When it comes to tough choices, even a bad decision is better than no decision

Should I quit? Should I have kids? When faced with complicated decisions, we have the tendency to freeze up, keeping us from living to the fullest

Illustration by Gorka Olmo.
Illustration by Gorka Olmo.Gorka Olmo

When faced with critical decisions, many of us tend to freeze up, for fear of making the wrong choice. But making choices is an essential part of life. What some call “destiny” or “karma” is made up of endless small and big decisions that have consequences.

Most of us can deal with small daily choices without difficulty – such as what to eat for lunch, or which show to binge on – but when the stakes are higher, it’s easy for us to be assailed by doubt and over-analysis, causing us to hesitate for far too long.

To help people get out of these jams, David Cabero – the European director for French manufacturer BIC – has written a book titled Deciding in Times of Peace and War, which offers some practical steps we can all take when faced with tough choices.

Three of the main suggestions in the book are the following:

  1. Challenge the idea. When it comes to a decision with important consequences, one way to test it is to try to break it down with tough questions. For instance: what would be the reasons for not making said decision? If you can’t find at least one good reason, it means the idea may be viable.
  2. Generate multiple options. Sometimes, the choice isn’t between A and B. The range of options is often much broader. Perhaps there’s a meeting point between A and B, or another alternative that has not yet occurred to us.
  3. Dare to be wrong. Cabero writes that, “in life, there are times when we cannot choose not to decide, since certain contexts force us to do so.” Being prepared to assume the consequences of our choices is the first step to making decisions without fear. It’s better to err and correct the course, rather than to simply sit on the sidelines of life.

The author and business executive points out how “in general terms, in Europe, we have a greater aversion to risk than in the United States. Clearly, that’s an advantage for them and a disadvantage for us.”

But how can we make tough calls when we have no previous experience with the subject at hand? Russ Roberts – an economist and researcher at Stanford University’s right-leaning Hoover Institution – tried to answer this question in an article in The New York Times, in which he told an anecdote from the life of Charles Darwin.

In 1838, Darwin was close to turning 30 – which, in those days, given the average life expectancy, meant that you were likely halfway through your passage on Earth. He sat down and tried to find out if it was a good idea for him to get married. To help make this decision, he compiled a list of what he thought might be the advantages of being married, as well as the advantages of staying single.

In the left column, he noted some of the benefits of getting married, such as “having constant company” or “having an object for love and play – in a way, better than a dog.” In the right column, among the benefits of being single, he wrote: “Not being forced to visit relatives or bow down to any trifle.”

Roberts defines this dilemma as a “wild decision,” when the path of life forks and there is no way of knowing which is the best route to take. Other vital choices, such as having children or not, or leaving your job to start your own business, fall into the “wild” category – outcomes won’t be clear until further down the road. And, as failure or unhappiness are perfectly possible, the real decision is often about potential risks, rather than potential gains.

Returning to Darwin: at first, the advantages of bachelorhood were more numerous than the advantages of marriage – he felt that a partner would take away his time to conduct research. He chose to remain single… but less than a year later, he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. The couple would have 10 children, seven of whom would live into adulthood.

Ultimately, Darwin’s marriage didn’t prevent him from doing research, proving that wild decisions can’t always be made exclusively from a place of reason. Just as Darwin didn’t hesitate after falling in love with Emma, the heart is a good consultant for this kind of dilemma. When a path fills us with purpose and hope – no matter how risky it may seem – life is telling us that we will have enough strength to follow it.

In her book, The Game of Life – published following the renewed interest in chess generated by The Queen’s Gambit – Adriana Hernández draws a parallel between the board and the decisions we make each day. In the game – as in life – those who have no plans are dragged along by the plans of others. Perhaps, for this reason, Frank Marshall – an American chess player who dominated the game in the early-20th century – said: “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.” By making a decision, we fully enter the game of life. Even if we’re eventually proven wrong, the journey offers us what we otherwise would have never learned or experienced.

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