Nancy Colier
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A Better Way to Make Hard Choices

Making a difficult decision can be overwhelming and paralyzing for some people. Decisions are difficult because we want a certain outcome but don’t know which choice will deliver it. And so we fret, ruminate, think and think and think some more, all in an effort to figure it out.

Caught in Indecision

We get caught in thoughts about what could go wrong with each choice and talk ourselves around in circles. But all this thinking keeps us anxious, distracted, and stuck. In the end, our indecision guarantees that nothing happens—or that we have no active role in what happens.

Like many people, you may believe there’s a right and wrong decision to be made. You may imagine a set of predetermined events written in the universe’s playbook with vastly different realities waiting to unfold depending on your choices. Life in this frame is a game show in which you constantly have to choose between door No. 1 and door No. 2. You’ll either end up with a new car or a can of baked beans.

The underlying belief is that it’s up to you to figure out the right choice—the one that will ultimately make you happy. If your choice doesn’t make you happy, if you end up with the can of beans, then you messed up and picked the wrong door.

But what if trying to figure out which choice leads to the best future isn’t the best way to make a difficult decision? And, furthermore, what if the rightness of your choice doesn’t rest on whether you get what you think you want?

In fact, when you’re feeling unclear, ambivalent, or conflicted about a choice, there’s a more useful gauge for choosing a course of action—one that has nothing to do with predicting which choice will lead to a desired outcome. After all, sometimes we desire the wrong things, and sometimes the things we want to avoid turn out to be the best things that ever happened to us.

The truth is, you can’t know the results of the decisions you make because those results don’t actually exist yet. There’s no answer to know. What will be depends on an infinite number of other people, places, things, and other unknowns—elements that are not in your control. You can’t figure out the future, because whatever future you imagine is just one among an infinite number that could unfold. There’s no set result waiting for you to choose or reject.

Opportunities for Growth

Don’t ask yourself, “What’s the right decision?” This question doesn’t lead you to a useful answer. Trying to figure that out keeps you stuck and anxious. The question that will help you move forward when faced with a hard choice is “What are the growing opportunities that each choice offers?” Then ask yourself which of these growing opportunities most interests you.

Jenny was contacted by a recruiter who offered her a new job. While she enjoyed her current work, was well paid, and had built a solid career in her current position, the new position offered a chance to learn a different set of skills that she thought might be more marketable in the long term. The new opportunity also felt compelling as a potential step into a fresh and promising field. But it was also daunting, and she knew it would be demanding of her effort and time.

Jenny felt utterly confounded by the decision, unable to pick a path. She was obsessively making pro and con lists and playing out possible outcomes, the majority of which were fictional. But she was convinced that there was a right choice that would lead to all the cash and prizes life had to offer. And, simultaneously, she believed a wrong choice would lead her on a path to disappointment and regret. From this view, the trajectory of her future was already set; she just had to pick which door to walk through.

In Jenny’s mind, her future had little to do with the countless other choices she was going to make along the way, the people she was going to meet, and all the other elements life would present. What was going to happen for her wasn’t a process or an unfolding. It wasn’t interdependent with everything and everyone else. At that moment, her future seemed to rest on one thing: this decision. So, she kept going around and around, unable to decide.

Jenny was asking herself the wrong question, and, so, I asked her a different one. Namely, I asked her to describe the challenges and opportunities that each of her choices offered her.

Jenny started by explaining that she’d always driven herself to do whatever scared her the most. The harder a situation, the more she felt she had to do it. Her operating principle had always been to never let fear control her. Taking the new job felt like an opportunity to once again push herself past her comfort zone, which would force her to grow and get stronger.

This was a kind of growth Jenny had well in hand, but there was another way for her to develop that was less obvious.

Turning down the new position was an opportunity to give herself permission to actually land where she was, to enjoy the relationships, confidence, and expertise she’d built in her current position. Saying “no” felt like allowing herself, maybe for the first time ever, to stop pushing herself and relentlessly proving that she could do hard things. Saying “no” to the new job was a chance to be kind to herself and acknowledge that she was already strong; she’d already proven that and didn’t have to keep proving it. With this new frame, Jenny knew right away which choice she was going to make.

What is the growing edge that your choices offer you? In what ways will the various decisions allow you to grow and expand from the inside out? These are the questions that help us, questions based on what’s true and real now and what we know about ourselves rather than what we imagine about the future.

Here’s the thing; you can’t possibly know what any decision will create in your future. That future hasn’t been written yet and is inhabited by a person you haven’t become yet. But you can know what that decision asks of you internally and what challenges or opportunities it would present for you—and whether those feel important to you. Ask who you are now and how you understand yourself. Then ask which decision provides you with an opportunity to evolve in ways that feel exciting and important in your journey.

Far from the land of right and wrong, this inquiry moves the dial forward and gets you unstuck. It sets you free from indecision and rumination and launches you into clarity and action.

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