How do you know you are making the right decisions? A lot of the time you don't. Sometimes you have to just go with your gut or go with the information that is available at the present moment and hope for the best. What this means is that with any decision there is a certain level of risk. Of course, major decisions often times have more risk, so we usually spend more time contemplating those decisions. However, there is a great deal of psychological research showing that more contemplation is not always better.
This series of posts will try to get at the psychology of what makes a good decision in the contexts of life during our twenties and thirties. We will also talk about strategies you can use to make better decisions and ultimately be as happy as possible with the choices you make in your personal, social, and professional life.
Struggling to Make the Right Decision With So Much Freedom
“I think the hardest thing for me has been all the choices I’ve had to make,” Leslie, a twenty-five-year-old from San Francisco, told me. “I went to graduate school right after college, so I hit a terrible job market with a bachelors and an advanced degree, about ninety thousand dollars worth of debt, and no real direction. I’m too young for the professor jobs I want (that I went to school for).
“I’ve been in a bind trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Which car should I buy (within the one thousand range of course) and where should I live? Should I move into the cheap place in the bad neighborhood, in with a semi-new boyfriend, or take my chances with a roommate? It has been hard to decide which jobs to take, how best to look for the jobs I want, and how to get further training.
“Mainly, I don’t know what to do with myself. I just don’t know what path is right and I don’t have a lot of room for mistakes because my expenses—medical insurance and student loans—are so high that I have to make a certain amount of money. I feel that I have no room for mistakes (because of my crushing debt as well as incredible fear of failure), yet I also have no idea about and no preparation for making the right choices.”
If you took a step back and looked at the time since you were born all the way up until this point in your life, you can see that your life has been a journey in the direction of progressively more freedom—that is, a movement toward a life of higher and higher levels of personal choice. As you matured from infant to child, then from child to adolescent, and eventually adolescent to emerging adult, each transition created a wider range of options to choose from while at the same time decreased the number of constraints imposed on your choices.
Freedom can certainly be beneficial to your growth and personal development because it allows you the opportunity to explore all that you want out of life. However, as Leslie explains, you can experience major difficulties in dealing with the plethora of new liberties and countless choices that this freedom-filled period creates.
Making all the decisions needed to create the kind of life you want has become far from an easy task for college graduates and young professionals today. In fact, figuring out where you want to go with your life can be one of the most distressing aspects of the turbulent twenties and thirites.
The Tyranny of Choice
Psychologist Barry Schwartz has studied this tyranny of choice experienced by graduates and when I spoke to him, he explained to me, “I found out that the question you don’t ask students is, ‘What are you going to be doing after graduation?’ Although a small percentage of them know, most others are paralyzed because now they can no longer cultivate all of their talents and have to decide on only one. So they end up spending a year to figure out what that thing is and soon one year stretches into five years.”
In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Schwartz found:
“While students at many colleges are happy to discover a subject to study that not only do they enjoy but that will enable them to make a living, many of the students I teach have multiple interests and capabilities. The students face the task of deciding on the one thing that they want to do more than anything. Unconstrained by limitations of talent, the world is open to them. Do they exult in this opportunity? Not most of the ones I talk to.
“Instead, they agonize: Between making more money and doing something of social lasting value. Between challenging their intellects and exercising their creative impulses. Between work that demands single-mindedness and work that will enable them to live balanced lives. Between work they can do in a beautifully pastoral location and work that brings them to a bustling city. Between any work at all and further study. With a decision as important as this, they struggle to find the reasons that make one choice stand out above all the others.”
Since most of your major life decisions have been structured and narrowed down by the straightforward path of our educational system, facing a new world with a million different roads to travel down can make you feel lost and helpless in your new life after college. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in school you were never really prepared to deal with all the decisions you have to make throughout your twenties and thirties.
There were never any classes on how to make good decisions or how to deal with today’s overabundance of choice. It still amazes me that there is no real instruction on making decisions in our educational system, even though it’s such a fundamental skill that affects virtually every aspect of our lives.
As Schwartz told me, “This means for the time being it is up to individuals to pick up these skills on their own.” From here on out, no one is going to make sure you develop these decision-making skills. It’s all up to you, and in the next post we will explore how you can begin building the psychological intelligence needed to deal with this tyranny of choice and make the right decisions to get what you want from your life.
Question to Contemplate:
- Do you feel anxious when making major life decisions?
- Did you feel college prepared you to make all the decisions you needed to after graduation?
- Have you struggled with figuring out what you want to do with your life?
- What are the things you have done to cope with the abundance of choices we have today?
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