Oct 042008

Steve Pavlina, the Personal Development god, has written a lot of excellent stuff over the last few years over a wide variety of topics. I feel that some of his best articles get buried in favour of newer or flashier articles (though that’s not to say they don’t add value). One of my favourite articles is called “Making Decisions That Stick” and it’s about making more intelligent choices and decisions. I’ll put in a summary of it below with my own notes.

“What should I do?” or “Which choice should I make?” is a question that faces us very often, however these questions fail us often. Pavlina suggests that they don’t work because his logic might lead him to a plan or conclusion but he can’t make himself go through with it, perhaps because his intuition disagrees. I would suggest that, further, these questions are broken for very large issues like trying to figure out what career to take, or what to do after finishing your education. When the search space is as big as the thousands of possible careers and even more jobs, these questions are just too broad and vague to be useful.

Pavlina says that these questions have a hidden assumption that makes them useless: The belief that one or a few of the choices will create greater happiness and subjective experience of life, while the others will make you unhappier or regretful. He realized that this assumption is useless once you hit a certain level of consciousness and start generating happiness from within yourself and less from external events. Psychological research agrees with him and suggests there is an happiness baseline that we return to, overtime, even after tramatic events such as losing a limb or euphoric events such as winning the lottery.

He mentions one other thing: most of the choices we make are reversible. You are not doomed eternally to run that business you quit your job to start, you can close down or sell the business and go back to work, sometimes even to the same old job. I personally know of people who broke up with long-term partners and were able to get back together (though this doesn’t happen in all cases). Basically, because most of the decisions you make can be re-decided, you don’t necessarily need to worry about the current decisions.

Additionally, many of the decisions we make have very few consequences in the future. That is, a lot of the decisions we make, just don’t matter in the long term. You don’t need to agonize over choosing what to eat at lunch because unless there’s a pattern of long-term choices, it won’t matter even a week from now. Of course, if you consistently choose to eat fatty food, that will have an impact, as will consistently eating healthy food, but being ambivalent and mixing things up won’t make much of a difference and a year from now will probably be much like now.

Pavlina calls for a different question altogether: What do I want to experience now? Notice the “now” part of that. I’ve tried to figure out what career I want, and somehow there was an implicit assumption that I was choosing for forever, for the rest of my life and thus had to make sure I made the most optimal solution (in terms of money, lifestyle and happiness, your terms might be different). However, I don’t have to. In fact, most workers have between 3-5 careers in their life times. As Pavlina suggests, I can choose again and choose something different. He shares his personal experience here:

At age 23 I started my game development business.  Designing and programming my own games was a dream of mine since I was 10 years old, so starting that business was truly a dream come true.  But even then I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  However, it was something I wanted to experience at the time, and it truly enriched me.  I’m really glad I did it — it feels incredible to have written and released several of my own games.  But at the age of 33, I was ready for a different experience, so I switched from game development to personal development as my primary career.  And this wasn’t a matter of right or wrong.  I was simply ready for the experience of running a personal development business.  And even though I can easily imagine doing this for the rest of my life, I remain open to the possibility that I can stop at any time and make a different decision if I choose to experience something else.

I’ve been trying to implement this way of figuring out what to do and it’s interesting to make these issues conscious. For example, I want to do stand-up comedy. As an, “Should I do it?” question, I just can’t come up with an answer, there’s a mental block there, it’s just too broad. However, framed as an, “Do I want to experience doing stand up comedy?” I can seperate my idea of the experiences (we do most things for the experience of them anyhoo, whether that’s the experience of being happy, or of being rich, or whatever) into categories: what I want to experience and what I don’t. I want to experience that, but I don’t want to experience rejection and people not laughing at my jokes. That fear of rejection there is the experience I don’t want that is preventing me from doing stand-up comedy again.

So, try asking yourself “What do I want to experience now?” about your questions, figure out what you want to experience and what you don’t. As another example: “Should I start my own business?” is again, a question that would force you to look at various metrics, but all of them would probably end up being about experiences. So, asking, “What do I want to experience about starting my own business?” and, “What do I not want to experience?” might tell you that you want to experience success, both monetary and in respect, and that you don’t want to experience failure, rejection or the disapproval of those around you. Once you’ve made these issues conscious, you can deal with them consciously, rather than having them be buried in a network of assumptions.

Very insightful article and I highly recommend reading and re-reading it: “Making Decisions That Stick“.


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