‘The Right Choice’ Is Just A Story We Tell Ourselves

I sometimes get stuck when making minor purchases. Sometimes for weeks.


If I don’t find a notebook or a pair of shoes that feels right, I’ll step back and gather more information. 


I’ll look at reviews.  I ask the advice of friends who seem less intimidated by the prospect of notebook or shoe shopping.  Mostly I let time drift. 


Recently I had this situation where I did, in fact, want to buy a notebook. A week had gone by exhibiting said behaviour before I asked Josie what I should do.  


“Buy a notebook, dad”. 


Turns out, Josie’s method worked at least as well as my typical month of contemplation.  I picked a notebook, pretty much at random (no flowers on the cover) – guess what? I can write notes on it.  


In the end, I did end up getting the right notebook, maybe by luck rather than judgement.  I didn’t know it was the right choice, I went ahead with something.  It was a measured risk that happened to work out. 


Much of the stress and difficulty in life and business comes down to making decisions.  These can be big and small, and they never stop coming.  What do you do? Fix the old car or get a new one? Cut your hair short or restyle what you’ve got?  Pork steaks or lamb for dinner? This venue or that for the event you’re holding? This cover photo or that for your FB page (which no-one looks at anyway)? 


Of course, it feels good to get it right.  Sometimes, you know you’ve made the right choice – there’s that sense of “rightness” where it all gels together.


There are also times when you know you’ve got it wrong. Should never have employed her, that hotel was a bit pants, who knew seaweed tastes like that? It was a seven iron after all.  


Whether a decision was right or not, life goes on. If it was the right one, great. If it was the wrong one, you’ve learned something.  


I was recently exposed to an intriguing idea – what if there are no right decisions? 


Each time we’ve stressed over the right response, the right shirt to wear, the yellow or green logo background – what if it was all a wild goose chase? 


We do make choices, and of course, they have consequences. But what if the supposition that there’s a “correct” one is only ever a story we tell ourselves. 


You can make a decision through reason or randomness. The outcome can be beneficial or sometimes harmful. But all we get is a selection of possibilities with an endless network of outcomes. Who’s to say there’s a correct course of action?  


Let’s say you choose what you believe is the right name for your new product.  On a different day, in a different mood, you might have picked a different name, also believing it was the right one. Whichever name you chose, eighteen months later, when you’re struggling with sales, you might decide that your choice was the wrong one. A year after that, you’ve sorted out that problem.  You believe again that your choice of name was the right one—you chose the wrong marketing strategy. 


It’s only ever a story. And, we’re brilliant at telling ourselves the story to fit the situation. There may be generally better and generally worse choices, but there’s no right choice.


The trouble is we approach every decision however big or small, with the belief that there is a correct path of action. There’s an insatiable need to identify what it is. All that decision-making process does is delay the consequences of that choice for longer.  


Even after the fact, when we’re living with the consequences, we don’t know what the right choice was. We only know whether we like the outcome, or not. 


We can all align the decisions we’ve made to where we are now in our lives and business. Business name A instead of B. The girlfriend “I should never have let go of”. Moving to that town at that time. Hanging out with certain people. Which of those were wrong? Does this mean you regret those decisions? Do you spend all your time justifying your current situation with the story you tell? 


Gathering more information will never reveal the right choice.  More information might be helpful, but there’s no such thing as enough—at some point, you need to leap.  Afterwards, you still don’t know what was best.  I could have researched notebooks for a month. I still may have ended up with something that was the “wrong” choice. 


The idea of a right choice implies the consequences of our choices are somehow connected. That they’re isolated from everything else.  You choose option A and get consequence X. 


But choices and consequences aren’t tied off in a linear way. Every decision and therefore action sets off endlessly rippling consequences. A web of effects that can be both beneficial and/or detrimental; short-term and/or long-term. These may be both intended and unintended and both known and unknown. 


The choice to base your office at home leads to less travel (good) and more family time (good). It leads to increased tension with your partner (bad). It also means a harder time getting enough exercise (bad).  Who knows what else?  Each of these effects influences other parts of your life.  These can be in unforeseen ways leading to further decisions and further consequences. 


Yet, we tend to think we can look at a single challenge in isolation.  That we can identify the “right” response, and execute it, like lining up a putt and hitting it.  


I’m not suggesting giving up on the idea of right decisions doesn’t mean giving up on using our best judgment.  But it’s worth considering that getting it “right” is a goal not worth pursuing.   Especially over trivial decisions.  


You’ll make millions of decisions, and each will shape your life and other people’s lives in ways you’ll barely know.  Some will lead to surprising success and surprising failures.  You’ll give yourself too much credit for both.  Then you’ll die.  


More important than stressing over whether the decision is right all that time, get used to making decisions – fast. This is especially true for perceived inconsequential choices.  The outcome of these is rarely detrimental. Yet, we spend as much energy on them as we do the important decisions. Save the energy of research for decisions that matter.  Then recognise that whatever decision you make is only “right” at that moment, in that context.  


You also know that agonising over the right decision is a neat way to procrastinate.  And procrastination is the enemy of progress. 

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