One of my readers recently told me in an email,
I feel like I have been pushed out of an airplane with a parachute that has a dozen different pull cords. I don’t know which one will save me, or which will kill me, but I do know I have to do something before I hit the ground.
Such is the painful paralysis of making life decisions in the modern age. Gone are the days when you just took over your dad’s business; if you did that now you’d be “settling.”
Gone is the era of believing that, as one traditionalist said in David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, “no matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean”; today’s parents tell us that the world is our oyster.
These days, fulfilling our greatest potential – not finding a suitable partner – is the most important thing.
We welcome this newfound opportunity, but we also suffer from it. We fear making the wrong decisions so much that, ironically, we often compromise our potential in the process. When overwhelmed with options, we tend to regret our decisions, obsess over foregone alternatives or simply not choose at all.
Endless articles tell us how to make the most of our lives. But if we don’t learn how to be satisfied with our decisions, we’ll lead full but regret-laden lives. Modern psychology offers three ways to make peace with your decisions:
1) Blame your gut.
Sometimes we feel guilty about relying on gut decisions. One hiring manager conceded, “I hate to say this, but a lot of it is gut feeling.” But trusting your gut has perks – though maybe not for the reason you think.
Have you ever tried that exercise where you sit, close your eyes and think of an important, impending decision? You ask “Should I do this?” and, supposedly, if you lean back or feel compelled backward, the answer is no. If you lean forward, the answer is yes.
I recently tried this when debating whether to accept an unpaid speaking engagement in New York City. I leaned back, so I decided to decline the invitation. That’s embarrassing to admit, but I have no regrets.
It’s impossible to know whether leaning back is actually your intuition talking, but here’s what matters: thinking your intuition is talking.
In one study, consumers viewed their purchases more positively when “decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation.” The authors sum, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing.” In other words, we like our decisions better when we didn’t consciously, painstakingly choose them. We prefer decisions that feel subliminal.
In short, decision satisfaction hinges not so much on listening to your gut but, rather, blaming it.
2) Don’t change your mind.
Once you’ve explored your options and what you want – a critical step for satisfied and sound decisions – make the decision as if it’s final.
In one study, participants were asked to pick a piece of art to take home. Individuals told they could later exchange the piece for another experienced less appreciation for their chosen artwork than people who had no such option. Interestingly, participants didn't anticipate this effect, instead assuming that more choice was better.
In short, even if you do backtrack, don’t tell yourself that you can “always change your mind” when you’re making a decision. This could make the same decision less satisfying.
Moreover, some research suggests that changing your mind at all can be risky. We continue evaluating choices even after they’ve passed through our field of vision or conscious awareness. When we change our minds based on evidence processed after making a decision, we often make worse choices.
3) Justify your decision.
There was a little-known third cofounder of Apple named Ronald Wayne. Two weeks after Apple was incorporated in 1976, Wayne left and sold his 10% stake in the company for $800. Now 84, Wayne lives off his social security check outside Las Vegas. Today, his shares would be worth $63 billion.
Wayne’s explanation for his decision to sell his Apple stock may have saved him a lifetime of angst: “If I stayed at Apple I would have probably ended up the richest man in the cemetery,” he told CNN.
His rationalization might sound wishful, or even dishonest. Maybe it is. But it’s also an adaptive mechanism for coping with regret to preserve wellbeing and future performance.
Nietzsche called this “amor fati” — loving one’s fate. “One wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity,” Nietzsche wrote in his final book.
Being satisfied with your decisions has less to do with your actual decisions and more to do with how you see and rationalize them.
When we blame our intuition, commit to our choices and rationalize our decisions, we can maximize not just our potential but also our fulfillment.
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