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.
When I was growing up there was a truly awful television program which I watched religiously. I think it was called Take Your Pick and it involved the oily host, Hughie Green, alternatively buttering up and intimidating poor members of the audience, who were invited to "take the money" -- a certain amount of cash he offered them, with readies in his hand -- or "open the box". Inside the box might be far more money, a wonderful prize ... or, for example, a box of paperclips. The suspense was -- would the guest make the right choice? Whatever they decided, they then had to open the box, with Hughie goading them, "You took this much money" or "You turned down this much". Their reaction -- rueful, joyous or downright angry -- was then plain for all to see. As I say, a really nasty game.
Life is a bit like that. We can view it as a succession of choices. Indeed, modern life in rich countries is a series of choices which would utterly have bewildered our forebears, who usually had precious little choice of the work they did, where they lived, or even what they thought. And like a game, but played out over a lifetime, the choices we make will be fateful and determine, in good measure, how we end up and how we feel about it.
Nothing is more important than making the right choices.
Nobody else can make the choices for us, but I'd like to use the 80/20 principle -- together with some observations and prejudices I have accumulated over the years -- to help us frame the choices a little better.
The 80/20 principle will never tell us what to do, but it gives us a better map of reality, judging by causes and results. And the principle will tell us about choices, as about everything else, that most of reality doesn't matter, but a few things -- in this case choices -- matter a huge amount. In other words, there is a very small number of choices that will determine the great majority of results.
Rather arbitrarily, here is my "top eleven" -- I tried to cull it to ten, but couldn't -- of the most important choices we can make in our lifetimes, in ascending order of importance. But bear in mind that these choices, though only a tiny fraction of the choices we will make in our lives, are the ones most likely to determine how happy and useful we are:
11. Choose to Get a Dog
I wanted to start with something you wouldn't expect. But I am not being frivolous. Six years ago my partner and I did what it turned out we had each wanted to do for a long time, but never had -- we welcomed a tiny little canine friend to our family. Since then we have fallen in love again - with the dog, I hasten to add -- and she makes it clear she's in love with us too. Tocker is a beautiful brown Labrador, and I recommend that you choose one of the friendly and good-natured breeds, as no doubt at least 80 percent of dog affection comes from 20 percent of breeds. If we are a bit down, Tocker comes and says hello and stares with her liquid green-brown eyes straight into our eyes, and it cheers us up no end. We also do a lot more walking.
10. Choose to Save Money - Automatically
Specifically, get into the habit of saving a tenth of everything you earn. Do it by direct debit, straight from your income, so you never see the money. This habit alone is likely to ensure that you will never be hard up, and it may help you get rich. It will certainly diminish your money worries -- and that is important for happiness and effectiveness.
9. Choose to Give Money
Give it personally -- to a real, specific individual, or to a small charity that you are personally involved with. There is a theory that the more money you give, the more you get; and though this is not a great reason to give money away, it does seem to work eerily often. The real reason is that giving money helps other people, and it helps you too by making you feel good. Very good value.
8. Choose to Eat Healthily
All food is habit forming. You eat bad food -- you'll want to eat more. You eat good food -- even if you don't like so much to start with, you soon will -- at least for some of it. So eat more of that. I adore garlic -- you have been warned -- onions, berries and cherries, certain fish, and most green vegetables. Experiment with food that is good for you -- it is well worth having a blood test and seeing a nutritionist -- until you find food you love and that loves you.
7. Choose to Exercise every day
It is easier to exercise each day for half an hour or more, than to try to do it three times a week. Do it at a fixed time so it becomes a habit. Don't let work interfere with it. If work might, do it first thing. Find some exercise you enjoy and stick to it -- walking, running (but not on hard surfaces, especially if you are over 40), cycling, and swimming are all excellent. Exercise not only improves health immeasurably, but also clears the mind and makes you feel good.
6. Read a Book every day
Not a whole book! But for at least half an hour be alone with a book. Reading is an incredibly 80/20 activity -- you experience life and ideas through books almost more efficiently than any other way; reading takes you into new worlds you wouldn't easily experience otherwise; reading requires you to think and imagine; and reading is highly enjoyable. There are so many books of so many different types that if you can't find a book you really want to read, you are not being serious. Make sure you have a small pile of real books or a few on your Kindle that you want to read. Take a book or Kindle everywhere you might be able to read for a few minutes.
5. Choose to Get Excited Every Day
Without excitement, we are not fully alive. Some people are fortunate: they get excitement every day from their job. But if you don't (or even if you do), find excitement, again for at least half an hour, in some activity that really turns you on -- sport, sex, dancing, games, gambling, playing cards, anything at all that doesn't do you or someone else harm. Modern life is often far too tame. We are designed to get our thrills (and if we don't, we may turn to destructive drugs to do that for us). Shout, scream, holler, or just enjoy -- but do it intensely. Before you start each day, work out what is going to give you half an hour of excitement. If it has a strong physical element, so much the better.
4. Choose a Career You Love
Totally obvious. We spend half our waking hours working. Utterly mad not to enjoy it too -- even if it requires years of learning or experimentation to find out what that is.
3. Choose the Right Partner
This week I met a friend I hadn't seen for six months. He'd just split up from his wife and he was extremely happy about it. His children are grown up, so I'm sure he made the right choice. Better of course to make the right decision first time. Fine, it's hard to do, and I didn't, so who am I to talk? Actually a very good person to talk, because I didn't think about my first relationship as seriously as I should, nor try it out gradually until I knew whether it would work. It may be that no single decision is as important this one in terms of happiness, for you and other people too. So give it the thought that it deserves, and beware of your first answer.
2. Choose the Right Friends
You may find the order here a bit odd, but friends in aggregate are probably an even more important cause of our happiness and value than our partner. Over time, we become more like our friends, and they become more like us. We influence each other enormously -- or else we are not true friends. So if you want to know what somebody is really like -- a prospective partner, for example -- get to know their close friends. You may well be surprised. Make time for friends, help them in adversity, and see them as much as you can, even if they live a long way away. Review your friendships honestly, even brutally. A few real friends are worth more than dozens of others. Make room for new close friends -- by gradually dropping old friends, if you find that they are not adding a lot to your life and you are not adding a lot to theirs.
1. Choose to Love Yourself
I've blogged about this recently, so I won't go on. If you love yourself, you will be more demanding of yourself also, because everyone wants to love someone they admire. If you are not the most important thing in your life, you won't be doing anybody else a favour either. Take your life seriously. It's the only one, or the only one of its kind, that you will ever get. It could be so-so, it could be fulfilling, or it could be truly great. Which would you prefer?
Choice is a serious business. Choose to take your life choices seriously.
If you find my blogs interesting or useful, please share them with a friend, leave a comment, or follow me on Twitter @RichardKoch8020
Follow Richard Koch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RichardKoch8020