Major decisions often are referred to as ‘reaching a crossroads in one’s life,’ which is a poor motoring analogy.
They would be better considered as life’s roundabouts — merry-go-rounds of approaching exits, panicking, flapping maps, shouting at sat-navs, and finally passing them by until the next miserable orbit.
ost of us will, at some point, find ourselves on the roundabout of indecision.
From my work as an existential therapist, I’ve come upon the following unnerving thoughts about indecision, which may help your own battles with indecision.
- Indecision is an Illusion.
Well, not so much an illusion as very badly labeled. Indecision implies that we are unable to decide. Jean-Paul Sartre decreed that ‘Man is condemned to be free.’ What he means is that no matter how much you might like to think otherwise, you are constantly, unrelentingly forced to make choices. You have a choice right now – read the next sentence, or leave it. Are you still with me? Whichever way, you had to make that choice. Even when you are not making a decision, you are deciding not to decide.
- Decisions Don’t Save Us from Decisions.
When we are making a tough decision, we often think ‘I hope I don’t look back and regret this.’ This very thought is an attempt to deny our freedom from ourselves, as if, should events turn out poorly, our future self couldn’t subsequently make further decisions to improve the situation. It is often more comforting for us to think that if we could just get this one, single decision right, we won’t have to make any more. Sorry, I refer you back to Sartre’s point – you’re condemned to always have to make them.
- Don’t be an Ass.
A hungry ass walks into a barn. In the barn are two equally large and inviting bales of straw. They are both equally visible and accessible. The ass dies of starvation.
As jokes go, it’s dreadful. The ass, known as Buridan’s ass, was conceived in response to the French philosopher’s thoughts on decision-making.
One of the pragmatic implications of Buridan’s ass is that when you find yourself caught between equally attractive positions, the worst course of action is to do neither.
- Don’t Get Squish like Grape.
Perhaps my favorite quote on decision-making comes from The Karate Kid‘s Mr. Miyagi:
‘Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later… you get squish just like grape.’
Mr. Miyagi’s point is that if you are going to make a decision, then make it 100 percent. An attractive prospect, sometimes one we’re unaware of, is to take action, but only halfheartedly. You might decide to take the plunge and start a new business venture, but while away precious and potentially profitable hours looking for other work just in case it doesn’t work out. It’s almost guaranteed in this situation you will get squish like grape.
- Your Brain Lies to You.
Much of the theory here I’m going to let you look into yourself; have a peep at Dan Gilbert’s talks on TED or read his excellent Stumbling upon Happiness.
Gilbert’s overriding point is that what you think will ruin your life, be it illness, disability, being single, not having children, probably won’t. Conversely, what you think will make you happy, probably won’t. Our ability to predict how we’ll feel in the future is typically skewed in favor of survival. Consequently, it’s actually very unhelpful in situations where we have two equally ‘survivable’ options. Whether you are happy or sad given this or that turn of events in your life will largely be decided by your future self, not by your present self.
- You’ll Regret Inaction More than Action.
Regret is a funny ol’ thought that doesn’t make a lot of sense in itself. Many writers, including the likes of Kafka, have commented on how easy it is to regret inaction over action. We are much more prone to thinking ‘I wish I’d done such and such’ than we are to thinking ‘I wish I’d not done such and such.’
Much of this comes down to the previous thought. If we leave it to our brains to ‘guess’ how we would have felt had we gone down another route in life, we’ll most likely get wildly inaccurate data. By trying all avenues we can rely on our experiences to describe these various scenarios.
- Indecision isn’t a Talisman against Death.
A common thought I’ve met in the counseling room is that once we have made a decision then we will be left on a collision course with death. Our fear of death has an immeasurable effect on us and we can fool ourselves into thinking that we can postpone or outwit it in all sorts of different ways, this thought being one of them.
The theory here is that if I never chose a direction in life, I won’t be ultimately led to my death. If I become a lawyer, I’ll probably have to do that till I die; if I become a storekeeper it’ll be much the same – however, if I choose neither, maybe I’ll dodge the reaper. As if not choosing a direction in life leaves us somehow unidentifiable, unreal and, just maybe, immortal. I’ll leave your rational minds to weigh up the logic here.
Indecision most likely is a ploy you are using for some other purpose: be it to deny your own freedom, your own death, perhaps an attempt to get a 2-for-1 deal on life or just as a means to stay comfortable at the expense of your happiness. There are all manner of tools to help you drag out decisions; the reality is that if two bales of hay appear equally attractive, remember that either one is better than starvation. Take a chance, roll a dice, phone a friend. Just get off the roundabout.