Some choices are just impossible to make
When instincts trump Facebook memes
I’m in Holland, as I write this, living in the house I inherited from my mother in 2016.
2016 was a year of decisions. Decisions about the care of my mother in her final months, decisions about the funeral and about what to do with the house, about my work and about my life. 2017 is off to a decisive start as well. Now that I’ve decided to keep house for the foreseeable future, I’m making decisions every day about getting the place ready so I can rent it out when I’m not using it myself.
I had to make a big decision this weekend about the colour of the walls. I’m not great with colour myself, so I called for help from three people whose skill in matters of colour is vastly superior to mine. All three of them are artists and all three advised me to pick three totally different colours. The suggestions went from white to pink to green. After some deliberating, I made a decision and I’ll let you know how it (I chose a colour called Stylish Pink, It was Valentine’s Day after all).
Schrödinger’s cat dilemma
But it’s a tricky thing this decision making. I am normally considered the decisive sort. I don’t think I am ever accused of dilly dallying when a decision is to be made. But there’s a lot of decisions we have to make in life for which there is no “right” or “wrong”. Some of those fall in the category of decisions I wrote about in my Linkedin Pulse article here. These are the kind of decisions that are all about being in alignment with your personal values, or even your personal preference. The last is best illustrated when I go out for dinner with my wife in a restaurant. There’s usually 5 options on the menu I would equally like to order, but any decision of course, leads to missing out on the other 4 options. It’s a bit like the famous “Schrodinger’s cat” thought experiment, the instant I make a selection from the menu, all other options collapse (I often attempt to convince my wife to order one of the remaining 4 options to lessen the anxiety).
Everyone has a different opinion
But other questions that can leave us struggling, are those we feel entirely unqualified to decide upon. The paint colour of my mother’s (and now my) living room is one such example. All three suggestions by my three artistic friends seem perfectly fine to me, because I don’t really understand colour (although the aforementioned Stylish Pink, that the painter is currently applying is looking rather intense).
So how can we make a choice, when we feel unqualified?
One of the strongest memories I have of being confronted with an impossible decision came about 35 years ago, when we found that my then girlfriend was pregnant with our first child. I was 22 at the time, we were travelling the world, living in the Caribbean and liberally partaking of a well known grassy herb with a distinctive smell. As you might imagine, having babies, getting married, finding a regular job and settling down were not high on my agenda. Yet a decision had to be made. My girlfriend made it clear that we each had to make our own decisions about this situation, and she made hers quickly. She left me alone to work through the process on my own for a week.
Shear brain-crunching agony
I remember, as if it happened yesterday, the shear brain-crunching agony of trying to come to the right decision. I simply didn’t have a frame of reference or a set of principles to apply to the process. Noone could help me make the decision. The decision was entirely mine and mine alone and there was no right or wrong. How do you weigh up the pros and cons of an enormous life choice like that? Being religious would have helped, but I’ve never been that way inclined, so it was down to my own brain. Even now, 35 years later, I am no closer to understanding what led me to decide to become a father. But I did and my daughter was born 5 or 6 months later and she was lovely and I’ve been a reasonably good father and it was good and I’ve never had any cause for regret.
There have been many such decision points in my businesses and my life since, although none quite so agonisingly difficult as that one. I think what I’ve learned is that there are moments in life where you simply have to make a decision and all that matters is that you make one, any one, and then you get to live with the consequences.
Taking the other fork in the road
I’ve looked back a lot over the first 5 (nearly 6) decades of my life and checked in to see if I regret any of the decisions or choices I’ve made. I do regret various inappropriate emotional outbursts at different times in my life (as recent as yesterday as a matter of fact), but no matter how deep I dig, I can’t find any moments in my life where looking back now, I say: “I wish I’d taken the other fork in the road”.
I hate the “No Regrets” Facebook meme, because it seems to hint that we must never heed the consequences of our actions and besides, it’s trite. But I firmly believe that all of us make the best decisions we can, given everything we know and understand at the time. The big decisions in life are impossibly difficult to make (such as the menu choice in the restaurant) and it’s important to get as much information as possible and to act responsibly. But when two choices are equally valid, we can do nothing much else than go with our instinct or alternatively randomly pick one (as in Oliver Burkeman’s article on random decision making here).
We couldn’t know then what we know now
And if later on it turns out that that decision you made, has caused a bunch of undesirable outcomes, there is no point in thinking: “Knowing what I know now, or if I had my time over again, I wish I’d made a different choice then”. You didn’t know then what you know now and nor could you. If you were to have your time over again I expect you would make exactly the same decision again.
The only thing that matters, 35 years later is that I continue to live with the consequences, and you’ll be glad to hear, that I do so happily, even more so now that I have two insanely cute grandchildren. (Oh and the living room looks like a baby’s room now so we’ll change the colour tomorrow).
#DecisionMaking #DifficultChoices #RandomDecisions
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