Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men, and anyone else that's interested.

Posts tagged with #Hard choices

My sons,

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.

My sons,

Bad stuff happens. At work, at home, in our relationships, in our world. That’s just a simple, unavoidable fact. C’est la vie, as our French-speaking neighbors would say. That’s life. In fact, the Good Book clearly indicates that this is just the reality that we’re going to need to live with. Jesus tells us that “in this world, you will have trouble.” (John 16:33).

Bad situations are simply a given - there isn’t much we can do about that. Sure, we can try our best to avoid them, and we may even be successful for a time. But you can’t run forever, and you certainly can’t live a meaningful and fulfilling life by running away from anything and everything that could potentially turn into a bad situation.

How we respond then, is of critical importance.

We must realize that bad situations won’t get better with bad reactions! Unfortunately, left to our naturally selfish inclinations we will generally react poorly to situations that don’t match up to expectations. Put differently, if we don’t intentionally do something about it, we will all react poorly to bad situations. I’ll go further and posit that many of us actually go beyond reacting poorly to reacting terribly.

Think of the uncontrollable anger you feel when someone cuts you off, or abuses using the HOV lane. Think of your irritation when someone cuts in line in front of you, or when the last of the boba was taken by the order right in front of yours. Whatever your vice is, whatever the situations that set you off are, we all naturally react poorly to bad situations.

But those bad reactions don’t actually make the bad situation any better! In fact, they generally make things worse! Not only is the situation unfortunate, but now it’s an unfortunate situation with an ill-tempered (and often ill-mannered) person in the mix! To add insult to injury, once there is one poor reactor in the mix, their negative reaction will generally set off a chain reaction of negativity with others who have the unfortunate circumstances of being in those bad situations with them.

And then all hell breaks loose and you hate life for a while.

The beauty of humanity though is that we can train ourselves to respond differently. With effort and learning, we can develop the ability to interject in that split microsecond when our brain first acknowledges the unfortunate circumstance and our body flies into action.

But first let’s discuss a few less-bad but still not optimal alternatives to responding well.

Avoiding bad situations

We know that bad situations are hard. They can be painful, physically, mentally, or emotionally. They can cause strain on our bodies, on our relationships, on our productivity, and on any number of other dimensions. They can derail us and feel like we’re being slammed by a train that no one saw coming.

It’s therefore natural that people will try to avoid them.

There is a flip side however. None of us have crystal balls, and therefore can’t predict when bad situations will happen. Attempting to avoid them altogether then, will mean that we’ll end up avoiding a bunch of things that we think might turn into a bad situation, but may not. In fact, what we think could be a bad situation might actually turn out to be a life changingly wonderful situation.

By constantly choosing the path of avoidance, we inadvertently remove opportunities for greatness as well. We remove ourselves from opportunities to be loved. We preclude vulnerability. We trade a rich and full life, filled with ups and downs, for a mediocre one, filled with, well, not much to speak of.

Clearly that’s sub optimal.

Blaming someone/something else

Next, we can choose instead to blame someone else, to have a constant scape goat for the situation. “Oh if only Suzy didn’t set this up so poorly. Gosh I wish she was more competent”. “If only they increased the skill level required to have a license, there wouldn’t be these incompetent drivers all over the place. Stupid government.”

One American rock band sang that “everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people” in their 1995 one-hit wonder song, “Banditos”. So much easier to blame everyone else.

The problem there is that by blaming anyone and everyone for the bad situations that happen in our lives, we relinquish control of the situation, and therefore are unable to make the situation any better! If we ignore it, blame someone else for it, try to minimize our believed impact, or any other number of avoidance strategies, we position ourselves as victims with no recourse but resignation and resentment.

Clearly also sub optimal.

Working on yourself

Instead, we can work on ourselves. Rather than reacting instinctively, we need to respond thoughtfully and intentionally.

Let’s unpack that.

Reacting is what you do when a situation occurs and you simply let instinct take over. There are many instances where this is a wonderful thing, and training our reactions, lowering reaction time, and leaning into our natural responses is what we want to do: playing sports, driving, having a snowball fight, dodging stray shopping carts or snowboards barreling down the hill towards you.

However, there are just as many instances where reacting is not the right thing, where our fight or flight instinct will actually get us into an even worse situation. Conflict with spouses, being cut off by an unaware driver, receiving critical feedback, and many more.

Mindfully creating space

As a result, we must learn to be mindful. There are many benefits to mindfulness, and there are tons of articles, ted talks, books, teachers, and philosophers out there where you can learn more about that. I’m not going to cover that here. However, I will focus on one element of mindfulness that I think is apropos here, and that is the ability to create space.

Mindfulness creates the space for you to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting instinctively. It injects an imperceptible space in between which allows you to have the space necessary to be thoughtful about your response. It gives us the room and the tools to decide how we respond instead of reacting out of instinct.

By injecting a brief pause in between our brain’s decision to act vs our body’s reaction, we can rewire our actions despite our initial internal reaction. This allows us to respond in a way that is congruent with our beliefs and our values.

Using that space to your advantage

It’s not enough just to create space. We need to know what to do with that space. This is where learning comes in, and why it’s so critical to have constant streams of inputs into our lives.

These inputs - be they articles, books, TED talks, podcasts, videos, or even rich conversations - are the basis by which we learn to respond better. We need to ensure that our inputs expose us to a wide range of ideas and topics. In his book “Range”, David Epstein outlines why we need a range of inputs and experiences, what range does to our brains, and how range helps our responses in seemingly unrelated areas.

His premise is that the dynamic nature of the world that we live in requires a flexible and fluid approach. While the traditional thinking around 10,000 hours of practice at a single skill may hold true in a static environment (for example playing the piano; pianos haven’t changed substantially since early inception some 300 years ago), success in a dynamic environment requires flexibility and adaptability that can only be improved by a wide range of experiences and inputs.

Of course, it is not enough to merely have inputs. One must process them in order for them to be of any benefit. It is a widespread understanding that you haven’t really learned something until you can teach it to someone else. The reason here is that in order to teach, one must go beyond ingesting input to the place where one can synthesize their own output. It is this processing that allows true learning to take place, and allows our inputs to take a hold in our lives.

Taking responsibility

It is true that some of us have a natural constitution that causes us to be more impatient than others. Some are born into more patient and calm environments, some are born with genetic disposition towards calmness. But those are all starting points. We must go beyond blaming our circumstances and take responsibility for our own development.

We are no longer children. As such, we have the same 24 hours in a day that everyone else does, and the same ability to intentionally use those 24 hours for our own improvement, our own development. We all know people (or at least have seen characters in movies) that have poise, that are good in crises, that handle life like it’s easy, even when it isn’t. These people are able to do that not because they may have been blessed with a calmer constitution, but because they have also taken the time to learn and to train themselves to be calm and collected under pressure.

My sons, my hope for you is that you realize that bad situations get better only with good responses, and that those responses can be learned, can be trained, and can be improved upon. Like everything else, our ability to respond thoughtfully is a skill that anyone can learn and can practice. Let’s learn together.



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