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Decisions, Decisions: Counter-Intuitive Guidelines When There are No Easy Answers

A hungry donkey,

placed in the precise middle between two equally appetizing piles of hay,

could not decide which pile to eat from.

Vacillating and wavering in confusion,

 the donkey starved to death.


Attributed to Jean Buridan

14th century French philosopher

Life, as we know it is a rollercoaster of baffling decisions:


  • An elderly man zips through a stop sign miraculously unscathed, and finds himself wondering if it’s time to hand over the keys.


  • A young adult daughter feels internal pressure to join the family business.


  • A 41-year-old ponders the pros and cons of first-time parenthood, weighing the joy of offspring against the loss of sleep (and sanity).


  • A doctor recommends surgery, “just to be safe,” when cancer is unlikely, but possible.


Important decisions with no easy answers benefit from careful discernment preceding the choice. The decisions might involve personal health, relationships, career opportunities, or beliefs.


Think of discernment as a mental checklist:  considering options from more than one angle, listening to all sides, placing impulses on hold, and gathering the available facts.  Discernment means weighing and sifting, not just “trusting my feelings.” The bet is that a patient seed will sprout the flower of clarity.


You can’t discern forever. Eventually – some call it the moment of truth – it’s time to make a decision.


When that moment arrives, here are four final questions to ask before you leap:


1. Does this make sense?


The pairing of reasonableness and excitement might be the two most common variables when making important decisions. But what do you do when those two are in conflict?


In mate selection, for example, it’s possible to be madly in love with a person you can’t live with. Likewise, a tantalizing job offer can easily be accepted for the wrong reasons. 


Excitement and love beckon, energize, and pull us in.  It’s hard for most of us to resist.  What would reasonableness look like in those situations?


The celebrated furniture designer Wendell Castle, put it this way:  “If you are in love with an idea, you are a poor judge of its beauty or value.”


Don’t ignore passion, excitement, and love. Factor those in. Then do what makes sense.


2. What advice would you give your adult children?


Let’s say you are at a decision crossroads:  All the options available to you are good ones.  Each carries advantages and disadvantages.  Circumstances determine that you can only choose one of the options.  How do you make a choice?


Ask yourself this, “If one of your young adult or adult children faced the exact same situation, what advice would I give them?”  Pay attention to your advice. Why?  Because study after study confirms we are much better at giving sound counsel to others than we are at giving it to ourselves.  A little emotional distance can do wonders for seeing with acuity.


3. Can you embrace the fear?


Often, we say “Yes” or “No” too quickly, because we’re afraid to disappoint others or to do the hard work of deeper thinking.


Instead of “getting this over with” out of fear, walk boldly and thoughtfully into the places that scare you.  Taking on fear instead of dodging it frees you from the large losses that could emerge from a safe-looking choice that conceals the downsides.

Sometimes, the door of fearful hesitation opens into a garden of possibilities.


4. What’s the More Difficult Choice?


In a similar way, when deciding between two worthy options, choose the one that’s more difficult. 


You know what the easy, comfortable and convenient choice is – that’s the one you usually make.


Try going the other way. 


I’m not suggesting a hike up Mt. Everest wearing flip flops.  Difficult choices are not necessarily better choices. 


But the challenge of choosing a difficult path requires more intention than selecting an easy option.  When you fight for something, and have to work harder, you will likely appreciate where it takes you.


The above questions are counter-intuitive.  Usually, we put trust in their opposites:


What choice do I feel most passionate about?


What story am I telling myself that feels good?


What’s the safe choice?


What’s the easiest option?


It can be daunting to know that a decision is up to you.  There’s pressure to “get it right.”  In the end, if you give a decision your best thinking, with reasonableness as your guide, it will either turn out well, or you can learn from it, and make adjustments.


Both outcomes are acceptable.


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