Additional Thoughts on Decision-Making


Earlier this month, I wrote about the challenges inherent in making a big decision. When you’re not sure which path to take, the impulse is to get more data. Ask for more advice. Expand your pro/con list. While you may feel like you’re making progress with these tactics, they’ll likely leave you just as uncertain as you started.There’s no way to know ex-ante what’s right. You just have to make a choice and move forward. It’s only with experience and hindsight that you can make a judgement, and even that will be biased in favor of the path you took.

A few weeks after publishing that post, I ran into a medium-sized decision of my own. Someone advised me to put more time into a particular project at work, one I had been planning to abandon. And that got me thinking. Should I keep working on it? What if it actually goes well? What would it look like on my CV? What would it say about my “personal brand?” Would I need to keep working on other, related projects? What would that all mean five years from now?

Rather than follow my own advice, I had gotten myself stuck in a loop—what the philosopher Kierkegaard calls being “stuck in the infinite.” He describes decision making in terms of two common traps. People can get “stuck in the finite,” pursuing one proscribed path, intentionally blinding themselves to any alternatives, or “stuck in the infinite,” paralyzed by all the possible forking paths, unable to make a decision and move forward.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin illustrates the perils of this way of thinking:

“Disneyworld is stressful.

The occasional visitor has far less fun than you might expect. That’s because without habits, every decision requires attention. And attention is exhausting.

And it’s stressful because the choices made appear to be expensive. There’s a significant opportunity cost to doing this not that. You’re leaving tomorrow, what are you going to skip? What if it’s not worth the line? What are you missing?

It’s all fraught. We feel the failure of a bad choice in advance, long before we discover whether or not it was actually bad.

And it’s not just Disneyworld. It’s now the whole world.”

In my case, I had gotten so afraid of my own potential (and totally unguaranteed) success that I had magnified this small decision into something that would come to define my entire life moving forward. When I asked a few people for advice, they made the sensible point that I could always change my mind. They said, “why not work on the project and see what happens. If it goes well, you’ll face another decision, and you can make it from that vantage point instead of this one.”

Of course. It seems so obvious now.

Kierkegaard says that when you are stuck in the finite or the infinite, there is only one thing a rational person can do—take a leap of faith. You have to become unstuck to move forward. You have to make a choice and see what happens. But, remember, you can always change your mind.

Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

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Photo by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash

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