Making the Right Decision

This week’s post deals with an issue for which clients frequently come to me for help: making the “right” decision. Most commonly, the decision in question is either about relationships (“Should I break up, should I commit?”) or career (Should I quit my job; should I go back to school; should I strike out on my own, etc.?).

Right before I left on my recent vacation I saw a revival of “Follies”, the Stephen Sondheim musical written 40 years ago. It holds special memories for me, as I saw it in Boston, while in graduate school, in its pre-Broadway debut, and loved it then……and still do. The title of the show, “Follies”, has a double meaning – referring back to productions from the days of vaudeville (Ziegfeld Follies) as well as to the folly of looking back with regret on decisions we’ve made in the past and trying to create a present that would presumably have flowed from a different decision.

I encountered a startling real-life example of this last week when I met an old high school friend, whom I rarely see, for lunch. I was showing her photos from our high school days and she suddenly saddened and asked “I wish I hadn’t broken up with Paul”. Paul was a guy she dated for a few months in the 11th grade! The sadness was genuine, but after about ten seconds she said “but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have the two children that I love”. And, after about another ten seconds she said “And I never would have had the chance to explore who I truly am” (she was a popular high school cheerleader and Paul was captain of the football team; she’s now an artist living in Berkeley, CA – quite a shift in personnas).

So many people are paralyzed by the fear that they’ll make the wrong decision. They come into my office with lists of pros and cons (a technique that logically should make decision-making easier but in my experience almost never does, because it’s the relative importance of each pro and con that counts, a calculation that can’t accurately be made). Or they’re so paralyzed and so sick of the paralysis that they profess to being open to being instructed by me as to what the right decision would be (I always turn down that request).

Look back on important decisions you’ve made, and ask yourself how many of them you can confidently say were wrong. The truth is that it’s virtually impossible to ever know whether a different decision would have led to a “better” outcome. Should you have married someone else? True, you wouldn’t be having the marital problems you’re having now, but isn’t it possible that a different partner would have created even bigger ones? Should you have stayed with the agency you’d been with for 12 years rather than switching jobs only to wind up being “downsized” six months later and now out of work? That depends on what comes next. Should you have moved out of the city to the suburbs? Should you have vacationed in Paris rather than Hawaii? Even what would seem to be a very black-and-white, clear-cut decision (should you have made that investment that went south?) might have ramifications far different from what you might expect; e.g. perhaps having made the bad investment you were forced to sell your condo, which led to your moving, which led to your meeting someone in your apartment building with whom you fell in love, or who gave you a job lead that now allows you to do work you love.

Trusting Your Gut

One essential component of the dilemma many face in making decisions is fear. Study after study has demonstrated that we are biased towards protecting ourselves from the negative rather than objectively and rationally calculating the advantages and disadvantages of a decision. That’s because evolution has predisposed us to be risk averse (an overly cautious, fearful individual was more likely to survive and pass on his / her genes than a bolder person who might occasionally “hit the jackpot”). If you find yourself stuck for some time between two options, ask yourself “which of these would I choose if my fear level were half of what it currently is?”. There’s an excellent chance that your gut will give you the “right” answer. Particularly since there’s almost never such a thing as the “wrong” answer.

To quote the lyrics of a song from Follies, sung by a man looking back on the regrets he has about the marital and career decisions he made decades earlier: “The door you didn’t try, where could it have led? Chances that you miss, ignore. The choices that you make aren’t all that grim”.