In recent weeks I have been struck by a recurring theme that has cropped up in conversations with my coaching clients: “How should I think about a difficult life choice I need to make?”
The question takes many forms: “When is the right time to take a career break and have a child?” “Having established myself in a successful career, should I go for that advanced degree that I opted out of when I was a student?” “Having decided that I need to make a career change, should I go to a large corporate or should I step into the unknown and join a start-up … or even start something on my own?”
I feel privileged to serve as a journey companion to people who are facing these choices. It feels deeply meaningful to help my clients explore what is truly important to them and what they really want to achieve. Together, we regularly explore “what is the bigger question behind the question?” And we probe which beliefs, feelings or actions are making it difficult to make the choice.
When reflecting on these conversations, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind. Some readers will know this. It brings to life the choice of direction on a bifurcating forest path, and how the conclusion ends up making a big difference. (I have enclosed the poem below, for easy reference). While written as a joke to an indecisive friend, the poem took on a life on its own. It conveys, in a moving way, the difficulty of making choices when we have imperfect information: the excitement of having options, the challenge of weighing these options, the fear of regret.
Given our education and training, it seems natural for many people to approach such a choice in a way that any economist would recognize: we seek to “maximize utility”. We list pros and cons. Perhaps we attach weights to the different factors. Perhaps we make explicit or implicit risk adjustments. We try to do the sums of this utilitarian calculus. However, a niggling doubt tells us this is not right. And we feel stuck.
There is a good reason for this. This kind of calculus works well for everyday choices: Should I walk or drive to work today? Which pants should I buy? To which restaurant should I go? But it does not work well for existential choices. There IS no “right answer” in these situations. There isn’t even a “better answer”. When facing difficult life choices, we are choosing who we want to become. It is an existential choice.
Recognize this can be truly liberating: We stop using mechanical approach in a futile search for the right answer.
It can also be daunting. We are faced with the individual responsibility to make the existential choice, of selecting who we want to be and become. We cannot hide behind the utilitarian calculus. It is our choice to make – we are fully responsible. This is the challenge that Jean-Paul Sartre explores in L’Être et Le Néant (Being and Nothingness). It is also what leads Robert Frost to say he is “sorry [that he] could not travel both [paths]”.
I applaud my clients who reject the mechanistic approach to making life choices, and embrace the freedom – but also the responsibility – to select who they want to become. This alternative approach to life choices does not make the choices easy. But it is an authentic approach to living our lives.
What life choices are you facing and how are you approaching these choices? I would love to hear your reflections.