One of the defining characteristics of being human is our ability to exercise free will. Our ability to choose is humanity’s greatest power and sometimes our biggest downfall, so if I think about all the skills I should be passing on to my kids – reading, communicating, how to drive a car, how to check you’ve added the correct amount of water to a pot of uncooked rice – exercising good decision-making skills is probably one of the critical ones.
The decision to leave full-time, paid employment was one of the biggest I’ve made in recent months. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was one that took months and plenty of research, counsel and discernment (and brooding, tears, endless lists and getting familiar with the bottom of a wine/beer bottle). As I spent time discussing my options with friends and family, I heard people facing similar forks in their roads; people working out what career to pursue, which relationships to begin (or end!), whether it was the right time to start a family, or whether or not to invest in property. Our 20s and 30s are when we are faced with The Big Decisions, yet few people take the time to work out a decent way to go about it. People are given (and listen to) stupid advice like, “Trust your gut,” or “Do whatever feels right,” or “Whatever is right for you at the time is ok,” or (the worst!) take online quizzes.
All of these methods rely on two unreliable things: emotion and/or chance. So it’s no surprise that following the easiest (or sometimes just the easier) route is too often short-sighted, and more than often leads to lost opportunity or regret. People driven by emotions may as well flip a coin.
Here are a couple of things a lot of people don’t consider when they make big decisions, but should. Every person who I sought advice from (personal or professional) told me to do these things, albeit they all had their different approaches. But the results were the same; being at peace and doing what’s best for you, long-term.
Work out where you’re going
If you go on a hike in unknown bushland, you wouldn’t just start walking in any direction. You need to have an idea of where you are hiking to, whether that’s up a mountain, across the valley to another campsite, or in a circle and back to where you started. This reduces the chances of getting lost and helps you prepare for your journey. Similarly, don’t just live each day with no sense of where you’re heading or one day you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a mountain feeling helpless, unprepared and lost (quarter-life crisis, anyone?). Avoid this; work out where you want to get to, pronto.
When was the last time you sat down and asked yourself what you want to achieve with your life? I don’t mean your daily or weekly to-do list, or even your New Year’s resolutions. I mean what you want to achieve with your life. Your time. The time that you only get once; your greatest, most valuable asset.
If you haven’t done this recently, take a step back now and ask yourself what actually matters to you. What is your legacy going to be? If you were a ghost at your funeral and it was time for the eulogy, what would you want people to say about you? Reflecting on the words that may be used on your epitaph may sound morbid to some and counter-intuitive to the seriously overrated “live for this moment” culture we find ourselves saturated in, but working out what you want to be remembered for – the legacy you want to leave behind – is the best place to start when you have big decisions to make (actually, it’s also the best thing to keep in mind as you make little decisions throughout your day).
Set aside an afternoon (better yet, turn off your phone and computer and retreat for a whole day or weekend) and really reflect about what you want to achieve with your life. And I’m not just talking about long-term goals like buying a house or making lots of babies; write down your values. Think bigger picture. What type of person do you want to be remembered as? What type of mark do you want to leave on the world, with whom, and where?
Why start with this?
Because if you work out what you want to achieve with your life, then you can ensure every decision throughout your whole life – big or small – will serve that purpose. The values that drive your big-picture goals are the compass you use for guiding your decisions.
Check your bearings
Got your values and your life goals written down somewhere? Sweet. Now it’s time to check how you’re tracking against that compass. A hiker doesn’t just check their bearings at the beginning of the journey and stash the map and compass away until the end. Even a pro hiker checks their bearings regularly, making sure they’re heading in the right direction, preparing themselves practically and mentally for any rough patches ahead. So too, we need to do this in life.
I remember doing cheesy goal-setting activities in high school. And again while talking to a career counsellor at Uni. And again before and shortly after I got married. The person I was ten, six and four years ago is not the same person I am today. Some of my goals have changed. My understanding of what matters most – my values – has matured. And so I need to check if I’m still heading in the right direction.
When I was considering leaving my full-time job, a colleague reminded me how important it was to do this “Reality/Bearings Check” without being driven too heavily by emotion. He knew I’d just endured a particularly emotionally and mentally draining stint at work that might negatively influence how I felt about my job. Often, he said, people are (wrongly) driven by a strong desire to leave something negative behind, running from one thing towards the path of least resistance, or whatever open door takes them out of the burning building.
He reminded me to be pragmatic, and not let myself be driven by my emotion. Taking a step back and listing (again, on paper) what I was spending my time on vs what I wanted to achieve helped enormously. I remember having several sheets of paper scattered all over my bed but all of the scribbling was fruitful, helping me assess my current situation against the “bigger picture”, and make my choices based on the things that would help me achieve the goals and live out the values I had identified in the first step.
After checking my bearings, I could work out the paths in front of me and weigh up the pros and cons of tackling each, without being driven purely by emotion or wishful thinking.
Accept the terrain for what it is
Life would be smooth sailing if we were always faced with a simple decision between bad vs good, easy vs difficult, winning vs losing. But it’s never quite that clear cut. Sometimes you are faced with two equally challenging mountains to climb, or the choice to wade through dangerous rapids vs scaling a spider-infested ledge.
I’ve come to learn that the most critical life decisions are often between two things that may both bring positive outcomes, or several things that all present their own unique challenges and benefits.
When these types of decisions present themselves, get practical and check if you have what you need (or have the opportunities to obtain what you need) to cross that terrain. If either route can lead you to your final destination, and you have the skill, equipment and strength to tackle both, then you’re ok either way. If your health, training, finances or time are insufficient, ask yourself if you’re willing to accept the risks and go ahead anyway. Maybe you can mitigate some risks before you take the leap? Before you go ahead, develop a back-up plan to get you back on safe ground should the path you’ve taken prove too challenging or if something unexpected – a fallen tree, injury, another pregnancy – comes your way. My husband and I knew leaving paid employment had its risks, so we spent time working out our finances, determining time limits for certain activities, and talking about a back-up plan. This was (is!) hard for both of us – taking risks means making sacrifices – but both of us know why we’re climbing this mountain (coz we worked it out in step 1 and 2).
If the risk is too great – not just for you, but the people on the journey with you – or if the route you’re considering takes takes you too far off course from your final destination, then don’t do it.
Ask for help when you need it
The best thing about this particularly journey is you never have to hike it alone. There are people to help, cheer you on, and guide you.
If you’re thinking of a career change, connect with people in the field you’re interested in or people who’ve completed the course you’re thinking of pursuing. If you’re thinking about buying a house, talk to people who will openly share lessons they learned when they purchased their first. If your relationship is going through a tough time, seek out help from people whose relationships you respect. Some people on the path know you well and are good at giving encouragement and support. Those people are great to have around, but encouragement and support can only take you so far. Reach out to people who you know will tell you the truth about your weaknesses, as well as your strengths.
Be honest – with yourself and others – about where you are, and what you want to achieve. Ask anyone you know if they know anyone who can help you with what you’re trying to do. Failing that, online communities (Facebook, LinkedIN) make easier to connect with people with similar pursuits or professional backgrounds. Be prepared for rejection, as not everyone is going to want to help you, but the people who do are worth their weight in gold.
In addition to help from your immediate or online circles, professional help can sometimes be a worthy investment of time and money. Depending on what your big decision is, this might come in the form of a counsellor, spiritual advisor, formalised coach or mentor, or a qualified psychologist. It amazes me how some people balk at the idea of paying for a counselling session but are willing to fork more money out for a haircut or massage.
There is help, guidance and a wealth of wisdom from those around you. You just have to be willing, open and humble enough to ask for it.
Before I leave you, I want to just clarify I’ve made plenty of stupid decisions in my past. But I’ve made some pretty good ones too (e.g. the guy I chose to marry is a winner). I am grateful to everyone who’s played a part in getting me where I am now – parents, siblings, friends and professionals who’ve helped me find my map, my compass, get my bearings and are still guiding me as a scale this mountain. I know, regardless of whether my decision to spend more time with my two year old or to pursue a career in writing leads to what most of the world considers ’success’, it was the right path to take.
Thanks for sticking with me and reading this post; it took a while to compile and isn’t complete. So tell me, what’s the best advice you’ve received when it came time to make a difficult choice?