Until our early 20s, many life decisions are made for us.
We’re told to attend school, we’re told to do our best, we’re told what’s socially acceptable and what’s not– we’re raised by our families, our friends, and our society.
So when it’s time to make a big decision later in life, we’re often found unprepared. I’ve never had to choose between two things in which one is not clearly the answer, we realize. What do we do now?
The truth is, wise decision-making is a skill that requires practice. It feels even more intimidating to practice that skill when your job, relationship, education or passion is at stake.
How can we practice on reality?
Here’s the tough realization we all have to come to: when there’s no absolute dichotomy of the moral vs. immoral decision (or legal vs. illegal decision), what we choose comes down to wisdom.
And we gain wisdom in practice, in seeking counsel, and in choosing to grow as human beings.
A story from childhood
When I was in 5th grade, I applied to attend a different middle school. One of the application questions was: If you could invent anything, what would it be?
I still remember my answer: I’d invent a book with all the answers. I think I called it a “mother book,” because when I was that age, my mother had all the answers.
I wanted a book that would tell you what to do at a crossroads where there was no clear right or wrong. In fact, I wanted there to be a clear right or wrong; I didn’t want to figure that out for myself.
I wanted a parent-like person in my life to always tell me what to do. I didn’t want to be alone in my decision-making.
Decision-making is not a solo pursuit.
Of course, I’m glad I didn’t go ahead and invent that book. All of us need the opportunity to experience the fruit of our own decisions.
But, the idea that decisions are not our personal domain is true, I think. Major decisions always affect other people, sometimes many others.
In a culture that celebrates individualism and independence, we’re often quick to claim that something is our choice. And it’s true; we need to practice and exercise our ability to make choices. But we can’t deny that our choices have the power to help or hurt others. They almost always do.
Dealing with the pressure
So, now that I’ve piled on the pressure, what do we do? We all want to practice making wise decisions; we’re also afraid of how our decisions will have an impact on us and on others.
In the same way that there’s no mother book to tell you what to do next, I can’t tell you either. But you and I can wrestle with the following questions to get a grasp for reality as we can know it.
6 Questions to Ask Before Making Big Decisions
1) What are the short- and long-term effects, and the best- and worst-case outcomes?
We often only consider the short- and medium-term effects. Think long-term. Think of your future family. Think of the world after you’re gone. Sometimes it’s relevant.
When you consider the best and worst outcomes, consider the benefit of the best outcome and the cost of the worst. Do you hope for the former, and can you afford the latter?
2) What are my deepest desires right now, and my wildest dreams for the future?
It’s so important to understand our own desires. We often deceive ourselves into thinking that our desires are more complicated than they really are. Oftentimes, what we desire is approval, security, independence, or companionship. We need to know what’s driving our decisions.
Our desires can also tell us where our greatest passions lie. Do our decisions pave the way towards our wildest dreams?
3) What do the wise people in my life have to say?
If you have a number of wise individuals in your life who deeply care for you, then count yourself fortunate. Take advantage of their wisdom and experience, and seek their counsel. They may surprise you with a question or insight that would never have occurred to you. The more you share, the more you’ll gain from these conversations.
4) How will this decision shape me as a person?
This is, in my opinion, the most important piece of the puzzle.
What kind of person will you become as a result? How will it teach you to think about yourself, about others, about the world? Do you want to become that way?
As I wrote in this post on generosity, our actions shape our desires. What we practice becomes our way of thinking, so we need to be concerned about what we practice. How will your decision affect your habits– when you’re alone and when you’re around other people?
5) How will this decision shape the people around me, and the world as a whole?
Think not only of your relationships and friendships; think of the endeavor you’re considering, and how it affects people you don’t even know. Is this something you want to participate in?
We sometimes tell ourselves that our decision won’t affect anyone but us, and that we won’t let it change us. But think of Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada: the change is insidious, and sometimes the impact is devastating.
6) Am I driven by fear and vanity, or am I driven by courage and humility?
Being wise does not mean ignoring your fears, but it does mean recognizing them and not allowing them to rule over you. Is your decision informed by fear, or by self-absorption? Is it about an image of yourself you want to uphold?
Or, perhaps the decision truly comes from a place of courage and humility. Yes, those two go together. We need both in order to step into a new decision.
“It’s all going to be okay.”
Don’t you hate it when people say that? How do they know?
But maybe they’re right. It depends on your definition of okay. Does it mean you won’t suffer, or that you won’t be tempted by regret? Probably not. But does it mean that you will likely be able to make another big decision down the road, and be wiser for it? Probably.