The Decision Tree of Life

Thoughts on 14 key life decisions.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

AnneliseArt, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: AnneliseArt, Pixabay, Public Domain

Here are 14 key life decisions and thoughts on each, aimed at the typical Psychology Today reader. The ones pertaining to childhood are written to the parent, the others to the person. 

Choosing a school (preschool through high school.)  I'd walk through a school to see if the students seem engaged but not stressed, in the classroom, at recess, and lunch. Depending on my child's predilections, I'd look for a school that had a quality theater or sports program, Both of those can, in addition to being most enjoyable, be a potent opportunity for personal growth.

Deciding how strict vs laissez-faire to be.  That decision should be based on what would be best for that child, not on how the parent was raised or some a priori belief about the issue.

An under-discussed component of that is how much to use rewards and punishments rather than invoking guilt in encouraging good behavior. I would default to guilt, for example, “I’m disappointed. I know you can do better” rather than, for example, “Go to your room.” Invoking a bit of guilt builds intrinsic motivation, so my child is more likely to behave responsibly when away from my watchful eye: with friends, later in college, and in adulthood.

If that too often proved ineffective, I’d supplement with bits of reward and punishment. After all, few adults would go to work without the reward of a paycheck. But I wouldn’t impose some time-consuming, stressful scheme, such as putting up a chart and giving stars that could be traded for rewards. Not only is that annoyingly time-consuming, it’s too subject to argument: “My sister got a star, why didn’t I?”  Also, even though behavior modification theory urges rewarding short-term achievement, I have seen kids respond well to a high-value long-term reward, for example, “Get an A- average and I’ll buy you a car.”

What to do after high school. Reflex is “Go to college.” And for high school grads who did well in school, who aren’t burned out on school, and would struggle without college’s academic and dorm structure, they should probably go, especially if admitted to, a college with top students and a career-door-opening name, ideally giving generous cash not loan financial aid.

But other students and their parents, not withstanding peer pressure to conform and go to college, would be wise to do a clear-eyed assessment of whether the best option is the inordinately expensive 4+ years of college— and most students take longer to graduate and only 60% do, even if given six years.  Some high school graduates would be wiser, for example, to learn on the job. That option is most likely to be worthy when the parent could open a door for their child to work at the elbow of a successful, ethical person.  Also worth considering: a formal apprenticeship, starting a business, or most radical although a possibility for the intelligent self-starting, lover of learning: being an autodidact: Guided by a parent or other mentor, learning what s/he wants from articles, books, tutoring, videos, mentorships, individual courses, and travel.

Graduate school?  Some careers require a graduate degree, for example, physician, psychologist, researcher, and lawyer. But even outside of those, especially in a poor job market, it’s tempting to go to graduate school: It buys time for the job market to improve while gaining skills and a resume-building credential as a going-away present. Plus, for some people, graduate school is a socially acceptable way of avoiding what the person perceives as the daunting or distasteful work world.

But the same concerns I express about undergraduate education's cost-effectiveness and opportunity costs apply fully to graduate education: Typically, too much of what is taught is insufficiently useful in one’s career or life.  Even many graduates of MBA programs, that seemingly most practical of degrees, believe its main benefit is the piece of paper.  And with the proliferation of graduate-degree holders, its value-added in the job market may be declining.

Before considering graduate school, I’d see if I could become well-employed without it, doing my “graduate school” by self-study, tutoring, advice from colleagues, attending workshops, and taking individual courses of immediate relevance, often called just-in-time learning.  For many jobs in the for- and nonprofit worlds, it’s possible to successfully make the case that you’d be a better candidate from a You U education than a Standard U education. And of course, there's self-employment.

How much to externalize responsibility?  Of course, our behavior isn’t totally under our control. External factors can include genetics, early upbringing, race, class, gender, even capitalism. Some people feel better by focusing on such factors, but the disadvantages may well outweigh. It may be wiser to focus on what we can control, taking baby steps toward our goals, and suppressing perceived victimization. That's more empowering and, on average, leads to better outcomes.

Choosing a career. Many people make the process of choosing a career more complex than necessary. Most people could be happy in a wide range of careers. What counts most are just a few factors. First, does the career heavily use the person’s core strength(s): words, people skills, build-it/fix it, entrepreneurship, artistic work, or office detail, including computer programming. Second, does it capitalize on the person's connections—Especially in a tough job market, good, stable, ethical, well-paying jobs with good bosses generally go to someone who knows someone.

There is too much focus on finding and following “your passion.” The problem is that too many people are passionate about the same few things: sports, the creative arts, the environment, non-profit causes, etc. Supply and demand means that in such fields, it’s hard to land an ethical, decent paying job on which you’re treated well.

That said, there are people who, for example, insist they'd rather face long odds and poverty than pursue a career that’s outside their core passion. But in general, unless the person is unusually qualified, dogged, and personable, the odds favor following your passion as an avocation.

The role of romantic relationships. It’s ever less expected that we marry or even be in a long-term relationship. That's a key freedom won in the sexual revolution. Yet many people still let the expectations of family and friends unduly sway them into marriage and usually children. There’s no right and wrong here. Just make the decision of how monogamous you want to be and whether to marry and/or have a child based a clear-eyed exploration of the issue with your partner and, if you believe wise, in consultation with a more objective person or two that you trust.

Break up? Many couples schlep along neutrally or unhappily for fear of hurting the kids or of a protracted, painful divorce. The answer, of course, need depend on how bad the relationship is, how likely the person is to find a better partner, or whether s/he would be happier solo.

The valuing of work versus “life.”  If the best work you can get is soulless, just a paycheck, and you’re not particularly good at your work but the “life” part of your life is richer, it's wise to  emphasize the life part of work-life balance.

But underappreciated is the case for people whose work life is more rewarding than their personal life and who prefer to focus on work than their personal life. That is defensible. Indeed, from where I sit, the life well-led is defined by contribution, and the more one works at something ethical that s/he is good at, the better-lived the life.

How complicated a life? It’s become axiomatic that beyond the bare middle-class materialism, more doesn’t yield more happiness. Indeed, it tends to complicate life without sufficient reward.  No less than the Dalai Lama said that more money means more worry.

Plus, many people choose careers and stay in them mainly for the money, even though they dislike their job, something on which they spend so much of their life and energy.  I know people with a big house, fancy cars, three kids, and wide range of investments to manage, who often wonder whether they should get off the train and live a simpler life, doing work they’d enjoy more.

Your aging parents. Much guilt surrounds dealing with aging parents. It can make a person sacrifice their career or outside-of-work life even though it makes sense to spend less time with and on the aging parent. Similarly, because most older people prefer to age in place, even when their children believe the elder would net be better off living in an assisted-living community, they succumb to the guilt. Consider taking whatever extra time is needed to find your elderly parent a good place and patiently but firmly encourage their going.

Retirement. There comes a time when health, the decline in your work performance, or the appeals of retirement argue for creating a glide path toward retirement, perhaps including a succession plan in which you help choose and train your replacement.

It’s difficult to be rational in making that decision. It may help to think cosmically: Will you, your employer, the person who’d replace you, your loved ones, and even your broader sphere of influence be net better off if you stayed employed for another year or three, scaled back, or retired? Of course, think hard about how you’d fill your retirement years. The first few weeks may be easy but you’ll probably have years maybe decades to fill.

End-of-life medical decisions: Of course, everyone should have an advance medical directive. For it to be available at the right time, give a copy to your primary care practitioner and, if it's likely to be relevant in the coming year or two, above your bed. While your choices are many, commonly, in that document, the person opts to, when incurable, limit medical treatment to that which increases comfort. If you’re fortunate to live in a state in which physician-assisted death is legal, it’s an option that many people should discuss with their doctor while compus mentus.

Your legacy. Of course, key to this is your will. Standard is to leave all your assets to spouse and kids, but consider how they’d likely use the money compared with if you left some or even most of it to some other worthy individual(s) or charity.

The choices in this life decision tree are, of course, not easy, but making them thoughtfully is core to the life well-led.

I read this aloud on YouTube.