Indecision Can’t Always Be Solved With Data

Over the weekend, my graduate program invited recently admitted students to campus so they could learn about the department and meet the faculty and current students. I was talking to one of them who was not so unlike myself. He has a job now and is trying to choose between our program and life as he currently knows it.

Despite the incentives for cheap talk, I was being completely honest when I told him that I was happy with my choice. But how much can my experience help him make such a big decision?

There are obvious pros like more autonomy and flexibility. And cons, like the money and career capital he will be giving up. But then there are unresolvable questions about whether or not he’ll like this kind of work once he starts doing it. Or, if investing in a PhD will lead to a greater return than staying at his current job. Or if he’ll be happier, whatever that means. There’s just no way to know. Economist Arnold Kling writes:

“I would say that big life decisions entail a time inconsistency problem, in that you will be a different person after the decision has played out. Your perspective on quitting a job to start a new career is going to be different years after you make the decision than it was before you make the decision. That is true either way. Your future self will live with a decision that your present self has to make.”

But even if you could see the future, how would you know you had made the right decision? Philosopher Agnes Callard writes about the difference between personal decisions versus “political” ones:

“Suppose Obama and his advisors could have looked into a crystal ball and seen what the results of the raid would be. They would then be able to definitively answer the question of whether they should undertake it, because they would know exactly what to look for as markers of success and failure. Now suppose that I could look into a crystal ball and see myself twenty or forty years after the decision to go to college or emigrate or get married or have children. What do I look for to check whether the undertaking was a success? Do I look to see if she is smiling? Or how wealthy my future self is? Those metrics won’t do. Perhaps my future self does not care to smile all the time; and perhaps she’s less interested in wealth than I currently am. These changes in her might have been connected to her finding some happiness that I can’t (yet) fathom.”

When I was in this student’s shoes, making the same decision, I wrote:

“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?”

At the time, “work” meant literal work. But in retrospect, any decision can be thought of in terms of the kind of work you’ll ultimately be doing. You can work to improve your so-so relationship or you can work at finding a new partner (or happiness on your own). You can work at learning to play the guitar, or you can work at convincing yourself it’s fine to never try.

But as Callard and Kling make clear, you cannot objectively know which work will be easier, more meaningful, or preferable until you’ve already resolved your indecision. And in the end, you’ll probably decide you made the right choice anyway.

It reminds me of Austin Kleon’s commentary on the famous Frost poem “The Road Not Taken:”

“In fact, critic David Orr wrote a whole book about how nearly everybody gets it wrong. Here’s an excerpt, titled, “The Most Misread Poem in America”:

‘Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.’

…What Frost is getting at is something much murkier: No matter what path you take, you’ll tell some kind of story about it later, which may or may not be true.”

We have a biological incentive to reduce cognitive dissonance. Despite the gravity of your choice—and I don’t know if this is perversely optimistic or depressingly pessimistic—whichever road you take will probably be “the right one” in the end.


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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