Your choices don’t matter

Good decision making is often touted as a character trait that we should strive to achieve. We should improve our decision making, improve the way we think about problems and how to solve them, improve the outcomes of our lives by our decisions. But, I’d argue that our choices don’t really matter that much. Choosing between two good things typically won’t change your life. Now, bad choices matter hugely. Choosing to be lazy rather than work hard toward your dreams is a big deal. Choosing to rob a gas station late at night is a big deal. Bad choices can have a very permanent impact on our lives. Good choices, however, can usually be modified, rescinded, or continued if they are good.

Statistically speaking, there’s just no way any one decision (that isn’t a catastrophically terrible decision) can be that important. There are a billion different potential paths for your life. Do you really think you can optimize every single choice to select the best one? No way. It’s impossible.

Take your lunch as an easy example. Are you trying to eat cheap? Ok, something inexpensive. But you’re also trying to eat healthy — that will cost you a little more. You’re also in a bit of a hurry to get back to work, so you need something on the quick side. Your lunch already has three conflicting filters through which to choose. Are you going to choose the perfect lunch? Or get one that’s just good enough?

On a bigger scale, think about choosing a college. You want one you can afford, but also not too close to home so you can get the full experience. You want one that offers a good degree that you’re interested in, but you’re not sure what exactly you want to study yet. How can you possibly make the perfect choice about school?

Which door you choose doesn’t matter.

Many people might say, “But I met my spouse at college, I never would have met them if I chose a different school.” Well, 1. If you truly believe you’re “meant to be” with that person, you would have met them somewhere else, and 2. If there is no such thing as “the one”, you would have met someone else at a different school and you would now say “But I never would have met this new spouse if I chose a different school.”

Now that we’re on the subject of choosing a spouse. Many people believe in “the one”. I don’t, for a myriad of reasons, but I don’t really believe in “the ones” either. I love my wife and plan to be with her forever, but there’s probably 1,000 different women within 100 miles of me that I could have married and been very happy with. With that many suitable candidates, how are you going to choose the perfect mate? I probably haven’t even met 1,000 women in my lifetime, let alone developed a close enough relationship to consider marriage.

Making a bad decision can impact your life forever. Winding up in jail, winding up with a severe drug addiction, waking up at 32 with no degree and no job. None of these issues are destined to derail your life, but they can make things very difficult for you. You can recover from these choices, but it’s going to take a while. Meanwhile, making a good decision is rarely life-altering. It simply moves your life slightly in a new direction.

Choose a college that seems good but doesn’t quite fit once you’re in it? Finish out the semester and then transfer. Choose a job that you don’t love after a few years? Update your resume and try again. Buy a house that you become unhappy with? Sell it and buy a new one.

So if our choices don’t matter, what does?

Individual choices rarely matter in the grand scheme of things, but our pattern of choices matters. Over the course of your life, you’re going to make millions of choices. Choosing Taco Bell for lunch today because it’s fast and cheap doesn’t matter. Choosing it every day for 3 years will give you a heart attack. Choosing a college that isn’t exactly what you wanted but saves you some money is probably a good choice. But settling in every decision in your life just to save a buck? You’re going to miserable and your car will always be breaking down — because it’s cheap.

What also matters is how we handle choices once we’ve made them. When you get married, how are you treating your spouse? How hard do you work at the new job you just chose? How do you treat your kids, your dog, your car? What you do with the things you choose is really important.

When you make a bad choice, it’s important to recognize it and move on. Hopefully in a marriage you’ll work at it and see if you can turn it into a good choice (usually by changing yourself). But if you choose the wrong job, don’t hang on because you don’t want to admit failure. Be honest with your boss and find something new.

As long as your choices aren’t catastrophically bad, it is rare that a single choice will matter in five years. But the culmination of all your choices matters greatly for the rest of your life because they become who and what you are.

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