Deciding Practice

When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.” – Milan Kundera, “Slowness

I was recently faced with a difficult set of choices. It was one of those situations where something (my living space) had to change, but there wasn’t a really clear set of what the best choice would be for a new living space.

Quite frankly, it drove me a little crazy. What didn’t help was that the necessity of decision became evident while I was traveling through Europe, working hard and dealing with a lot of other stresses. It felt very hard to make a clear, informed choice, but I tried.

Upon returning to the States, after a couple of days I finally was able to sit down and actually take some thoughtful time to address the two choices from a more centered space.

Gray Area, Gray Matters

Much as I hate using the play on my name, it’s relevant. Both choices had good and bad points. There wasn’t a clear “yes or no” there, and that was frustrating. In fact, I found that with my talent for seeing “alternatives” I could argue myself quite convincingly into either choice being preferable, using the same arguments.

I think we often are given the impression that choices are going to be easy. That all we have to do is pick the best one, and that will just be evident. In my experience, life is not black and white. Instead, it is shifting hues of gray with silver linings elusively peeking out from clouds.

The more people involved in the decision, the more gray it becomes, with conflicting loyalties and loves mixing with “shoulds” and “coulds” and the occasional guilt trip about how your actions will affect others. Conversely, you may have fantasies about how a choice will end up, but as Daniel Gilbert has proven in his book Stumbling on Happiness, we are notoriously bad at accurately predicting the way things actually will work out if we base our judgements on anything except what has already happened. In an interview with the New York Times, he said

What we’ve been seeing in my lab, over and over again, is that people have an inability to predict what will make us happy — or unhappy. If you can’t tell which futures are better than others, it’s hard to find happiness.

Drawing the Map

After a day or two back in the states, I finally had a “sabbath” – a day when I would do no work, I would just let my mood take me from contemplative coffee to wandering walk to spontaneous soul-food lunch. During this time, I had a nice blank moleskine notebook and my favorite pen, and I spent time working through a few decision making processes.

I’m not going to cut and past them here, because that would be plagiarism. If you’re interested, you can read the full descriptions of the “ProACT” process as well as the Einstein Method. I didn’t follow them precisely anyway; I did, however, find a few of the exercises very useful.

  • Problem Definition: One of the key ideas is that sometimes the way you phrase the problem is a major factor in the decision. For example, in my case, rather than just saying “Where should I move?” I took a moment to try and figure out what I was really trying to accomplish. When I reframed it as “How can I create an environment of stable creativity?” it made it easier to figure out which of the options led to that result.
  • Reverse the Problem: This is the idea that if you are having a problem figuring out what to do to achieve a goal, instead figure out what you could do to ensure the opposite result. For example, how could I create an environment of unstable stagnation? One way would be to choose a place that was too expensive, so that I had to get some other job that didn’t leave me time for my vocation. Again, this can make some of the choices be more clear.
  • Alternatives: your final choice can never be better than the best alternative you considered.” Of all the techniques, I think this was my weakest point, but it’s still useful. The best example was of a man who was happy in his job but unhappy with his boss. The choices seem to be: stay and be miserable or go and be sad.
    • “Instead of choosing between these two options, he redefined the problem as how to keep his job, but getting rid of this boss. What did he do? He sent his boss’ CV out and got him interviews for higher-paying jobs. His boss ended up moving to another job — and my friend ended up staying in the same company — promoted to his boss’ previous position.” – Litemind
  • Decide for Yourself: If you’re fortunate like me, you have many people who care about you and would love to give you advice to help you, with the best of intentions. However, the only person who will be able to actually evaluate the decision is you – so you need to make the decision based on what is valuable to you, not what you feel you should do or owe other people. It’s the harder, not-so-nice part of being authentic: sometimes your actual self doesn’t fit in with the way other people expect or want you to act.

Bonus Lessons

This particular process also reminded me in painfully thorough ways of a couple of other useful things to remember when making a decision:

  • Environment Matters: Ever hear the saying “Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach?” The environment and conditions, both external and internal, that you do your decision-making process in have a large effect on the process. Making an incompletely-analyzed decision while fatigued resulted in more complication when I came back to a more stable place and realized I’d not thought some of the factors through as completely as I thought. If I had waited to make the decision until I was in a better place, it would have been better for everyone involved.
  • When in Doubt, Move in the Direction of Greatest Courage: So I made the decision in my head, and composed an email to the landlord to tell her I was accepting the lease. Then I deleted it. I went over my notes, thought some more, still felt it was a good idea, and composed a text to let her know – and deleted it too. There was something that was really holding me back from committing to this.

    I spent some time examining that hesitation. Was it intuition, warning me that there was something I missed? If there’s one thing I have learned to trust, it’s that feeling that “something is not right.

    As it turned out, the hesitation was actually rooted in the fear of some unknown factors in the social environment associated with the decision. There was no basis for the fear, it was just there because this was a new situation. Once I realized that, it helped solidify the decision, and I sent the text, no problem.

  • It’s OK to Be Wrong: People have remarkable talent for finding ways to soften the impact of negative events,”  says Gilbert. So when it seems like I have to make the right decision or the world will suddenly disintegrate in the violent heat-death of the universe, it’s important to take a look at reality. This is not rocket science; in fact, in terms of “places for Gray to live” it’s been one of the most-changing things throughout my life.
  • It’s OK to Change Your Mind: Several years ago, when I was agonizing about a different decision, a dear friend of mine gave me great advice: “Gray, if you find out this wasn’t the right decision, remember you’re a grown-up. It’s ok to change your mind.”

We make decisions every day, big and small, and thankfully most don’t require this much work. But if you have a Big Decision to make, I would suggest taking the time to figure it out, using either one of the methods above or whatever method suits your fancy. I think the one thing you can’t get away from, though, is time. Regardless of what it is, taking the time for sober reflection on the issues can’t help but reveal some insights about the decision.

What is the hardest decision you’ve had to make between similar options? How did you go about it?

And how’s that workin’ out for you?

1 thought on “Deciding Practice”

  1. Though I’ve been planning on it since elementary school, I’ve decided, now in my senior year of college, not to go to grad school next year.

    Instead, assuming I am accepted, I am going to join the corps of Teach for America and go live with my boyfriend in Los Angeles.

    I wouldn’t have considered this option if a recruiter hadn’t talked to me, but after she did I realized that, my whole life, I’ve wanted to go to grad school to get a PhD because my dad has a PhD, but I’ve never known what I would do with it when I had it. I even thought about it, and was always bothered that I never knew what I would do with it, and changed my mind about what field I wanted to study because of it many times, but I still never had a really good answer.

    When I considered TFA as an option, I reflected back on my whole life and realized I’ve always been more passionate about empowering people than anything else, but I never knew of a way to make a career out of that, so I stuck with academics. Now I have a way – I can encourage students in low-income communities that they have what it takes to succeed in life. If it wears me down after a couple of years, I can still go back to grad school, but I think I’m going to stay in education reform for a long time.

    In a way, it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever made – assuming I go through with it, which I intend to do if I’m accepted to the corps. On the other hand, though, it’s been the easiest decision I’ve ever made for the impact it will have on my life.

    I know it’s hard (and sometimes scary) to make big decisions like where to move, but I think you have the right attitude of focusing on the loved ones you’ll be with when you get there. That’s what’s holding my resolve strong. <3

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