The Power of Prime

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How Do You Make a Major Life Decision?

We all face these significant forks in the road in our lives.

I recently had dinner with a former client whom I had worked with about 15 years ago. Cassie (not her real name) was in her teens then and she is now a grown woman with a great career and about to be married. She asked for my guidance to help her make a major career decision involving two options.

She can stay at her current job which requires 60-80 hours a week, is very stressful, and prevents her from having any balance in her life. At the same time, it is well paying and could lead to a more desired position in the future.

Or, she can take a position with smaller company that would demand less time, have less stress, but also pays less and might limit one particularly desirable future career opportunity.

Cassie asked for my thoughts on how to make the best decision possible. Her predicament resonated with me because it is one that I have faced often in my own life and that I regularly counsel clients on in my professional life.

The crux of this major life decision is one simple question: “How do I make the right decision that will have such a huge impact on my life and that isn’t at all clear what the best decision is?” Here’s what I told Cassie.

There are no crystal balls in life, so no way to know what lies in the future. Attempting to predict the future is a largely frustrating and futile endeavor. You can only make the best decision you can based on the available information, some contemplation of the career and life you want to lead, and your present feelings. Also, recognize that this isn’t your final decision on your career and life; you will have many “forks in the road” ahead of you and few are irreversible (expect parenthood!). That should help put the decision in perspective and reduce its feeling of enormity.

There are several facets of this decision that you can consider (with some relevant tangents thrown in as well).

First, what is the objective reality of the two options you face, meaning how will the two paths impact your career? A big part of this involves giving a lot of thought to the career you want. How will the decision influence your identified career dream goal? Can you live comfortably with less money that will come if you change jobs? Will the new job really mean fewer hours and less stress? How will either path impact your upcoming marriage, having a family, being a mother, and your overall quality of life? What are the implications of this decision on your future financial goals?

Speaking of the future, here is a really important point to consider if you’re thinking about sticking with your current job in the hope that it will lead to a job in government. You are a phenomenally capable person and I’m guessing your resume is pretty impressive. My question is this: do you really need your current job to get that dream job that you now covet? Also, things may change in the future such that you may no longer want that “ideal” job (dreams have a way of changing over time). My point is that I don’t think you should base your decision on something that may or may not happen in the future. There no way to know what unexpected and wonderful things may happen in your future. Plus, serendipity has an amazing way of changing our lives.

I, for example, never had a clear career path (I just followed my passions and jumped at every opportunity that arose). But I have had a very clear idea of what I loved to do (e.g., write, counsel, teach). I was also never driven by money. Yes, I wanted to earn a good living, but not at the expense of my independence, time with my family, and being able to do the things I love. I could have chosen paths in which I would have made a lot more money, but, seeing friends go down that road, it wasn’t one that I wanted.

Second, another facet of this decision involves a deep exploration of your values, priorities, and the lifestyle you want to lead. What do you value most in your life? What aspects of your life do you want as your priorities? What kind of life do you want to lead in the short term and in the future, say, in 10+ years? What do you want your life to be filled with (e.g., marriage, children, travel, health and exercise, culture)? I have found that people don’t have this discussion nearly enough or soon enough and they end up just following the path of least resistance and what everyone else is doing.

Recognize that time is your most precious resource. Why? Because it is nonrenewable. It’s has always been a priority of mine over money. Don’t get me wrong, I like money because there are some experiences and things that I want to have that cost money (e.g., travel, good education for my children, bikes, skis). Here’s a great question to ask: At the end of your life, how do you wish you had lived your life and spent your time? Will you regret working so much despite the financial reward or will you look back with satisfaction knowing that you lived your life the way you deliberately chose to?

Another facet is entirely nonrational and hard to wrap your arms around. I’m referring to your intuition, your gut, whatever you want to call it. When you think about the two different paths, how do they feel? Which one bring you a sense of calm and comfort and which one brings you angst and discomfort? In looking back at the many forks in the road I have taken, I have found that my gut feeling was usually right. The challenge for you is that it requires a great deal of confidence in your capabilities and judgment. Making a decision in this intuitive way is truly a leap of faith because there is no objective data on which to base your decision.

You mentioned your fear of being miserable in your current job. That brings me to a very important concept, namely, your happiness. As I have progressed through my life, I have found that happiness should be central to all of our life’s decisions. Yes, success and financial rewards can bring you satisfaction (and it does pay the bills), but only happiness can bring you real meaning, fulfillment, and joy. True happiness comes from living a life filled with your passions, finding love, living a value-driven life, and your life not being about you. So, what makes you happy and unhappy? If your current job is that bad, run away from it as fast as you can (life is too short).

Finally, if it’s any consolation as you wrestle with this major life decision, there are no bad decisions here. The reality is that, whatever you decide, you will be just fine because you’re a competent and good person who will make the best of whichever career path you choose. But, if you asked me what I would do in your situation, I would lean toward what your gut is saying and what will make you happiest now. Your future will, I believe, take care of itself quite nicely.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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