Life is full of choices. Some are easy and seemingly insignificant (what should you eat for breakfast?). Some are harder (should you go to Vancouver this weekend?). Some seem huge and very hard (which college should you go to?). No matter what aspect of life you consider - be it work, relational, academic, medical - we will have hard choices to make. These decisions are hard because they are by definition not simple (ie there is no objectively measurable way to decide) and because the impacts of these choices will typically have a pretty large impact and reach on our lives.
Studies have shown that the average adult makes 35,000 choices a day, around 250 of which are made on just food alone (Wansink and Sobal, 2007)! As a result, it is in our best interest to ensure that we deal with these choices well. To do that, we need to consider a few things.
Understanding the role of emotions in our decision making
For the majority of people, whether we admit it or not, our emotions play a large part in our decision making. There are many that want to believe that they are completely logical, and that emotions don’t play a part in their decision making, but the reality is that we are an emotional and relational species. It is almost impossible for the average person to completely remove emotion from their decision making.
The exception of course, is the clinical psychopath, who actually has deficient emotional responses and a lack of ability to apply empathy to a given situation. Since the majority of us are not psychopathic, we need to understand that the biggest threat to good decision making is harmful emotions. Whether that emotion is fear, anger, pain, or shame, strong emotional reactions left not checked are a great threat to our decisions and to our learning.
First, we need to realize this. Many don’t have the self awareness to realize that their emotions are actually playing a large factor in their lives. For much of my life, I prided myself on the ability to think logically and make decisions based on that logic. As a computer scientist, that was an incredibly valuable trait. Personality tests also confirmed this bias (the typical software engineer tests as an INTJ as their Myers-Briggs personality type). It took much learning through painful trial and error and several rude awakenings for me to realize that I in fact am a highly emotionally oriented person that masked (and rationalized) much of that in logical thinking.
Next, we need to understand that these strong emotions prevent us from learning. Learning is often greatest in pivotal/crisis moments, and strong emotional responses left unchecked will push us quickly into fight or flight mode instead of allowing us to learn from the experience. Remember that the important thing is to acquire knowledge and have it paint a true and rich picture of the world in which you need to make decisions. That requires an open mind, something that harmful emotions prevent.
Learning before deciding
Once we foster an environment of learning in our lives, we can freely realize and accept that learning must come before deciding. In order to make the best decisions for our lives, we must realize that decisions ought to be the process of choosing which knowledge should be drawn upon from the variety of inputs and alternatives that we’ve thoughtfully considered, and not solely based on how we feel at a given moment. If we do not learn, then our pool to draw from is very shallow, and our decisions will be reflective of this.
Learning is the act of taking in many inputs, thoughtfully considering them, weighing them against our values and principles, and creating a strong basis for us to make decisions. The stronger that basis the greater our ability to not only consider first order consequences but second and third order ones as well, which in turn allows us to make better decisions and allows us to have more confidence in them.
This is why we need a range of experiences.
From having a diverse group of friends to being exposed to a wide array of ideas and thoughts, from trying new foods, sports, and experiences to spending time reading about topics that you’re not immediately interested in, building a wide range of perspectives allows us have a larger pool to draw from when we consider our options. This in turn allows us to make better decisions.
Have the courage to make the choice
It’s not enough however, to just know what the right decision is. Often the case with hard choices is that the thing we don’t choose has a negative impact on our situation, so we must be ready for that. The reality is that there will be benefits and consequences to every option that we consider, and often the best decision is one that comes with a lot of cost.
The second order implication is that not making the right hard choice may be less painful at the onset but often has a much more painful outcome in the long run.
And therein lies the rub.
We often think only about first order consequences to things and make our decisions based solely on those. The problem is that the second and third order consequences often not only have a more lasting impact but a larger magnitude of impact as well.
Consider an example.
You have a friend who has done something to upset or offend you. You have the opportunity to discuss the situation with your friend and share with them how you feel. What do you do?
The first order considerations for dealing with the situation is to consider the immediate conversation. This will be an awkward conversation, and may hurt your friend’s feelings. However the second order consideration is to think about the long term health of your friendship. Despite this being a difficult conversation to have in the immediate term, the long term benefits are that you will build a stronger friendship based on trust and honesty. The converse is that your friendship will suffer without the conversation, and will eventually fade into another one of those acquaintances that we all have many of - you know the type, where you politely say hi and make small talk when you occasionally bump into each other and avoid all depth and meaning in the relationship.
It takes courage to make the right decision.
And so my boys, I pray that not only are your lives characterized by much learning and a diverse range of experiences and inputs that lead to great decisions, but by the courage and fortitude required to make those decisions in spite of the cost of not choosing the alternatives. May you find the strength needed to choose well, and may you find the comfort and support needed to support your decisions.