Choose or others will choose for you

The old saying goes, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” Or, more appropriately, as Madame Gao tells Wilson Fisk in Daredevil:

“Man cannot be both savior and oppressor, light and shadow, one has to be sacrificed for the other. Choose, and choose wisely, or others will choose for you.”

No matter what you do, it’s never easy to choose. And there’s no end to the decisions. There’s never a clear direction or a silver bullet. Everything comes with drawbacks and benefits, neither of which are apparent. Everyone has advice for you, but few people understand context. You’re unsure about your appetite for risk, and how much you value the reward. Worse yet, sometimes your brain prefers one path, and your heart wants to choose the other.

A few years ago, I listened to a startup founder talk about competing with Amazon. He made this point that sounded crazy to me at the time: His company didn’t optimize for accuracy, they optimized for speed.

Even if his company made the wrong decision, they would be able to go back and correct the mistake faster than if they had spent time analyzing and trying to make the “right” decision. That was how they could go toe-to-toe with Amazon.

I love talking to people in transition (career or otherwise), but most of the time I just listen. I don’t have much advice to offer, but I do ask them questions that I hope could help them figure out part of their identity and who they want to become. Some of them figure it out, and some of them never do.

The difference between figuring it out — or not — seems to be in the simple act of making a decision. The latter group comes up with hypotheses about who they want to become, what skills they want to master, and what opportunities they want exposure to. The former group decides they don’t like something, but can’t decide on what their next move is. They’re paralyzed by the unknown and opportunity cost.

The latter group is not more noble than the former, by the way. Sometimes they’re more courageous, but oftentimes they’re also just more dissatisfied or more desperate for change. They’ve been forced into it. Some people call this emotional leverage.

So two years whiz by, the former group are stuck in the same place but feel even more pressure to make the “right” decision. They’ve “thought about it” for two years, so they should be way better informed, right?

That hardly ever happens. Instead, that decision-making process gets even more unpleasant and debilitating. This time it’s easier to avoid because their lives grow. For example, they start seriously dating, or get married, or start a family, and their personal lives get a bit more layered.

Imagine if they just tentatively guessed and made the decision to quit and try something different a year or two years ago. They take some time to figure out their worst case scenarios for each decision, and what they would do to bounce back to the status quo, (which they’ve proven is tolerable).

Within one year or less, they would know if they were happy with their decision or not. And they’d be able to pivot from there, either going back to the status quo (which they’d likely appreciate more), or they can cross off this possibility and try one of the new ones. They’d learn about themselves. (But never confuse activity for achievement. And be bold but please, please, don’t be impulsive.)

Even if you don’t decide, you’re still making a decision. You’re defaulting to the status quo. And that default choice is rarely ever the best one. It’s not going to expose you to any more good luck, and it’s probably not going to make you much happier.

How others choose for you

Occasionally, people (like managers, mentors, friends, or significant others) literally choose for you. But if they’re smart, they bribe you (e.g., your manager persuades you to pick up a new skill to fast track a promotion). Some of these choices turn out to be good ones, but they’re better if you just make them yourself and you understand why.

As other people bribe you, you get really great at your job, but you’re not sure why. Whether you like it or not, you become more like the people you work with. Your values become theirs because you didn’t define yours earlier.

You wanted to figure it out, but it was difficult and confusing so you never decided. And without deciding, you couldn’t make that first decision and try.

You inadvertently let others choose for you, and you’re chasing this ephemeral undefined “success”, because you never chose to define who you wanted to become what success meant to you earlier. You never guessed what might bring you more happiness day-to-day. And you have no idea what that even means, because you never tried to figure it out.

Whatever the tough decision is on your plate, decide who you think you want to become (and who you don’t), and what you think success means to you. You can always revise it as you learn more. Make a change based on this decision.

Let it simmer for a week, figure out the worst case scenario and how to bounce back, make a decision based on your best guess, and commit to it for 3-12 months. See what happens. You’ll learn what you didn’t consider and you’ll make a more informed decision next time. And your decision could uncover things you didn’t know about yourself, dramatically improve your quality of life, and it’ll make your next decision will be easier and smarter. Move before you’re ready.