How NOT to Make a Big Decision

When I’m facing down a big decision, I have a tendency to game things out as far as I possibly can. I want visualize the decision tree, write up a whole pro/con list, and have a big long discussion about all of the possibilities—and possibilities on top of those possibilities—with anyone who will listen. I want to ask the universe, the Tarot, or Kelli Anderson’s job chooser what I ought to do.

Kelli Anderson job chooser

[Kelli Anderson’s Existential Calculator

I’m staring down a pretty big decision right now (I can’t go into details quite yet, and don’t take the job chooser as a hint). I’ve actually already made up my mind. But, rather than be satisfied in that decision, I’m now trying to talk myself out of it. Because…brains. So I’m looking into the future—like five years into the future to try to imagine why what I do today might be bad 1,825 days from now.

As I was mulling over my potential futures and potential failures, I was listening to designer Matias Corea on the Hurry Slowly podcast. He was talking about his recent motorcycle trip through South America and said:

“The big realization was that there was no big realization. In every area of our lives—it’s about taking it one day at a time. We always try to project into the future, We’re always trying to plan ahead, thinking we know how and where we’re gonna end up. And in reality, I figured out if I plan one or two days ahead, I can manage my expectations, and also, it’s more realistic. You can’t push it.”

A post shared by Matias Corea (@matiascorea) on

I’ve heard the same advice a hundred times before—live in the present, focus on the now. It had never stuck before. But something about Matias’ story made me realize that I have absolutely no idea what will happen five years from now. I hardly know what will happen in five days. Focusing on outcomes that far into the future is so unreliable that it’s pointless. It shouldn’t factor into the decision.

Because, really, everything good that’s ever happened in my life has been an accident of fate when I think back on it. Like when I accepted an internship with the U.S. State Department in Paris, I thought I was setting off on a life of public service. But when the government lost my paperwork and cancelled my trip, I scrambled to find a new internship as a copywriter, which led to a career I still have six years later. I met my soon-to-be-wife through improv, which I only started doing because I was trying to make new friends after college. Taking the other path would have led to different outcome, probably an equally good, if different, one.

It reminds me of what Daniel Mendelsohn said in his NYT By the Book profile:

“What the letters and the journals show is that most of our lives are mostly a jumble while we’re living them, because we’re caught up in the day-to-day, for the most part; it’s for the biographers to perceive the contours once it’s all over.”

In the midst of our daily lives, we don’t—we can’t—have all the answers. But the comforting thing to remember is that we don’t have to have to. Instead, we just need to focus on moving forward and finding new ways to challenge ourselves.

I really like what Austin Kleon wrote on his blog the other day:

“The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day…with more work to do.”

austin kleon stock and flow

[via Austin Kleon]

And so the decision isn’t about which path will lead to a “better” outcome. Rather, the decision lies in knowing that either way, there will be more work to do. And given that, the question becomes—which work would I rather be doing?

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