A tip for making big life decisions

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When it comes to big decisions, especially ones that involve a lot of uncertainty and risk (and really, what big decision doesn’t?), I have a natural bias toward action. My mind immediately starts anticipating all possible outcomes and formulating plans and next steps to deal with each of them.

I suspect this is partly overcompensation for my utter ineptness at making small decisions like where to go for dinner or what color of shoes to buy. But I think it’s also part of living in a society that values acting over waiting, decisiveness over deliberation, not to mention (this one is especially potent when facing big career or financial decisions) having status and money over not having status and money.

A counterintuitive — but ultimately wiser and more productive — approach to big decisions is to wait. Most of the time, big decisions unfold in stages rather than all at once. Even (especially?) seemingly sudden events, such as the loss of a job or a big company change, require time to understand and fully process. Taking action too soon can wind up hurting more than it helps. In theory, this sounds reasonable and prudent. In practice, it is utterly excruciating.

“Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” — Virginia Satir

The misery of uncertainty is as ancient as humanity itself, perhaps even older. We’ll do just about anything to quell that misery, to restore the veneer of stability and predictability to our world. Jumping immediately into action is how many of us cope. It’s a way to maintain a feeling of control, to quantify our uncertainty by breaking it down into discreet little chunks and next steps. It offers us the illusion that we are reclaiming some certainty when we need it most.

It’s totally natural to respond this way, and it can also, unfortunately, lead to more misery in the long run. By taking action too early, we can actually close ourselves off to possibilities that we can’t yet see — possibilities that might well be richer and better and more fulfilling than the options in front of us right now — simply because we haven’t allowed them the time they need to unfold.

So here’s my challenge to you: the next time you’re facing a major life decision, notice the urge to take action right away… and then take a deep breath and sit with it awhile. Instead of running from the pain of uncertainty, just sit with it, notice it, listen to what it’s telling you. Force yourself to wait a little while — a week, a day, 30 minutes. However much time you have, just sit with your uncertainty and let it be what it is.

It’s hard. It hurts. Oh, how it hurts! But uncertainty is the fertile ground from which possibility springs forth. Without uncertainty, we could never change or grow or create or wonder or fall in love.

Without uncertainty, we could not be what we are. It is one of the worst parts of being human. It is one of the best parts of being human.