Making Decisions Sucks

Photo by Lori Greig on Flickr Photo by Lori Greig on Flickr

I was playing with more artful titles for this post, but it was making me tired, and I figured, I might as well tell it like it is: Making decisions sucks.

Are you with me? Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

I was talking to my friend Lauree yesterday (@simplyleap), who is an amazing listener, about feeling like I’m back at a familiar crossroads. Once again, I find myself consumed with thoughts about whether and how to free up more of my time for writing and growing this blog, and about the trade-offs that would require in terms of income, which of course relates to cost of living, which relates to where I’ve chosen to live…

Lauree is a professional life coach, and she told me a number of her clients grapple with similar decisions. Because, of course. This isn’t unique to me. It’s an age-old challenge, a universal one, and I suddenly zoomed out in my mind, and pictured people all over the globe struggling in their minds with similar decisions.

(Read an interview I did with Lauree a couple years back.)

Are platitudes like this causing us to freak the fuck out? (Image via Pinterest...of course) Are platitudes like this causing us to freak the fuck out? (Image via Pinterest…of course)

It’s silly, in a way, the amount of energy I put into thinking about this, and “solving” it, and yet, it’s also essential…right? If we want to lead meaningful lives, then we need to examine our values and how our actions align with our values. We need to make choices that add up to a legacy we are happy to have on our tombstones. As inspirational graphics all over Pinterest entreat us: Every decision we make helps us build the lives we want to live.

Right?

Or…what if this approach to decision-making, where every decision we make matters SO MUCH and is HIGHLY SYMBOLIC of the PERSON WE WISH TO BE, means we never actually get to be present, or to enjoy the life right in front of us?

Jordan and I tortured ourselves for years over the decision of where to live. In fact, it’s been a dominant theme of our marriage.

Most recently, we spent the past few years trying to decide whether to stay in our beloved Brooklyn, where we were paying an exorbitant amount to rent a spacious-for-New York dump, or move back to DC, in order to be near grandparents and our primary community of family and friends. And then a third option emerged: What about the Hudson Valley? It was beautiful, and affordable, and living there would make it easier for both of us to spend more time on art-making (writing for me, and improv…improv and music for him).

Beacon, New York, in the Hudson Valley, beckoned...but we chose DC Beacon, New York, in the Hudson Valley, beckoned…but we chose DC

We tortured ourselves with this decision for three years. Finally, this past winter, we decided that as parents of a toddler, it just didn’t make sense to start over in a brand new place (the Hudson Valley), with no support network. So, in May, we moved back to DC. It has been WONDERFUL I can feel the support of so many people who love us so much, and whom we love intensely in return. And yet, still, I fantasize: If were in the Hudson Valley, I could write more…

Were we better off as a society when we just lived wherever we grew up, and that was that? What happiness does this newfound freedom and mobility bring to our lives, this ability to do our work anywhere…and what sadness does it create?

“Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.”

— Sigmund Freud

I know from having a Cliff’s Notes-level understanding of behavioral economics (gleaned from my work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which applies these concepts to improving health and health care) that there is such a thing as the paradox of choice: We think we want more options we think it makes us free  but really, having options often makes us unhappy. Options can imprison us; they can make us stuck.

Or, as my very first improv teacher, Topher Bellavia, once said, “In improv, as in life, it doesn’t matter what choice you make  it matters that you make a choice, commit to it, and move on.”

This is a profound sentiment: There is no “right” choice.

Photo by geralt Photo by geralt

Think of all the time we spend perseverating over whether or where to move, what job to take, how to handle a difficult conversation, even how to decorate our homes. How radical it would be to fully commit to the notion that IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT CHOICE WE MAKE. Just make a choice, commit, and move on. (“Just” ha.)

Of course, writing that fills my mind with “Buts.” “But, who you marry matters.” “Who you choose to be friends with matters.” “Whether to have children matters.” “Who you vote for matters.” “How you live your life matters.”

And if happiness means making a choice and committing to it, there’s the small matter of learning to stop second-guessing the decisions we make. Like me still fantasizing about a move to the Hudson Valley. I don’t actually want to pick up and move there. I can FEEL how right it is for me to be in DC, and yet, I also feel called to write more. Those feelings are at odds. It’s easy to say “trust your gut,” but what if your gut wants two things that are incompatible? I don’t want the Hudson Valley, really; I want what it symbolizes.

It’s hard to let go of symbols.

On a more superficial level, let’s say I tell myself, “Stop obsessing about what color to paint your hallway just pick something.” That might be easy enough…but how do I keep myself from second-guessing my decision every time I walk down the hall?

How do we train our minds to ACCEPT the decisions we’ve made? Practice, I suppose. Mindfulness. Catching ourselves in the act of spinning our minds into a frenzy, breathing, and saying, “I accept my decision.” Or something like that.

What do you think? Does it matter what choices we make? It feels crazy to even ask that, but what if the answer could possibly, in most circumstances, be “no”? Clearly, morality is a major factor here, as is the law…we can’t just choose to shoot someone (although apparently, many of us can choose that, and do…), or otherwise hurt them (of course, emotional hurt is subjective).

But putting cases like that aside: What if, for so many choices in our lives, it doesn’t really matter what we choose?

What if true happiness comes from simply making choices, and committing to them?

Of course, life isn’t static. We don’t make decisions and then the world stops turning and there are no more decisions to be made. So maybe the path to happiness is: Make choices, commit to them…then do it again.

My professor, Al Filreis (photo courtesy of Kelly Writer's House) My professor, Al Filreis (photo courtesy of Kelly Writer’s House)

This reminds me of an experience I had in college. I took a wonderful class called “The Literature of Community” with a provocative professor named Al Filreis (@afilreis). Inspired by a book called Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education by Gerald Graff, Al structured the class in a radical way. Every day, we’d come in and find a slip of paper on a desk at the front of the room, with a declarative statement about the short story we’d read the night before: “So-and-so is a racist,” for example. Then and this is the really interesting part we’d have to choose a place to sit based on our position on that statement. “If you disagree, sit by the windows. If you agree, sit by the door.”

I wanted to sit in the middle. “Well, if you look at it this way… if you consider this factor…” Or maybe, just: “I don’t know.” Wasn’t that the responsible place to be? In the middle, open to both points of view?

Photo by Michael Trolove Photo by Michael Trolove

Al invoked Nazi Germany. Look what happened there, when people sat on the fence, and didn’t take a stand. An extreme example, sure, but also an effective one. Habits of mind are habits of mind.

Al pushed us to take a position, right off the bat. Then, in the course of discussion, if we changed our minds…we could change our position. We could move from the windows to the door, and back again, as many times as we liked.

Maybe this seems wrong. Maybe it seems like an echo of our pundit-centric culture, where everyone barks their position without listening to the other side. But the thing is, we were listening. We were having a conversation, instead of equivocating. We were making choices, committing to them…and then, when we felt compelled, we made new choices. We didn’t stew.

Too many women I know spend their lives stewing myself included.

Of course, the decisions we stew over often (not always, but often) have higher stakes than a conversation about a piece of literature.

But habits of mind are habits of mind.

What if committing to a choice doesn’t mean saying it’s forever, but saying it’s right, for now?

What if we committed to living this way?

What might happen?

Have you ever tried “just choosing”? How did it work out for you? Share your story in the comments below, or let me know if you’d like to write a guest post about this. I’m eager to showcase more voices on this site.

Thanks for reading,
Amanda

P.S. I have more thoughts, but this post is already too long, so just a couple additional questions to consider: How does our education system prime us to be adults obsessed with making the “right” choice? Also, obviously, this is a problem of the privileged. And yet the irony is that so many people strive to make money in order to afford themselves more choice, but if choices don’t lead to happiness…what are we really striving for?

P.P.S. What does it mean to “just make a choice” as an artist? In improv, that works. But what about in other forms? Isn’t honing your sense for making the artistic choice that feels right an enormous part of finding your voice and improving your craft? Or is that only true if we presume the product is more important than the process? And, quality is in the eye of the beholder. But if artists de-value the importance of making the “right” choice, what does that do to the fundamental nature of making art?

P.P.P.S. Can you tell that I’m someone who puts a lot of thought into every single choice she makes?!

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8 thoughts on “Making Decisions Sucks

  1. Amanda, this touches on so many things I’m wrestling with right now! For me, the recurring theme is on job v. vocation, stability v. flexibility, and money v. … I’m not sure – integrity? Freedom? I’m hitting another crossroads, it seems, and reading this is very helpful.

    I worked for a behavioral economist once upon a time, and the whole concept of choice paralysis really resonated with me. It happens with restaurant menus as much as with big life questions. I’ve started to say (to myself and to friends), "There’s no wrong answer here." It helps with minor decisions, for sure, but I’m still working on the bigger ones.

    As an actor, I think "just making a choice" is an important part of the process, in auditions and early rehearsals, for sure. And I hope that if the other people in the room are doing the same thing, we can find the better, stronger choices together in a way that feels more organic and less rigid. That takes trust, but it’s possible. Even when a theatre artist makes a poor choice, totally committing to it can ameliorate it, while backing away from it just makes the whole thing fall apart.

    I think I’ll be wrestling with this for a while.

    — Marsha

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    • Reading your comment makes me wonder about the effects that our decision making has on other people…since in life, as on stage, we don’t exist in a vacuum.

      I’m glad this resonated and please let me know if you have any breakthroughs or "aha" moments as you practice/try applying all this to your personal crossroads. I could use the help ;).

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  2. I think that ultimately, all we can ever do is make the best choice we have available. To marry or not to marry? To marry THAT person or wait for someone else who might have more qualities that I’m looking for in a partner? To have a kid or not have a kid? To have more kids or stick with one? To live here or there? Pizza or salad? Etc.

    It helps if you know who you are and what you want. However, we’re also constantly changing/evolving, and those things change over time, too.

    Then, try not to get too stuck in grappling with the pros and cons. There are always going to be upsides and downsides to every choice.

    In hindsight, some of my choices have worked out well. Other have totally kicked me in the ass. In the moment though? I really was trying to do my best to choose wisely, but sometimes I had two crappy options in front of me, and I chose the one that seemed least harmful.

    Sometimes I’ve doubled-down on a dream, even if that leap of faith meant some short-term pain and hardship. Sometimes we just have to take our lumps and learn from that, too. I’m somewhat stubborn and would rather learn some things in life the hard way than to always take the path that seems easier or more responsible to others. I’ve taken the hit to my credit report that comes with enduring a limited income for too long (far longer than my savings would allow) over sacrificing 40+ hours a week and an unfulfilling day job. It’s a tough choice, and some people will look down their noses about it, but I don’t care what they think of me, I care what I think of me.

    As an artist (primarily writer and singer) I feel like I approach the work much in the same way as I would if I was doing improv. This is especially true for writing, because even though I may have an idea for a story and have an outline, and maybe if I’m really organized, I’ve done some character sketching, ultimately, the act of writing a first draft IS improv. Are you yes-anding throughout the draft, or are you judging every line as you write it and questioning every choice? Because judgment is what makes sitting down to a blank screen hard. You can always go back and cut scenes or improve upon them. Make new choices.

    And life is like that, too. You may not get to start from scratch, but every day, you can wake up and make a different choice. Today I’m having pancakes and taking the dog for a walk, instead of smoothies and gym time. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up at 7 and do some writing instead of sloooowly getting rolling with my day at 10, and then have to focus on paying work instead of fun work. And maybe I’ll choose to find a way to make the paying work more fun, so I don’t look at it as such a drag.

    We don’t have to have a master plan when we’re 18, 22, 30 or any other age. Life is constantly forcing us to re-evaluate and make new choices to meet the demands of our current realities and our personal aspirations. Hell, having a five year plan seems overly ambitious. You just don’t know what opportunity is just over the horizon, or what situation may throw you for a loop. I have some general goals in life, but mostly life is just a process of setting the bearing and making a series of course corrections along the way…and you may get halfway to your destination, spot an island over in the distance, and decide to change course entirely. That’s valid.

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    • Jessica, this is beautiful. First of all, I didn’t know you were a writer and a singer! Do you share your work anywhere? Second, you really remind me of an idea I took from a book by Alan Arkin, which is that some of us have the soul of an improviser:

      http://amandahirsch.com/having-a-ball-having-it-all/the-soul-of-an-improviser.html

      We think 5-year-plans seem overly ambitious — I’d even go so far as to say "absurd," or full of hubris, that you could predict how things would play out over that period of time…let alone predict what you’d want for yourself. Those of us in this club feel more comfortable and authentic letting things play out as they will, and riding the wave.

      But…what is the cost of this? Is there a cost?

      Lately I keep coming back to the question of power, as represented by money in the bank (which is maybe a false representation of power, but one that is deeply ingrained in me).

      You mention taking a hit to your credit report. I have other friends who’ve recently confided in me that their credit has taken a hit as they pursue their dreams, too. I have struggled in self-employment to earn a consistent income — I’ve had big ups, and big downs. If all this meant was that I couldn’t spend on indulgences, but I could spend my day immersed in doing what I love, well…that would probably be worth it. It’s this halfway business that hurts. Of not fully pursuing my art, but not fully exploiting my earning power, either.

      And yet, to fully pursue my art — to make that choice — feels impossible, because it means giving up earning completely, at least in the short-term. So I’m thinking, maybe I need to pursue a traditional Office Job for a while just to build up savings, so I can then have a nest egg that lets me pursue my art full-time.

      But…that brings us back where we started. The ridiculous notion of a 5-year plan. Can long-term plans actually work? I don’t know. I’ve only seen them bring people disappointment, when things didn’t play out the way they were "supposed" to…

      And round and round I go :). Which is why I’m trying to convince myself, these days, that maybe I need to stop trying to engineer all of this so much, and just make some damn choices.

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      • Right now, no, there’s nowhere that I’m posting my work. I have been writing with a writing group for the past year every week, and I am starting to feel like I’m getting consistent enough with the writing practice that things are starting to feel more like stories and less like concepts that I’m exploring or practicing. So, hopefully soon I’ll be submitting them or publishing them on a blog.

        Re: singing – I’m singing at my brother’s wedding next month! And I’ve been playing around a bit with creating digital music using looping sounds. One of the barriers to me in music has always been that I’m not really proficient on an instrument other than my voice, and I haven’t really had the time to be part of a group. I’m not that interested in classical ensembles like joining a choral society/chamber choir, and while I know musicians that play jazz/pop/rock/etc., I’m not really looking to join a band. So this new foray into digital music (to provide accompaniment) has been interesting. I’m sure at some point, I’ll want to be more public, but right now, it’s more of a process of finding my own voice, whatever form it takes.

        I’ve also produced a lot of theater in the last 15 years with non-profits or with friends who wanted to put up a show for a few weeks renting local space/Fringe Festivals. I am interested in doing more producing, but finding a way to make it an income source. So I’m reading more plays these days. And learning to write them.

        It is so weird to be 38 and to be in this place of feeling like a beginner, yet also having a lot of experiences to draw from, whether it’s the 10+ years of voice lessons, improv classes, production work on dozens of shows, writer’s workshops, playwright labs, etc. I’m not really a beginner-beginner, but there is a lot of beginner’s mind in how I’m doing things, because I’ve had a whole different career and life.

        I’m grappling with it all, too. When I started my non-profit consulting business three years ago, I thought that it would bring all kinds of freedom (financial and time-wise were my top priorities, and I was also attracted to the idea of working with organizations that I was really jazzed about, vs. taking assignments from the consulting firm I worked with prior to starting my own business). The first couple of years were hard, as I realized that there were a lot of skills that go with running a business that weren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse (nor was I really interested in mastering them, which would ultimately mean hiring and managing people), and that the amount of business building work + client work easily matched or exceeded the amount of time I would have at a regular job, and my income was considerably less. What. The. Hell. Have. I. Done?!? Was pretty much my mantra from late 2012 to 2014.

        I’ve spent the last year or so getting very honest with myself about how much I really want to do this, vs. the other things in life that I always loved to do, but convinced myself that it wasn’t viable to make a living at those things (like music, writing, theater producing). When I said "it’s not viable" what I really meant was "it scares the shit out of me".

        I’m not sorry that I left a job that made me loathe getting out of bed in the morning and tried to do something new. I needed to do that. I have no doubt that that job was slowly killing me. Quitting that job and trusting myself was an act of self-empowerment and liberation.

        I’m not sorry that I’ve made a million mistakes in the process of starting a business and trying to run one. I’ve learned more than I’d ever have learned by going back to school to get an MBA.

        Financially, the past few years have really hurt me. I am sorry about that, because it has cost me points on my credit rating and credibility with some people. I don’t like that I’ve broken agreements. That’s something I’ve got to work to repair, and it makes the process of relocating back to NYC full time a bit challenging, but there are some good lessons there, too: I have a great support network AND I really, truly do not need much.

        So right now, I’m in a bit of a crossroads myself. Option one: keep trying to run my consulting business and do the creative work on the side. Option two: get a day job, quit the consulting business, and do the creative work on the side. Option three: commit to doing the creative work, and pick up consulting work or survival work where I can/need to.

        Option three feels pretty good to me, because I’m starting to accept the notion that all artists are artists with a day job until they get to the point that they don’t need the day job anymore. The critical piece though is reminding myself that the artistic work is the goal, not the making money part. There’s a reason why so many actors and other artists call their J-O-B their "survival" job. It really is about making the monthly nut that you need to make, while putting as much time and energy as you can into the creative work.

        To that end, I’m in the process of reconnecting with the theater people I know in NYC and am looking for non-profit arts admin/commercial producing jobs. 12 years ago when I finished my coursework at NYU in fundraising and arts admin, I balked at the idea of being an intern somewhere to get experience and get a foot in the door, so I started working with other kinds of non-profits. I’m overqualified for internships now, but would be willing to take a mid-level arts fundraising job if I could ensure that it would basically be a 40 hour work week. That’s always the trick when you’ve got a full-time job. Will it work? Not sure. It may turn out that looking for a full-time job within the arts industry in NYC doesn’t make sense, and I’ll have to entertain the notion of general temp work or do freelance/consulting work.

        I’m less worried about maximizing my income potential than not living the life that I imagine. The money will work itself out. One of the privileges of having skills and being well-educated is the knowledge that if you have to start over again, you can. It’s humbling, but you can start another business. Or find a J-O-B while you regain your footing.

        I’ve pretty much given up on long-term planning. I know what things I want in the big picture, so I will try to take some action to get those things, but it’s not all up to me. There is a lot of luck in life: meeting the right people at the right time, being in the right place at the right time.

        Then there’s RECOGNIZING the opportunity that is in front of you and maintaining relationships so you can nurture future opportunities. THAT is something that I try to take action on. Having the knowledge, skills and ability to leverage an opportunity when it is in front of you.

        I’m doing 100 day plans that will bring me incrementally closer to those goals, rather than trying to figure out what I want a year from now, two years from now or five years from now. 43 year old Jessica might have a husband and a kid or two, or she might still be single. I have no idea. I don’t want my happiness to depend on whether the vision 38 year old me had came true or not; I just want 43 year old Jessica to be a happy person with whatever life she’s living. 18 year old me would be VERY disappointed in 38 year old me, but when I look back on my life to date, I actually have very few regrets, except the things that I haven’t had the guts to try.

        I vote for making choices. Even scary ones. Maybe especially scary ones.

        "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." – Henry David Thoreau

        Or, to borrow the title from Yevgeny Yevtushenko: "Don’t die before you’re dead."

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  3. I, too, am tempted to obsess about decisions and try to find the perfect path forward.A few years ago, I was at a career crossroads — take a new full-time position that seemed safe but didn’t excite me or take a part-time position I liked but that came with the risks of also starting a consulting business to fill the pay gap. Or chuck them both and move for a totally different job.My brilliant career coach gave me permission not to have all the answers. Because we can’t. We can only decide based on what we know now, not with with 20/20 hindsight.She also noted that it’s possible all of these decisions could work out just fine, and all would have different downsides. If you’re choosing among equally good options, we aren’t necessarily obsessing because we worry the choice won’t be good — we want it to be the BEST. But how can you know that?I read a great Harvard Business Review article that really stuck with me. The point is that instead of investing all your energy into choosing, you should put your energy into making your choice work.In your case, for example, now that you’ve picked DC, let Brooklyn go, let Hudson Valley go, and really invest in making DC the home you want it to be. In case it speaks to you, too: https://hbr.org/2013/11/stop-worrying-about-making-the-right-decision/

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  4. Maybe one of the tricks is to make one choice at a time, rather than trying to make a chain of choices (A, then B, then C)?

    I’ve been thinking about finding a full-time office job again, for financial reasons, but there are a few factors that make it hard (-er than usual) for me to see 3-5 years ahead. I know from experience that a bad office job can crush my artistic spirit just as much as the stress of being underemployed, so I’m wary of making that choice, but at the same time, a good office job can make me feel like I’m thriving in all aspects of my life. Perhaps the answer is to figure out my greatest need(s) at the moment, and figure out how to meet those, and as the needs change, make a new plan. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to find THE perfect solution that works forever, but really, I think we can only try to find a good solution that works for now.

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    • Have you seen Jessica’s and Colleen’s comments below? This is really SUCH an interesting discussion, and I am just struck by how many people I know are privately stewing over such similar choices and presumably feeling so alone in them. Maybe not — but I know I feel alone with my version of these choices. Maybe if we take nothing else from this whole conversation it’s that we are part of a sisterhood of thoughtful, passionate women who are grappling with some version of what we’re grappling with and we can take comfort in that…we’re all out there, trying, and when we take the time to talk about it with other women, maybe we find some new solutions.

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