Doing things you want

A friend came to me with a problem. They wanted to make a big life decision X. But, they were worried that in 40 years, they would look back at what became of their life, disappointed with things, because they could see a story that started with making decision X and continued by making lots of decisions of type X, and finally after making forty years of decisions of type X feeling like they had wasted their life.

This happens to me a lot. X is usually low risk (in a traditional sense), secure, maybe externally prestigious, socially legible, but not necessarily aligned with what that friend actually wants to spend their time doing. Committing to long term relationships, staying in dissatisfying but well paying jobs, taking prestigious PhD program offers in departments that don’t actually fit their interests, and so on.

It’s a hard situation to find yourself in, because there isn’t a reliable global heuristic1. Follow your whimsy, and you end up like Diogenes: masturbating in a barrel in the public square. Don’t, and wake up one day wondering why you never did anything you actually wanted to do and suffer under the crushing realization that you never will.

I think the slippery-slope worst-case outcome - that you’ll continue to make decision X because you’re making it now - deserves more deconstruction. The claim is two-fold; first, that you make decision X now, and second that you continue to make it forever into the future. This second component is doing a lot of heavy lifting in creating this worst-case outcome anxiety.

It’s OK to make decision X, just as it is to make decision not-X. The only thing that makes it not OK is making infinity of decision X (or not-X). Don’t do that.

  1. For grad students, tech workers, and general overachievers, I would actually say that you’ve probably been so overconditioned to ignore internal will in favor of external sources of validation that almost always the correct play is to take the high risk choice toward actualization. But not everyone comes from that world. Maybe another time I’ll write more about this. 


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