Considering the journey past the fork in the road
Each one of life’s critical moments requires decisions. A multitude of options exist, each presenting a different path forward, and the reality is facing these options and making a decision can be hard. Approaches to decision-making range from the pragmatic, such as making a pro and con list, to the philosophical, such as recognizing that all decisions are small in the mirror of time. Little nuggets of wisdom can be found in these approaches, but the truth remains: there is no way to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the “correct” decision is.
To remove some of the difficulties surrounding decision making, one needs to lower the stakes. A great challenge in decision-making is achieving clarity through proper framing of the decision. With every additional piece of information, the stakes raise internally, and pressure mount as deadlines loom. This often leads to an all or nothing mindset— “one path leads to happiness and success, the other to grief and failure. But I don’t know which one is which!”
Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” beautifully and effective captures this either-or dichotomy when the protagonist, reaching a fork in the road says “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” While Frost’s words are captivating and have stood the test of time, this kind of thinking is dangerous. This framing of each decision as two-paths only creates an additional, learned anxiety around an already complex task.
It is logically true that choosing one out of many causes you to neglect the other, non-selected choices. But, often, the other options may still be accessible down the line or, even more often, the ensuing journey will give you evidence that you were correct, regardless of what you chose. This is a form of confirmation bias that gives you reassurance when you’ve made a decision; no matter what you choose, you’ll often be able to see “reasons” why it was the good and right choice after you make one.
The reality is this: any decision is acceptable. Do you take the job? Yes, of course. No, absolutely not. Do you ask the person that caught your attention on a date? No, don’t. Yes, what’s the harm? There is no way to know what will and will not work out. The only thing that you are in control of is yourself.
The shift, then, should be away from outcome-based decision making to process-based decision making. The decision itself is minuscule, as easy as yes or no. But every decision implies a continued path behind it, a journey past the fork in the road. The question then becomes: which journey can you see yourself on?
On the fence about getting a degree (outcome)? Do you see yourself as a student (process)? Yes? Then go to school. Do you want to write a novel (outcome)? Do you see yourself as a writer (process)? If not, then don’t start it.
In order to make an informed decision, you must contemplate what the journey beyond the fork will contain. Decision, identity, and process are all tied up together: you make decisions based on who you are or who you want to be. From there, the journey begins and reveals necessary steps to continue forward. If you do not want to take on those necessary steps on one path, then a different choice is likely better for you.
But, in the end, most decisions are much lower in stakes than they seem. You can think things through and plan for each journey, but you will still need to take the plunge. You’ll often find that you were “right” all along.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry