Navigating the Crossroads

Dinuka Gunaratne explores why making certain career decisions can seem so insurmountable and offers advice for how to do so most successfully.

November 21, 2022
Man stands before at a signpost with four arrows going different directions
(wenjin chen/digitalvision vectors/getty images)

Over the past several weeks, I’ve reflected on what it is to make hard and difficult decisions. As I’ve navigated my life ever since moving to Canada from Sri Lanka as an international student, I’ve confronted many such decisions that have shaped the person I am today. After all, I decided to move across oceans to pursue my education, transition across cities and institutions to advance my career, and navigate complex immigration systems to become a Canadian citizen.

Surely, having made such decisions in the past, an upcoming one concerning the next step in my career should be familiar and easy. But I’ve found myself agonizing over all the ifs, buts and what-ifs surrounding it.

Why Can Decisions Be So Difficult?

As a coach to many graduate students, I regularly listen when they share their stories and the difficult decisions they expect to make in their lives. Those decisions include moving cities and choosing between staying in academe or leaving it, as well as many others. We make many decisions daily—about everything from what we eat for breakfast to the clothes we wear to work. So why do some decisions feel so insurmountable?

Ultimately, what defines a hard choice is not the decision itself but instead how the decision-maker perceives it. The decision could seem especially hard for some of the following reasons:

  • The stakes are high for the person making this decision.
  • Both choices feel comparable to each other.
  • Your head and heart pull you in different directions.
  • It brings back memories of past decisions that may not have gone as expected, and fear has set in.

Also, certain decisions can feel more complex not necessarily because the choice between them is complex, but because we as humans are complex creatures. The etymology of the word “decision” provides interesting insight. It comes from the Latin words “de” (off) and “caedere” (cut), meaning to “cut off.” Decisions cut us off from alternative choices and opportunities and the possibility of better future outcomes. Therefore, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound that demands us to own the outcome and consequences of our actions.

When confronted with a hard choice, putting it off and procrastinating may feel like an easy alternative option to actually making that choice. When faced with two alternatives, we have the option not to decide and to do nothing. But, in fact, procrastinating on the decision is not refusing to decide or buying more time, but it is actively deciding to remain undecided. After you realize that, you may find it a less attractive option. As research by the American psychologist Thomas Gilovich shows, in the short term, it may feel good to avoid an action that may lead to a poor outcome (an error of commission), but in the long term, you may regret not acting at all (an error of omission).

Advice for Making Difficult Decisions

So how can you best go about making a good decision? You could write a pros and cons list, and maybe the decision will become obvious. You could flip a coin and let the odds be in your favor. Or perhaps you could simply wish on a crystal ball in hopes it will show you the alternative realities.

Of course, it’s usually never that easy. As you navigate decisions in your graduate life and beyond, here are some approaches that will probably be fruitful.

Think beyond the moment. Taking the time to reflect and think about the decision beyond its immediate impact on your life can give you some useful insights. For instance, as I decided to make some of my past career moves, I took the “short-term pain for long-term gain” approach. They included, first, moving to a remote city to take a longer-term contract with a smaller team, where I had a broader scope of responsibility and exposure and, second, turning down a career advancement opportunity in a new city because I wanted to stay close to friends.

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At the time, such decisions caused me some discomfort, but they had long-term beneficial impacts on my life and career. In her 2009 book 10-10-10: A Life Transforming Idea, American author and business journalist Suzy Welch recommends making a decision based on how you would feel 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years after choosing that path (or avoiding) it. She says that every time she’s been in a situation where no decision would make all parties affected happy, that method has helped guide her in figuring out what choice to make.

Consider the head versus heart. In a head choice, you may see a decision that looks good on all practical accounts and appears to be the right choice on paper. That may allow you the most rational decision-making process. A heart choice will evoke elements connected to your emotions, desires and soul. Often people make choices without careful consideration because those choices feel good at the time and bring an emotional, albeit short-lived, high.

A question to consider is if you could live with the decision if you were to be disappointed. One way you can balance head and heart is to list your options and objectives on paper. You can also create a weighting system where you can assign each objective a value. For example, in deciding between two job offers, you can use salary, benefits, title, workplace culture, location and so forth as your objectives and give each a percentage a weight out of 100. Those scores could probably offer you some insight into probable outcomes. Such a balanced decision on facts, practicalities and heart could lead you down the right path.

Honor the effect upon and influence of others. Many hard decisions you make in life impact not only you as an individual but also potentially many other people. When graduate students make career decisions and relocations, for example, the impact on their spouses and children comes up regularly. As someone who has had limited family responsibilities, I realized my own privilege in having more options for relocation and movement in my career than many of the people around me. Engaging loved ones who potentially could be affected by your decision can provide a meaningful avenue to talk through your thinking and even give you the encouragement you need to make the decision. Many of my family members, colleagues and mentors have been instrumental in helping me make good career and life choices.

Forks in the road where you must decide which path to take will always be a part of life. As we continue to navigate those crossroads, we will discover deep insights into who we are and what we value. As philosopher Ruth Chang shared in a TED talk, big decisions are agonizing because we think about them the wrong way. They are hard not because one choice is wrong and the other is right, or that one is better than the other. Rather, it’s because they are on a par—both equally right or wrong.

This is where we write our own story and exercise what it means to be human. Because when we make these difficult decisions, Chang explains, we have the power to justify them to ourselves and others in ways that make us the unique and distinctive individuals that we are. Which is why the forks in the road are, as she puts it, not a curse but a godsend.

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The blue and white logo of the Graduate Career ConsortiumDinuka Gunaratne (he/him) has worked in graduate student career and professional development over the last six years across several universities in Canada. He was the inaugural director of the Center for Graduate Professional Development at the University of Toronto. He is passionate about supporting students and is an active member of the Graduate Career Consortium —an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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