I trusted my gut and got screwed

I thought I'd love a quiet life of gardening and long walks. I was wrong!

Published July 21, 2010 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was struck by the letter that ran recently about gut instincts, even though I don't currently have a problem anything like that letter writer's (who was struggling over whether she should break up with her boyfriend).

My problem is with the fact that we all have to make decisions based on incomplete information. Should I quit my job and take the new one I've been offered? Well, I won't really know what it's like to work in the new place till I get there, so how can I decide? Should I have a baby? Again, I won't know whether I'll enjoy it until I'm in the throes of it, and that is one job you just can't quit.

And what about when you made a decision on what you thought was good information, but you end up not happy with the result anyway? Then what? For example, after 10-plus years of living in the city, my husband and I decided to move out to a relatively rural suburb. It's quite a beautiful town (there are even farms with cows right in town!), but we are into various artsy things, and the people who live near us are just as uninterested in them as the people we grew up with in the more cookie-cutter suburbs of our youth. (We've tried to meet people with similar interests by joining arts boards and the like, and getting to know our neighbors).

We bought a house, so it's not like we can just up and move all that easily. Can we be "happy enough" until the time comes that it makes financial sense for us to sell the house and move? As it is, we're just dwelling on the downsides of the town and our mistake in moving there. But how could we have known we'd hate it until we actually lived there? The conundrum is making me miserable. And it is paralyzing me around making other decisions, because how can we ever make a decision about anything important when the information we have is incomplete and imperfect? My gut told me a quiet life of gardening and long walks in beautiful parks would make me happy. It was wrong.

Don't Trust the Gut

Dear Don't Trust the Gut,

Here is what I suggest you do the next time you have to make a decision such as whether to move or whether to have a baby. I suggest you make a list of all the things you like about the way things are now.

Make it exhaustive. Put down big things and small things.

Then make a list of all the things you don't like about the way things are now.

Then make a list of everything you like about the new situation you're contemplating, whether it's taking a new job or moving to a new town or having a baby or getting a divorce or taking a trip or getting new curtains or firing your secretary or joining a gym or buying a stock or forming a business or having an affair or dyeing your hair or getting a new roof or buying a new car or whatever.

Then list all the things you would dislike about your new situation.

Then rest.

Don't do anything.

You'll be tired.

If you're not tired, keep adding things to the list.

Sleep on it.

Look at the list again the next day. Add to it if you can. Dig wider and deeper; discover things you had forgotten to put on it.

Make your four lists as rich and far-ranging as you can. Include things that seem stupid, things about which you feel foolish or ashamed. (You don't have to show anybody the whole list. All you have to do is write down all the little things that are true, even the ones that do not put you in the best light. This will give you excellent information about how you really feel.)

Here is what people say: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence."

Here is what market researchers say: "Our findings suggest that consumers who are focused on the future are so preoccupied with finding ways to improve their situation that they become overly sensitive to information that points to such opportunities -- and lose sight of the relative advantages of their current choice."

Here is what I say: In contemplating a change, in forming an ideal picture of the perfect life, we will sometimes focus on a peak experience, a moment of joy, to the exclusion of all evidence to the contrary; we remember one or two moments with such vividness that they crowd out all competing information.

We tend to discount the downside of a new situation. Say on our list of things we like about our current location is the fact that we have a gym. But then we locate a gym in our new location that's a little bit farther away but it's a gym. It's a different gym, but it's a gym. The pool has different hours and the yoga instructors are different, but it's a gym. We love everything about our current gym but we do not want to bum ourselves. So we say to ourselves, A gym is a gym.

Then for years in our new location we do not use the gym. By the time we do join, we're getting ready to move anyway. We wonder why we didn't get going in the new gym. I propose that we underestimate the tiny little delights in our current situation. And we overestimate our adaptability.

We give short shrift to the minutiae. I say give long shrift.

Give long shrift to the minutiae in our lives, the chance encounters in grocery stores, the amusing signs we see, our chosen automobile routes, our favorite subway stops, our hard-earned caution about certain neighborhoods, our private category of delightful landscapes. We live rich lives full of known grocery clerks, our fickle preferences of paper versus plastic, where the ripe avocados are, which movie theater smells least moldy and has the best sightlines, which theater troupes to avoid and which ones to occasionally patronize. We do not think of ourselves as persnickety, but our daily lives are full of tiny acts of taste.

In considering the cost of a change, we tend to be optimistic: We consider the new gym to be the equivalent of the old gym, overlooking the fact that for reasons we have not yet made conscious, we may end up never joining the new gym. Because we are secretly persnickety and stuck in our ways. Because we had so much invested in the old gym. We didn't realize how much we loved it. We even find ourselves secretly a little peeved at the new gym for not being the old gym. How could it? But this is the bind we put others in; we require them to meet our private expectations, and when they don't, we secretly despise them.

Call me dour.

But will our experience be comparable? We forget the pleasure we take in just being able to zip over there.

We run into friends at the store and say we're moving but we can visit, it's only half an hour away. But it's not driving to visit with the friends that we like. It's running into them at the store. They are our running-into friends. It's not the same if you have to drive there. It's running into them that is the pleasure.

So we routinely discount the pleasure in its exactitude: the pleasure of being in a particular place at a particular time, of being in the flow, being recognized, having a pleasant encounter. In thinking of our culture's deep disease, you might say we commodify experience and thus think of it as portable and replicable. We decontextualize our feelings and expect them to take root in alien soil. Thus when we move to the pretty little town we are sorely disappointed and have to write to somebody to try and figure out why.

Further, what I think, because I am infinitely dour, is that there will be an additional cost when you finally decide it is time to move back to the city. By then the city will have changed. Cities change quicker than towns. At the same time, your relationship with your little town will have improved. You will have acquired routines and friends and things that you love about your boring little town. So before you move back to the city, give yourself the honor of a rich and full accounting. Make your lists and cherish them. Be sure you know what you are getting and what you are losing. Be sure you know the price of change.

I made a list of all the things I like about where I live, and I was surprised because I don't think I like where I live because it contradicts how I think I feel. I don't think I like living in the Sunset, because I think I am a hipster who belongs in the Mission. But I am pretty wrong about what kind of person I am a lot of the time. I hate the hipsters, but I envy them and want to be accepted by them and want to be seen as one of them. It's been this way since high school.

So that's just one small distortion.

We discount the difficulties. So I am saying, count the difficulties. Count the good things. Weigh it all.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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