I make terrible choices

I feel so lost, because of all my crazy decisions

By Cary Tennis
Published October 18, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I'm writing to you because I feel lost. I'm in my early 30s and I feel like I don't know anything, from the big questions (what is the meaning of all of this, who am I, etc.) to the simplest like what I want to do with my free time. Not that I expect to have all of the answers, but I feel like I don't have an inner compass or guiding voice to navigate through the world and make decisions. I've accomplished very little because I've wasted so much time and energy just thinking and ruminating about these things and I'm tiring myself out. I'm beginning to fear that I'm going to spend the rest of my life just kind of muddling and flailing through, never really directing my life or giving myself over to anything or anyone completely.

I started struggling with this in university trying to pick a major. I was overwhelmed by the options and in my mind it was an extremely high-stakes decision. I wasn't just choosing a degree, I saw it as choosing who I was going to be and how happy I would be for the rest of my life. Make the right choice and live a happy life, passionate about my career. Make the wrong choice, and a life of regret, or poverty or banality. Needless to say, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to make the "right" decision. I first hedged my bets and took several degree programs at once and later switched majors a couple of times. I fell behind my friends academically and eventually I became so embarrassed about it that I isolated myself and got depressed. Circumstances eventually forced me to decide and once I did I powered through and got my degree quite quickly, but I largely ruined what could have been a fun and positive university experience.

I mention my university experience because I see parallels to where I am now. After university I took an average job partly related to my degree. Looking back, I never really felt like a real graduate because of the meandering and, to me, embarrassing route I took as well as the fact I still wasn't sure about the decision. I guess I felt I didn't deserve a career either. Just like in university I spent close to five years in this job not really going anywhere, then decided to get a graduate level degree and, again, powered through it quite quickly. The degree has opened up new opportunities and an ADD diagnosis and treatment have helped me at least get organized on the outside. I'm now trying to decide what to do next.

That's where I stand today, Cary. I've used my career as an example but I can say the same about every other aspect of my life: friends, relationship, what I do for fun, all up in the air, all undecided. I've come to realize I've had an unconscious belief that there is one correct path to take in life and it is my job to find it. No wonder it seems so perplexing to me that people are able to make important decisions without constant worry or second-guessing. I feel like I've squandered so much time and opportunities in the past that making the right decisions now is more important than ever. I've been waiting a long time for that feeling, or an inner voice to tell me what to do with my life, that something is "right." As ridiculous as it sounds, it's finally dawned on me that decisions have to come from my own discernment and judgment and that I have to accept some uncertainty in life. I've lived under my old belief for a long time, though, and I don't know where to start from here.

Cary, I don't want to live my life disappointed with myself and I think I have a lot to offer if I could just get out of my own way. Any thoughts? Thank you for your time and any advice and I'm sorry if this is too long!


Dear Lost,

Your task is not to find a path, but to study the one you're on. To discover your path, discover your story. Your story is your path.

Describe the path you have taken thus far. Describe it fully. Tell your story. That doesn't mean characterizing it but actually telling it, telling the tale. If you do this, if you narrate what has brought you to here, then you will have your path. You will have your path up to this point and then it will be clear what direction the path points. You will know what path you are on.

When seen in this light, many of the decisions you made will make sense. They met your needs. It's just that the needs they met are unspoken ones. For instance, you may have a need to study many things at once. Such a need may be at odds with what institutions expect. You may also have a need to escape from the roles that the institution is offering you. You may have a need to sort of screw things up in order to gain some operating room. You may feel boxed in. That doesn't necessarily mean you're making terrible decisions. It means you are making decisions to meet your needs, some of which are hidden, perhaps even hidden from you.

If you are not fully conscious of what your needs are and how you are meeting them, then it may indeed appear that you are making crazy, baffling decisions. So it's necessary to admit that certain shadowy figures are at work. It's necessary to acknowledge the importance of the irrational in decision-making. We do not always know what we want, but if given the chance to get it, we will make the decisions that get us what we want. What we want may be destructive. That doesn't mean we don't want it. It means that we don't admit that we want it. What we want may not look like success. That doesn't mean we're accidentally failing. We may be trying to escape a system that denies our true self. The system of conventional success, for instance, requires that we routinely disguise and suppress our true selves. So when we "fail," we are sometimes saving ourselves.

Your only path is the one you've been on. So turn around and go back down the path and spend some time on it, trying to understand it. Backtrack. What kind of path is your path, this path you've been on? What are its features? Where does it diverge? Where does it merge with other paths? What does it connect to? Does it run through the woods or through a meadow or along the sea, or on a highway, or a city street? Where have you taken detours to examine attractive distractions? Those distractions may turn out to be your true loves. Those things that we just cannot stop looking at, those things may be what we are actually seeking without meaning to or admitting it.

Here is something else you said that seems like a clue to how you have been thinking: "Make the right choice and live a happy life, passionate about my career. Make the wrong choice, and a life of regret, or poverty or banality."

I suggest you consider the nature of choice. Also, ask yourself, "How does one navigate a world of seemingly infinite alternatives?" Finally, consider the dangers of having too many choices.

These Web pages present nice ideas. But what you really need is an experience.

So my wish for you is that you leap into a realm where attention is riveted only on what is present, in which each thing is nothing but itself, in which an intuition bigger than words takes over and you know for an instant that "choice" has no meaning apart from action. The deeper we explore the word "choice," the more we plumb, the more we see that life is nothing but a series of actions.

We can make decision trees all day long but at some point we must surrender to action and the rich wonder of fate. We must get in the river.

Here is what happens when we get in the river: We become concerned with swimming.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

College Since You Asked