Last spring, in a conversation with my (former) neighbor, who also happens to be an accomplished late-career scientist with whom I work from time to time, he sympathized with the dilemma my husband and I were debating at the time: whether to move our family across the country (if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know we decided to move, which is why I identify my neighbor as “former”). “Big life decisions are the bane of my existence,” was the way he put it. I could have hugged him. Big decisions are difficult, draining. Having someone recognize this as I was going through it - especially someone who has done well in his own life - was a tremendous comfort.
I remember one of my first excruciating life decisions: the choice between two graduate school programs into which I had been accepted. Of course I had made decisions before, but nothing with this much life impact had yet crossed my path. With it, I had the full, heavy realization that no matter how much input and advice I received, I was ultimately fully responsible for choosing one life-changing path or another. This decision made a lasting impact on me – to this day I remember it as traumatic. After intensive research on each program and changing my mind right up to the 5:00 deadline, I finally chose one. I felt an immediate wash of relief, but this was soon followed by doubt, and, perhaps because I was a neophyte decision maker and didn’t realize the importance of moving on, I second-thought the decision. Confusing a difficult transition with having made the “wrong” choice, I fought the experience and spent my first two semesters dithering and discussing how to reapply to the other program. In retrospect, I suspect that no matter which way I went, in that stage of my life I would have unhappily second-guessed myself. I didn’t know better. The key was to seize the experience, which, fortunately, after a lot of waffling and with a lot of family support, I finally did, and ended up tremendously happy in grad school. Transitions do take time.
Though now I’ve experienced multiple mind-twisting, life-changing decisions (including the angst ridden choice to leave tenure-track academia), I still wouldn’t call myself the best of decision-makers. I understand the process more than when I was 20 years old, and I suppose this helps. Were I to clarify the one glimmer I’ve gleaned from the experience, it is that these types of decisions are often impossible to figure out logically. So my natural approach to problem solving, deeply rooted in my training as a scientist to use logic and information, only goes so far. With life decisions, you can only do your best to judge your options based on limited knowledge and then you must plunge in with this, which, for me, is an uncomfortable process (understatement). Because you just can’t know the complexities and particulars until you get there, I think more important than the particular decision itself is the spin you put on the transition following the decision.
Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, wrote  about his career choice with a similar thesis. In his recent NYT piece, Newport exemplifies a clearly more confident decision-making process than I (probably related to his remarkable opportunities which he describes), but points out that even though we live in a culture that often tells us that successful career decisions are made by “finding and following your passion,” most passionate people do the opposite: create their passions in the opportunities they are afforded through life’s interesting and unpredictable curves and diversions. Methinks the benefits of creating passions from the decisions one makes doesn’t apply only to career decisions. Marriage partners. Buying a house. Switching jobs. Etc. It’s a state of mind. A state of mind that’s not necessarily easy to achieve, but well worth trying.
Still in the wake of our recent decision to move across country which has thrown each of our family members out of our comfort zones (somewhat difficult, but in the big picture not a bad thing), and with the thought that my kids are just reaching the ages where they too will soon start to make weighty life decisions themselves, I suddenly recognize the importance of helping my daughters in any way that I can to develop skills to engage in and develop the particular decisions they make. Hopefully this can lower the stakes and ease their worry of future deliberations, so they have the confidence to consider the potential of their choice rather than doubt or despair if it doesn’t match their immediate expectations. I, as well, have much room to develop my own skills along with them, and in addition to working on my own decision making, will get the added practice of considering the potential of their decisions when (as I’m sure will happen) they don’t meet my immediate expectations.