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)
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.
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
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?
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
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)
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
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,
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?!