This is easily the most popular episode of The Here and Now Podcast so far. That’s surprising to me as it is one of the few episodes which doesn’t draw on a lot of reference material, it is just my thoughts on the topic. But I guess we could all use a little help when faced with tough decisions and people are always looking for answers, maybe you’ll find some in the words that follow.
You can find the original episode released on February 13, 2020 here:
A friend of mine was recently faced with a tough decision. It was important and would have lasting implications for both him and his family. We got to talking and I offered him some advice on how to approach decision making which I’d like to share with you in this episode. As always, I’m no expert, so take my advice and suggestions with a grain of salt, but if any of them help you in some way to reconcile your thoughts when faced with a challenging decision, then this episode has served its purpose.
We are faced many decisions throughout our lives. We make dozens of them on any given day, what to wear, what to eat, who to meet, and arguably the most difficult one – what to watch on Netflix. Most of these decisions come naturally to us, we don’t invest a lot of energy in them, we act mostly out of habit and instinct. But, from time to time, life presents us with more complicated and important decisions. Forks in the road which have the potential to change the course of lives and having a lasting impact on ourselves, and those around us. There are few, if any, of us who are able to breeze through those big decisions and as we get older and our responsibilities grow, they become even harder to make.
Facing a tough decision can be crippling and overwhelming and set us on a spiral of uncertainty, of “what ifs?” and of questioning ourselves and what we want from life. Making tough decisions can be emotional and confusing, and all of this leads to stress. While a little stress is important for optimizing performance, the kind of stress we feel in this situation does not help us with our decision making and can lead us to make poor or hasty decisions which will may go on to regret. Just as crucially, overthinking decisions can lead to analysis paralysis. We simply can’t predict every outcome, at some point we have to accept that every important decision involves at least some degree of risk, and indeed, a leap of faith. In fact, the only thing we can be certain of is that things won’t work out as we envisioned, whether we opt for the status quo or make an important change. We just can’t predict the future as we live in a world of imperfect information.
So, let’s unpack decision making, let’s rationalize it and try to see through the emotional haze because when we are in the thick of things, we often can’t see the big picture. We become so absorbed by the situation, obsessing over its myriad details, that we lose sight of where we are headed and the things which may be obvious if we would only step back and take a look around.
So, step back with me, and let’s take a look.
There are two main types of decisions in life. Inconsequential ones, and life changing ones. That sounds pretty straight forward, but it is not always obvious which one is which. We can easily think of inconsequential decisions as life changing. We place far more value and significance on a decision than it deserves because it may have a relatively significant but short-term impact on our lives. Keeping perspective is therefore important to be able to identify which decisions are indeed life changing and deserve our full attention, and there are not that many of them. And even then, some are only life changing in a certain context.
For instance, is changing jobs life changing? Well, sure it has a short term impact, you have an exit process to go through with your current job, tying up loose ends, paperwork, exit interviews, handing back company property and so on, then you have to go through the induction and training process with the new company. But, pretty soon, you’ll be settled in and life will return to normal, so is it really life changing? It may offer more money or more personal fulfilment which could indeed be life changing in a positive way, but the challenge is that you can’t really know if it will offer you that fulfilment and would be worth the hassle. What if the job turns out to not be as enjoyable as you hoped, and you would have been better off staying where you were? Well, you obviously weren’t that happy there, or else you wouldn’t have been looking in the first place. And what else will change as a result? Probably not a whole lot. But, that’s the problem with decision making, we have incomplete information.
We can try to predict how we will feel or visualize what the future of a choice will entail, but we can never know for sure. This reality has a big impact on us, as we all fear uncertainty to some degree. As much as we may crave change, something to lift us out of a rut, we are also fearful of that change and the risks that come with not knowing. For this reason, we see many decisions are far more important to us than they really are. But most decisions are not a matter of life and death, there is often no wrong answer.
Another decision which we may think of as life changing is the decision to have a child. There is no doubt about it that having a child is about the most life changing thing one can do, so you won’t find an argument from me there, but we can still find ourselves overwhelmed with the complexities of such a decision. The good news is, people have been having children for a few years now, and for the most part, they’ve figured it out, so don’t worry about all of the things you don’t know yet. By the time you have your second, you’ll be halfway there and when the third one comes along it’ll be business as usual. I’m reminded of a time when my wife was pregnant with our first child and a friend who had three was offering some advice. When the first was born, he said, we worried about everything, booked a special maternity suite and midwife, we obsessed over every cry and cough and worried that she was sick. It was an exercise in panic from one moment to the next. But when the second came along we were more relaxed and didn’t use a special clinic. We knew what to expect and that most of it was normal. By the time the third arrived we were practically ready for a home birth and we had the whole thing down pat. It’s almost like it was natural.
The difference was perspective. The unknowns lead us to be chronic overthinkers, worrying about all of the things we can’t know. But once we get a bit of knowledge, our perception of a situation changes entirely. What was once an overwhelming decision is now not such a big deal with the benefit of hindsight. Unfortunately, we can’t shortcut from not knowing to knowing, we have to go through the process. But it is helpful to remind yourself that you will be in the place of knowing soon enough, one way or another, and the things that seem overwhelming now will soon not exist at all. So, while the decision may be life changing in many ways, the consequences of it will soon become your new normal, you’ll adapt and move forwards whatever the outcome.
When faced with an important decision we often let our emotions cloud our judgement. Carl Sagan said, “whenever we have strong emotions, we are liable to fool ourselves.” Decision making is for the most part, a cognitive process. That means it takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the conscious, thinking part of our brain. Cognitive processes receive input from many areas of the brain, including those that drive our emotions. We must therefore work to suppress emotions and work our way through decisions rationally. Emotions are important, they make us human and remind us when things are important to us, but they will only take us so far. They cloud our thoughts and make it harder to see the facts and analyse a situation and see it for what is really is. As keeping perspective is so important to decision making, it is important to work through your emotions to find a balanced viewpoint.
This is why it is often helpful to talk things through with someone you trust as they don’t bring with them the same emotions, and the act alone of talking things through can help you to figure out exactly how you feel, or at least to realise that what you’re saying is clouded by emotion and doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. In episode 11, I mentioned that one of the most important tools for building resilience is support and, not surprisingly, it can be a big help when we are faced with a tough decision.
For instance, if you are worried about an impending decision, when you start to explain it to a friend and the reasons you are feeling worried about it, you are listening to yourself tell a story. You are as much an observer of your thoughts as a participant in them and this is almost never more evident than when you are speaking. You might find that the story doesn’t sound plausible when you give a voice to your thoughts. It becomes apparent that your fears and worries are unfounded or not such a big deal when you say them out loud. Your friend may be listening without saying anything, but they are still communicating back to you with nonverbal cues. And just as your friend subconsciously responds to you, you respond to them and a relatively one-way conversation can communicate a lot of information that is helpful to you. Before they’ve even opened their mouth, you’ve already worked your way through a decision just by listening to yourself and absorbing the subtle reactions of your friend. You can detect your own bullshit far more easily when you can hear yourself say it.
Understanding how this process works is also useful for when you don’t have someone to talk things through. A tool that may be helpful in the absence of company is writing down how you feel. Airing your thoughts on paper gets them out of your head which can be hugely beneficial for clarifying your thinking on a topic and rationalising your way through a decision that is marred in emotion and seeming complexity. This need not just be in a purely practical form, a list of pros and cons for instance, but just writing down how you feel. Let the thoughts flow out onto the paper without any need for them to be articulated clearly. No one else will be reading them, and you probably won’t read them again either. The pure act of releasing the thoughts from their prison in your mind is like a sigh of relief that frees you of their cluttering influence.
Another way our emotions can get the jump on us when it comes to making important decisions is the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Sometimes something can seem like the right thing to do because others are doing it. But why are they doing it and do those same reasons apply to you? Are they really even doing it anyway, or going to do it, or are they just as fearful of the decision as you but trying to behave in a way they think you will be impressed by? We can’t really answer this question a lot of the time, so we best not make important decisions with such vague and ambiguous information.
But it is natural for most of us to follow the pack, we are, after all, social animals who want to belong. When we act contrary to the herd, we risk exclusion and social isolation, we may feel pressured to make decisions even if they are not in our best interest. This is especially true of young people who are still trying to find their identity and place in the world and are more vulnerable to acting impulsively. Nevertheless, we can all fall victim to FOMO if we are not careful.
When facing important decisions, if we start by taking a step back and evaluating what we are trying to achieve, and whether the decision is necessary or consequential, we may notice that our rationale for contemplating the decision does not come from a place that is in our best interest, but in the interest of others or something which we don’t really understand or even want. It’s ok to stick with the group, just as its ok to do your own thing, but just make sure you are making decisions based on your own reasoning. There is a lot in life we cannot control, so don’t give up control of decisions which you do have a say over. Take responsibility for your choices and do what you know is right, not what others tell you is right or what you think others want you to do. How do you know when this is the case? You just know, right?
We also get stressed about important decisions because we tend to think they are final. We assume that once we make a decision, there is no going back. I call this the illusion of finality. Sure, you may not be able to go back to where you were so there is a sense of finality in that regard, but a decision is a step forward, and you will become a new version of yourself as a result. Whatever the outcome, you will have grown as a person and you won’t be the same person that you were then. You won’t want to go back because the you of right now doesn’t fit into the you-shaped-hole you left back in the past. Would you really want to go back to that place and give up all of the experiences you’ve been through? The you of right now is a little bit older and a little bit wiser and to go back you’d have to give that up to become an earlier version of yourself. Sometimes people even test this, they do go back, or at least they try too. Back to their old job, or town, or whatever it was they decided to change. But it doesn’t work. They feel uncomfortable and out of place, they’ve outgrown their old self and they feel held back and smothered by their past and all they want to do is move on again, reinventing a future where they can continue to grow. We have to drop the illusion that our decisions are final and embrace the excitement that comes with knowing you are moving ahead on your journey through life and that a whole raft of new experiences and lessons await.
We can’t know what we don’t know, that’s a cliché that we all know well. And while that is a source of fear and uncertainty, it is also exactly the reason we need to embrace our decisions, why there really is no such thing as a wrong decision, and why finality is an illusion. You can’t possibly fail if you act for the right reasons, you can only become a better version of yourself. Whatever happens, you will move on to the next thing, you can’t help it, time will march on carrying you with it regardless. This is a common theme I’ve touched on in several episodes now, and I really see it as a gift. A decision is never really final because that assumes you’ll never have to make another one.
Say you go for it and take that job, but it turns out not to be what you expected. There is someone on the team you just don’t get on with, the hours are longer than you were led to believe, or your commute is just too time consuming or expensive. You realise you’re actually not that happy. But there will always be something positive you can take from the decision, even if just the fact that you made a decision. It’s likely that the things that you worried about when you made the decision didn’t even come up once you got there, instead you regret the decision for a bunch of other reasons you couldn’t really have known about before. You might not be able to go crawling back to your old job, but you don’t need too as you’ve changed. And you weren’t that happy in your old job anyway or else you probably wouldn’t have left. But through the process you’ve gained the confidence to make more decisions as you know that you can figure it out and you’ve been through the process already. You learned a bit more about yourself, and about the job, and you’ll carry those new things with you into your next decisions.
I’m not saying to take important decisions lightly, I’m saying, don’t let your fear of making the wrong decision stop you from making one at all. Sometimes it is not the right decision to change jobs, or whatever, for lots of reasons. But don’t let fear of failure be one of them. And don’t be sucked into the illusion of finality. Nothing is ever final because you always have a choice about what happens next.
We are also held back by our fear of regret. I want to make an important distinction here between the fear of regret, and actual regret. The fear of regret is our anticipation of the disappointment, shame or frustration we may feel if things don’t go to plan. But isn’t life all about things not going to plan? About the only thing we can be sure of is that things won’t work out as we expected, but even if they don’t go smoothly, does that mean we will regret the decision? We know it is through our experiences that we grow and learn to overcome setbacks and adversity, failure in and of itself is no reason to be regretful. When make me hard decisions, we weigh up the pro’s and con’s and think them through carefully, and when we do take the leap, we accept some level of risk that things won’t go to plan. Perhaps one of the cons will come to fruition. But we don’t normally regret our decision as we had anticipated at least the possibility of failure, and we accepted that risk, and things are generally never as bad as they seem. When one door closes, another opens and all of that.
So, what is actual regret then and is it relevant to making tough decisions? I thought a lot about regret when writing this episode and, as has often been the case, I realised it was such a large topic that it deserves its own episode. So, I won’t get too side-tracked here, but I will say that I think true regret is quite rare and it generally never follows hard decisions for the reasons I’ve just described. Regret is more closely tied to our spontaneous and ill thought out decisions. Those times when our behaviour and actions had a negative impact on others. If we take hard decisions seriously, as I’m asking you to do here, then you will consider the impact of those choices. When decisions are made from a place of reason, it is almost impossible to regret them.
Ask anyone, ‘what do you most regret in life?’ After thinking for a while, most people will either respond with some experience when they acted spontaneously, or without thinking, and hurt someone they cared about or they will not be able to give a definitive answer. They may find something vague and not particularly important to say, like ‘I wish I learned a musical instrument when I was younger’, but they probably won’t mention anything we would consider to be a life changing decision. It’s just not how we’re wired. In episode 9 on antinatalism I talked about our natural optimism bias, our inbuilt protection mechanism which helps us to reconcile the hard times in our life as learning experiences, or not as bad as someone else had it and our ability to forget our low points. Remember that when it comes to making important decisions.
Even if the decision turns out to not be what you expected, it is highly unlikely that you’ll look back on it with regret. Because you’ll have the perspective of time, and you won’t know what your life would have been like had you not made the decision, or if you’d made a different one. You only have knowledge of what actually happened. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth thinking about. The older you get, the less regrets you’ll have. Don’t confuse the fear of regret with actual regret, and certainly don’t let fear of regret stop you from making important decisions.
Making decisions is also about risk versus reward. We need to be sure our decision will be worth it if it does not work out. We might be drawn to a higher paying job, but don’t underestimate the importance of stability. Money is a short-term factor in decision making and things can change. If the job demands too much of you, or your integrity, then it’s not worth it. It’s never worth it. If you compromise your values for a decision, then the risk is too high, the reward too low. You can never be compensated enough to give up on your values. You can try, but if you sell your soul, you will pay the price sooner or later.
But it helps to quantify risks, that is, to ask yourself what the risk really is. Is it a risk of failing? We’ve talked about that before, there can be no failure because life is about failing, growing and moving forward. Is it a risk of regretting the decision? We’ve talked about that too; fear of regret is not a good reason to not make a decision because you probably won’t regret it. The only risks that remain are to your livelihood and ability provide for yourself and your family. But how many decisions really carry such existential risk with them? Your decision making will invariably be more conservative as your responsibilities increase but approach the choices rationally and with confidence and if the risks are not really existential, then don’t make them out to be more than they really are. Is the decision really life changing, or is it really inconsequential when viewed from the big picture perspective?
I’m going to finish by rejecting my own advice. In episode 11 I told you how I once learned a valuable lesson about decision making while training to fly jet aircraft, the lesson to always make a decision. Well I was wrong. Sometimes the best thing to do, is nothing, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed, confused and emotional. Often, letting things sit for a while is the best way to make peace with a decision. It will appear out of the mental fog in a moment of epiphany. It sounds a bit corny, but it is often the case that it just clicks. A certain moment happens, and it all suddenly makes sense. You didn’t need the long hours of deliberation and weighing of pros and cons, the answer was there all along you just needed to give yourself the space to listen to what your heart was trying to tell you. I guess what I’m really saying is don’t overthink things, don’t become paralysed by the decision. Just let it sit for a while, try to do other things, daily chores and errands, things you enjoy, just distract yourself from the decision for a while. The answer is there, fermenting, slowly bubbling to the surface, just give it a chance to emerge.
I get excited about important decisions, I always have. I imagine a future of possibility and potential that could open doors and change me in ways I never anticipated. And as anxious as I get while I work through the process, I know that the discomfort will soon pass, the future will reveal itself, and I will still be here. How my future turns out is as much about me as any decision I make and through that, I free myself of the burden of fear and regret. Instead, I embrace life as a continuous set of experiences linked in wonderfully mysterious ways.
It waits for all of us, if only we are brave enough to let the power of time carry us forward through our decisions.
It will break us down and rebuild us, atom by atom, piece by piece, time and again.
So, embrace tough decisions with thought and a enough emotion to guide you.
Be open to new challenges, and fear not.
With luck, tomorrow you’ll have to make another one. And another after that.
And with every decision you will go a little stronger, a little wiser.
For that is your journey through life.