Tackling Life’s Big Decisions

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Decisions are destiny. And most decisions flow from how people feel about five main topics: marriage, children, work, friends, and a personal sense of accountability to a higher power (or ethical code). If we harness “the universe” in these categories, there’s no telling where life will lead.

We start our journey with what for some can be a discouraging reality: Our decisions are profoundly influenced by many factors we can’t control, including parents, geography, nationality, health, religion, family resources and genetic make-up. We might tweak some of these elements over time, but they represent such decisive starting points that we don’t always feel we have the power to chart our own course. That thought defeats some who might otherwise imagine an extraordinary life. To them I would say: Dream big no matter your starting point.

As a young man growing up with few advantages, I memorized the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. Contemplating Henley’s indomitable will in the face of having both of his legs amputated, I decided to exercise what control over my life I could muster from my own humble perch. I know I’m not alone in being influenced by Henley’s determination to be the “master of my fate” and the “captain of my soul.” (And I know I’m not alone in learning to modify the vanity that I was ever really in control.) But the imagery helped me at a certain point on an uncertain path.

By building one small good choice upon another, I saw that I might slowly develop wisdom and refine my nascent interest in predicting outcomes. With this, I could have a bigger influence than I’d previously thought possible. Eventually I realized that decisions either could lead to more options – and a growing confidence and courage. Or they could limit my choices – and result in more doubt and fear, leading to indecision and a sense of impotence.

With such powerful feedback loops hanging in the balance, I developed some rules about making good decisions:

  1. Eliminate the excuse that life isn’t fair. Since everyone’s circumstances are simply different, get comfortable with making optimal decisions from your own idiosyncratic array of possible options, rather than wishing you lived an alternate reality. No amount of wishing will change things; so start with where you are.
  2. Make good small decisions. Usually the chance to win the big points is earned by scoring lots of smaller ones. Use small decisions as a way to practice pattern recognition and to see what works and what doesn’t. If you find yourself making one disappointing decision after another, get help to figure out what’s leading to bad choices.
  3. Realize that each decision leads to the next. The choices we make when we still have “training wheels” on can either limit or expand our options. So accept that most decisions do, in fact, matter. For example, what we do with our spare time, whom we hang around with, and what we talk about, read or watch on TV are not trivial choices. In other words, great decisions in small things beget great alternatives. And having great alternatives sets up a chance to make great choices.
  4. Go into new decisions optimistically. Expectations can impact outcomes. For example, if you’re entering marriage thinking about divorce, your odds of failure go up (and you might re-think getting married in the first place). By the same token, by imagining “winning” in vivid detail, you can create the positive imagery that inspires you (and others), even when early returns may be disappointing.
  5. Own your bad decisions. Taking responsibility for our decisions – good or bad – is a mark of maturity. When we’re immature, we blame outcomes on others, on outside factors. With maturity, we own our failures and our bad decisions – and we do something about them.
  6. Learn to recover from poor choices. If you’re taking risks, trying things out, pushing yourself, you’re bound to make some bad calls or run into circumstances where you only have undesirable options. If you don’t quickly learn the art of re-grouping and re-launching, you can find yourself drawn into a negative feedback loop and a downward spiral that’s hard to reverse.
  7. Don’t let peer pressure drive your decisions. Our decisions change the direction of our own lives – less so, the lives of our friends, peers and associates. Unfortunately, peer pressure is most compelling for young people approaching many of life’s most important choices. Thus, helping kids think about how their decisions will look in five or 10 years is one of the best gifts we can give them. Many bad decisions are rooted in expediency, in group think, or in wanting to please others – a temptation not limited to the young.
  8. Follow your instincts, not your emotions. Our emotions well up from places we often don’t understand, originating from our weakest, most vulnerable, and least-resolved traits and issues. Sometimes we wrap what we’re feeling in the robes of rationality and defend to the death what is simply an emotional reaction. So don’t make decisions in anger or fear. Examine how you’re feeling (and why) before you pull the trigger on a decision.
  9. Don’t make big decisions in haste. Imagine you’re taking an important fork in the road on a foggy evening with the sun going down, visibility limited, and an imperative to get in from the cold before you freeze to death. Take a break. The odds are you’ll make a better choice by sleeping on it. Your best decisions will come when you see clearly and optimistically, and in the light of day.
  10. Don’t shy away from “the road less traveled.” Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” reminds us to visualize choosing the less obvious path. As Frost wrote, it may make “all the difference.”

There are no perfect decisions. They all involve trade-offs. And the steps taken to implement a new choice are as important as the choice itself. Average decisions brilliantly implemented generally trump brilliant ones indifferently implemented. And practicing good decision-making in small arenas leads not only to better decision-making in larger realms, it also gives us better options to choose from.

By Joel Peterson