Ever ask someone looking to make a major life change what the decision-making process is like? Scary, they’ll likely say. Overwhelming. Maybe even paralyzing.
When it comes to choices like leaving a comfortable job or relocating, the fear of making the wrong choice is powerful.
That’s because we’re usually convinced there is a wrong choice, as well as a right one. And often, that just isn’t true, says Ruth Chang, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. “We are all children of enlightenment,” she tells Life Reimagined, “and because scientific thinking has been incredibly successful, we naturally think it’s the right model to use for important decisions in our life.” Problem is, it leads us to approach all decisions as if there are only three options: That the outcome will be better, worse, or the same.
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And certainly, she says, that is true of some decisions. “But for many of the big choices in life, it isn’t true. You can have a perfectly happy life as a skydiving instructor, or as an accountant. They both can be the right choice or they both can be the wrong choice. For many of the choices we face, there is no best answer.” (Check out her popular TED video on the topic.)
Since there is no way of predicting which way moving to Denver versus Miami might play over a person’s lifespan, why do we cling to this way of thinking? Part of it comes from fear, Chang explains. Plus, the idea that making a choice closes a door on certain opportunities can be scary. (And with Chang, it’s personal: “I got into this line of research because I couldn’t make a decision to save my life. I look at all the angles. Fear and timidity have always been the watchwords—I think it has to do with being raised by immigrant parents.”)
Of course, all choices and decisions do have consequences: “If you linger over coffee for five more minutes, you will miss the train.” But if there is no best choice, what’s the best way to decide? She boils it down to some basic steps:
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Ask yourself what matters to you. This may sound vague, but it isn’t. Let’s say you’re thinking about leaving your job to start a business. What’s on your mind: The intellectual excitement? Worry that your family will judge you for making an “unsafe” decision?
Do your due diligence. Think through the options as far as you can, getting as much information about your choices as possible.
Then take a break. Go out to lunch or a museum. Maybe, just maybe, when you return to your desk, those facts will have gelled. It may strike you as very clear that you should make plans to launch the business—or not, Chang says. “That’s an indicator, and maybe it’s evidence that your choice really is the best option.”
Accept the quandary. It’s also possible, she says, that you’ll still feel as undecided as before. “That’s an indicator that the world hasn’t given you an answer about what’s better, so you simply have to decide. And that’s quite liberating, because whatever we choose, we aren’t making a mistake.”
Commit to an option. Perhaps you’ve chosen to start the new business, no matter what your family thinks (because you’ve determined you don’t want to be on your deathbed regretting the missed opportunity). Or maybe you’ve elected to stay with your safe, 9-to-5 job (because you’ve realized that for you, being a reliable provider is essential). Neither option is right or wrong—what will make it a successful choice is fully committing. It’s the power of that commitment—not the choice itself—that makes you who you are, says Chang. “When you throw your agency beyond an option, you add value to it, and when you commit to it, the events of the world will strike you very differently.”
Suppose, for example, someone just drifts into the decision to start a business and says “What the hell—I’ll give it a shot.” Because he hasn’t fully committed, “at the first sign of trouble, he’ll be full of regret.” But if he is fully committed, any setbacks he encounters (and of course, there’ll be plenty, whichever choice he makes) won’t cause regret. They may be painful, but they’ll be viewed as a necessary part of the process.
Not only does the commitment power the choice, it actually redefines us. “Through the committing, you are constituting yourself, making yourself into the kind of person you are. You are the sum of the commitments you make.”
Photo Credit: Anthony Harvie/Getty