Making Life-Changing Decisions

How to approach big life choices?

Posted Jan 23, 2017

Throughout our lives we constantly make big decisions that shape our future circumstances. And these decisions determine the sort of person we become; for example, whether to start a family, the choice of a major in college, or a career. These choices involve dramatically new experiences that we can know very little in advance. So how do you make big decisions?

The difficulty of the big choices is that you need to have the experience itself to know what it is really like. Becoming a parent is transformational. The experience of losing a loved one can be life changing. You would literally become a different person. That is, it can change your point of view and your personal preferences.

We often use personal simulation (imagining the experience) as a decision-making tool when general considerations are insufficient to determine the outcome of an option. When you consider buying a house, it is natural to imagine yourself living in the different possible homes you are considering in order to decide which one you would prefer to live in. You choose the option with the highest value for your money.

But life-changing choices (choosing a partner or to have a child) involve radically new experiences. Your priorities will change. The prospective parent doesn’t know what it’s like to have a child of her very own. You cannot know from your current personal perspective, what this experience will be like. So you cannot predict the value of the experience (option) that best reflects the preferences of your future self.

In her book “Transformative Experience,” L.A. Paul, a philosophy professor, argues that life is filled with big choices in which you end up changing who you are and what you desire. The decisions may change you into a different kind of person, a person who cares about things that are very different from what you care about now. Professor Paul points out that for the big decisions it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. Because you have no idea what you are getting into. The big life choices teach us things we cannot know about from any source but the experience itself. And if we don’t undergo the experience, we won’t know what we are missing.

Professor Paul argues that the best approach is to choose based on whether you want to discover who you will become. Live life as a series of discoveries. The choice can be framed as a choice of whether to try something new solely for the sake of having the experience. That is, for the sake of the discovery it brings. For example, the relevant outcomes for the decision to have a child are discovering the experience of being a parent. The choice should not be based on whether the experience is enjoyable or unpleasant. You can’t know.

So we need to think differently about making big life choices. You can assign values to having new experiences for the sake of discovering who you will become. You decide based on whether you want to discover how your life will unfold given the new type of experience. The discovery comes from experience. Even if this entails a future that involves stress, suffering, or pain. You may also choose to keep the life that you know and retain your current preferences.