The Challenge of Decisions

I haven’t written anything on this blog for quite a few months, given a wide variety of factors – but primarily due to my inability to decide exactly what it is I want to be doing here, how much to share, and why.

Existential much? I sure am.

Then again, I face this type of existential questioning across multiple spheres of my life, all the time – which is what led me to choose the topic of this particular post months ago (then abandon it, then start it again, then abandon it, etc.)

But here I am, making the decision to finish this post, in which I’ll focus on my biggest choice-point this year.

This past winter, I had to consider whether or not to formally apply for my own position. The work I’d been doing in academia on a year-to-year basis was finally being formalized into a legitimate title, and I had to decide whether to put myself through a competitive search for my own position.

In other words, I had to make one of the following two choices: 

  1. Go through the grueling work of applying for a formal, promotion-line academic position (my own), which involved not only submitting a full application package and passing an initial interview, but producing a job talk for peers followed by an entire day of back-to-back interviews and talks with stakeholders (many of whom I’d worked with for years), all while knowing there were at least two other qualified people competing for this same position.
  2. Say “screw that stress” and pivot to another career altogether. 

It’s pretty easy to see why I was so, so tempted to choose #2.

And, I almost did.

At first, I decided not to apply. I told my supervisor about my decision, and gave her permission to tell others. I avoided attending team meetings as much as possible, to give myself space away from the process.

But then, I got a call from the search committee, and was encouraged to reconsider – which, I did.

In short: I applied for my own job. I was offered my own job. I attempted to negotiate a few things (without much luck). Ultimately, I accepted. So, I am staying in my position, albeit at a higher workload – which was something I wanted to negotiate down but couldn’t.

This entire process was exhausting and unnerving – but yes, I am glad I did it, and it feels “right” to stay with what’s known, for now.

But it sure took a while to get to that space – hence, again, the focus of this post.

During the months-long decision-making process about my job, I was constantly considering a host of other possibilities – because, they’re always there, and how can I possibly know which of them would be “best”? The truth is, with multiple degrees and a reasonably adventurous (i.e., easily bored) personality, it feels like I’m always trying to figure out what’s next and what’s “right”, job wise.

Indeed, the older I get, and the more I tap into my identity as a gifted, multi-potentialite adult, the more I think this may simply be my ongoing reality ad infinitum. It’s likely that I will always feel drawn in at least five different (legitimately interesting) career directions, and never be sure what’s next or “best”.

I struggle more broadly with the fact that humans face countless choice points at every moment of our lives, and that we can’t ever really know if we’re doing the “right” thing. This is one of those existential quandaries that tends to bedevil many gifted adults – but I think I may have an especially bad case of it. I was raised in a spiritual group with members who hold the sincere belief that it is possible to tap into the “best right answer” (from God) in terms of what to do next, and that’s stayed with me for decades. Despite leaving this group many years ago, it’s taken me a really long time to overcome the conditioning that if only I’m sufficiently tapped into my spiritual connection to God or a higher power, I’ll get guidance and answers I can feel good and solid about. And if I don’t feel that clarity, something must be wrong with me.

We’re getting into issues of identity and perfectionism here, super-quick.

On the other hand, it’s a known human dilemma to struggle with choice. When psychologist Barry Schwartz published The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More in 2004, I remember feeling tremendous relief, since it validated my innate sense that too many choices could literally be crazy-making.

If that’s the case, could fewer choices help – and could a minimalist approach be useful? From Marie Kondo’s work on personal organizing to books about minimalist parenting and the entire sphere of mindfulness literature more broadly, there are so many resources out there to help one be more intentional about  choices; the problem is, my challenge with decisions runs deeper than this.

I have existential angst around choice.

If I let myself, I could easily get spun in a web asking classic existential questions like:

“What could have happened if I’d made this choice instead of that one?”

“If I do this moving forward, will that lead to the most happiness?”

“And speaking of happiness, is that even the most appropriate metric to guide a person’s life?”

Etc., etc.

It’s these “meta” questions I get stuck on – and I still don’t have any easy answers or paths out. I can make “pro and con” lists, talk with beloved friends and family members to get their perspectives, read books, actively meditate or sleep on an issue, see a therapist, join a support group, and more. But at the end of the day, I will still never know whether my choices are “right” or “best”.

And knowing that reality is what eats away at me.

I get it why so many people choose paths in life that confer some sense of certainty, through religion or a particular mindset or social expectations. That just doesn’t work for me.

So, I’m stuck with decisions. We all are. Every moment of every day. Will I wear this outfit, or that one? Will I eat this for breakfast, or that? Will I work on that task, or this one? Should I leave now, or in 5 minutes?

And those are just the small decisions of life.

What I do understand is that I can’t ever know which choice might “be best” – and while I’m incredibly grateful for the freedom to have a choice (I truly don’t take that for granted!), I sure wish my brain could rest easy for once about the decisions I make.

Or maybe that would be… boring?

Never mind.

I’ll take complexity and uncertainty any day. That’s one decision I DO know for sure.

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