is not successful.

    • Business owners must realize that it doesn't matter how great their products are, but how their products make their customers feel great.

    • Romantic partners must minimize the costs to their partner for maintaining the relationship.

    • Children think they are invulnerable and must learn the hard way that they are not.

    • Salespeople must realize that it is easier keeping customers than winning new ones.


We can make better choices but only by making more appropriate comparisons. The better our comparisons, the more we win in competition. The problem is that most people have no organized approach to this type of competitive decision-making. They do not know what decisions they should focus upon at any given point in time. They lack the skills for seeing all practical options. They have no method for choosing the best alternative among those that present themselves. The result is that most competitive success appears as though it is a matter of luck. 

All competition and our choices are time sensitive. All situations favor those who can make the right decisions quickly. But many choices involve more information than we have time to process. The result is that most decisions must be made with very limited information. Our success is not just a matter of managing our own choices, but the choices of others: our rivals and our allies. Meanwhile, complete strangers make choices that create events that affect us, but for which we completely are unprepared.