Can reframing decisions empower you?
The most annoying thing about the new year is all the promises and resolutions people make to themselves (or more annoyingly – loudly to other people) about how this year they are going to enact a series of changes, give up vices and exaggerate virtuous behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for self improvement and self awareness, but I feel that goals should be kept personal, because at the end of the day (or year) your goals should be for yourself. Having said that, I am going to share with you something which I am trying to ascribe to in 2019. I have made a few promises about things I want to improve personally, and after reading various self help books in the forms of rules, I presented these ideas to myself in the only way a nerd such as myself would do – as a contract or citizens agreement with myself. I won’t go into these ideas but needless to say they are hanging up in my room in a place I will have to see everyday. I like the ideas of rules, although I framed mine as reminders because, what can I say, if I set myself some rules perhaps I would probably annoy myself to into rebelling. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life – an Antidote for Chaos and Richard Templar’s Rules for Living were very inspiring to me in developing these ideas this way. I know from my experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that we all of us live by certain rules, whether consciously or not, and sometimes those rules are maladaptive. I believe that by aspiring to adhere to new rules, more productive ones, you can make a change.
What I wanted to explore in this post was a particular area of my life where I genuinely struggle and after talking to a few people about it, I get the feeling that it is something people share. That area is indecision & uncertainty. The sensation we all get that we are making the wrong decision in the face of all the possible outcomes we can imagine. I talked a little bit about knowing you will regret a choice in the future in my post Regrets, Choices & Time Travel Reading that blog post now, I can really feel the melancholy place I was in when I wrote it. It was a particularly dark period of my life that I feel is well and truly in the past, and while scarred, I have learnt so much from it. None the less my relationship with uncertainty remains similar and as time goes by, I feel it creeping into many different areas of my life. I understand that there is a relationship between anxiety and being indecisive and this has manifested itself to me personally in many different ways. Take a moment and consider the last time you were confronted with a decision that you were certainly unsure of how to act; How did you feel in the run up to the decision? How did you feel after you had committed to a course of action? How do you feel about the decision now?
If you are anything like me, you are still troubled by that decision, all the alternatives still play on your mind. I discussed where I thought may dependency on indecision comes from in my post Of Ships & Shadows. In Barry Schwartz book The Paradox of Choice he calls people like me maximizers, and suggests that there is a link between this mentality and lower levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. Throughout his book he is critical of the abundance of choice we enjoy in our society and suggests that it inevitably leads to dissatisfaction knowing that there was, potentially, a better option available. A maximizer,he says, is someone who will investigate all the possible outcomes of a decision and then strive to make the best one. The distinction between the best and a good one is very important. If you are not a maximize you are a satisfier.The latter will make a decision based on their own criteria, and will more often than not be happy with the outcome, even if a better option was available. The former will be sad to know if what they committed too was not the best option. Imagine you go out for dinner; you stare at the menu struggling to decide what you would like to eat. A satisfier will think along these lines: “I want something with cheese, something hot, and maybe some serving of potato, preferably chipped, but I’ll accept roasted”. They will come across a portion of cheesy chips and be happy with that choice. A maximizer will think more along these lines “Ok, what is the best deal here? What is the cheapest but most filling option? Should we even stay in this restaurant? I heard next door do two for one, and the portions look bigger. Ok maybe I will opt for the lasagne because it looks reasonable.” Then when the lasagne arrives, they wish they had also bought cheesy chips, regardless of the thought process that goes into the decision.
Now that example, while peculiar, can seep over into other areas of your life. Schwartz basic point is that while in some circumstances the maximizer will inevitably end up with a better deal, the subjective experience of looking for that deal, and stressing about what decision to make, is more intense, draining and costly on an emotional level. The satisfier however, will be more content and happy with their decision. It is clear that Schwartz is an advocate for always trying to aim for the middle option. This seems counter intuitive in our society where we are always told to aim high, expect the best, but in reality, or rather in my experience of reality, this is often the path to unhappiness. That is not to say that you can’t aim high, but that this must always be tempered with an element of realism. How likely is it that you will end up with that dream job that you cannot even articulate yet? Not very. How likely is it that if you make the good middling decisions you may end up with a job that you don’t mind that allows you to life the live you want to lead, with potential at your fingertips. Much more likely.
As Voltaire said “The best is the enemy of the good”.
So if we accept that we all need to try and aim towards becoming satisfiersin order to live a more fruitful and happier life; we ultimately end up tackling the question of indecision. By accepting that the decisions you made were the best decision that you could make at that particular moment in time should then start to diminish those feelings you may harbour that another option was better. But what of uncertainty in general? What do you do when you have no idea what to do for the best? What do you do when you feel completely paralysed by choice or lack of it? Brian Schmitt did an excellent TedTalk on certaintywhich really spoke to me. He points out that uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it is at the very core of the entire universe. Even within your own life, there may be events that appear as random, but ultimately, if you have faith, they are leading you somewhere. Where that is cannot always be seen at this moment. There is an account on YouTube called Like Stories of Old an incredibly beautiful and creative perspective on what films are saying to us, the morals they have and the society it reflects. They did a kind of analysis of the 2002 film Signswith Mel Gibson which really spoke to me. Although the film is about an alien invasion, there is also a narrative of the main character’s loss of faith in God. Spoiler alert, it works out in the end, but the way it does is interesting. A series of seemingly random events crescendo into meaning that have an ultimate purpose. I’m not particularly into religious interpretations, which I guess in my life is why I wouldn’t find any, but I do believe in an element of fate. If we accept that your life is a story that you are tell yourself, a narrative you create with the content you have lived, then there is no reason why seemingly random events couldn’t be connected to see some higher purpose.
Joseph Campbell, an American comparative mythologist calls this path the Hero’s Journey and stresses that it is filled with uncertainty. First the hero, which is you in your own life, receives the call to adventure, the summons to leave what you know and venture out into the realm of the unknown; in mythology sometimes represented as the safety of the castle. We see this all the time in Disney movies; Rapunzel in her tower inTangled, the elephant graveyard in the Lion King or even Andy’s house inToy Story.The idea that you must leave the realm of the known, the safety of what you are used to in order to become the hero. This idea of a journey in which the hero must face monsters, challenges and even their own limitations, is so embedded within us, almost a biological format we are attuned to follow through what Carl Jung called the collective unconsciousness.This is the idea that we all share a structure in our unconscious mind that is populated by instincts and archetypes., and that there are patterns we must follow in order to become who we really are.
Once you read Joseph Campbell, who incidentally has the most beautiful writing style – pages and pages of creative and insightful prose, you begin to see the pattern he outlines repeated in so many areas of life. Books; film, TV shows, games, interviews and even conversations you have with loved ones. I unashamedly listen to Russell Brands Podcast Under the Skin and almost every guest is asked “Why are you doing what you are doing?” and they will all answer with a story of seemingly random events that led to this moment. How does all this relate to my goal of striving to deal with the role of indecision in life different this year? I guess by accepting that any decision I make is in reality a random event that in the future could potentially be one of meaning. I mean in the sense that if you imagine all your decisions as purchases, by accepting them from a position of future opportunity, instead of future regret I can free myself of the shackles of indecision. By remembering that decisions I make however small or large, may potentially be a metaphorical Ariadne’s thread for how you view your life – how you construct the narrative you live by. Robert Frost’s beautiful poem The Road Not Taken opens with the weight of deciding which path to take, a paralysis of indecision, and discusses the decision making process. The poem ends with the line “And that has made all the difference”. Make your decisions to the best of your knowledge and have faith that they will lead somewhere.
I heard a Chinese parable the other day that I though was beautiful that I will relate to you now to end this ramble. It is on the long side, but I feel it sums up what I am trying to say. That we have the gift of hindsight, but the power of foresight is denied to us, it is only ever an educated guess. Don’t feel guilty over limited knowledge, and accept that paths in the past are now closed to you.
There was once a farmer who owned a horse. One day the horse bolted and all the villagers came to see the farmer and said “What bad luck, your horse has bolted!” The farmer stoically replied “Maybe, we will see.” The next week the horse returned with two other mares. The villagers returned to the farmer and said “What great luck!” Once again the farmer replied “Maybe we will see.” A few weeks later the farmer’s son fell over and broke his leg. The villagers returned to lament the farmers bad luck. “Your poor boy! What bad luck!” The farmer replied slowly “Maybe, we will see” The following week some officials came round to gather all the able bodied young men to fight in a war off on some distant shore. The villagers said in grief after having lost their boys to the military “Your boy wasn’t taken, what incredibly luck.” The farmer once again replied “Maybe, we will see”.