Making Big Decisions

Some thoughts about advice on making major life decisions.

The Pythagorean UpsilonA famous physicist once said that the opposite of every profound truth is very often another equally “profound” truth. I think that’s usually the case with proverbs and folk wisdom: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, they say; but they also say “He who hesitates is lost.” Often folk wisdom is so vague it’s bound to be contradictory.

When you’re thinking about your career, it seems to me that the people giving sage advice fall into two camps. The first group say that the most important thing in life is to be able to adapt to circumstances, spot opportunities when they arise, and seize them with both hands. The second group say that the most important thing in life is to have a sense of personal identity, a fundamental goal in life, to make yourself totally committed to fulfilling your dream or destiny, and to remain unswayed by external events. Now, on the face of it, those both sound like reasonable pieces of advice. However, on the face of it, they also appear at odds with each other: we should be both flexible and inflexible about our goals.

I’ve heard or read this advice many times. Usually a person will go to one extreme or the other, and they always sound very wise, even when they’re saying contradictory things! So what’s the alternative? Now, I should say that I’m generally no fan of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said that the best course of action is often the middle way (via media) between two extremes. I remember one of my old philosophy professors at Aberdeen telling me that was interesting but “not very helpful”. “If I was holding a dinner party,” he said, “and wanted to know how much wine to buy, Aristotle’s advice would be ‘don’t buy too much but don’t buy too little either; get an amount somewhere in-between’.” That’s common sense, but unsatisfactory and vague.

Nevertheless, the best advice I can offer here, if only to remedy the bad advice that comes from clinging too much to one extreme, is that we should be neither too rigid nor too flexible but somewhere in-between when it comes to our goals in life. I believe that both the “profound truths” I mentioned at the start are true, in their own way. If you want to have a good life, you should pay attention when opportunity comes knocking at your door and be ready to change your plans, and adapt to your changing fortune, but not so much that it derails pursuit of your fundamental goal. Likewise, it’s wise to have a definite goal in life and remain passionately focused on it, but not so intransigently that you become a numbskull, and overlook compromises that might contribute to your longer-term happiness and wellbeing. You need to be on the lookout for opportunities and seize them when they arise, but only ones that are ultimately consistent with your fundamental vision, your destiny in life. You’re also going to have to suck it up sometimes and allow some incredibly tempting good fortune to pass you by, if clinging onto it would sweep you too far off course. So in a sense, I think wisdom consists in doing both of these things in harmony, and folly in doing neither of them, or in doing one of them too much.

People who appear merely wise cling to one extreme but in their case it’s only chance that determines whether that will turn out well or badly for them. One man sticks rigidly to his goal, ignores everything else, and becomes a huge success by following this rule of life, another does the same thing but ruins himself by being too rigid. One man watches fate like a hawk, pounces on good fortune when it appears, and flourishes as a result, another following the same principle ends up all over the place, and living a life completely out of kilter with his true values. Be cautious when listening to the advice of fortunate people because often they follow rigid philosophies of life, which only worked out for them by chance. If we only had to do one simple thing, life would be easy. What we often have to do is walk a tightrope, maintaining a delicate balance along the way. That’s hard work, although it’s also, in a sense, just one task. It’s a composite task, though, and though certain principles and ideas can guide us, many difficult decisions, requiring sound judgement, have to be made. That’s why nobody can tell you how much wine to buy. They can remind you not to get too much, nor too little, but you’re the only person who knows enough about your meal, and your guests, to decide what the right amount is. When you’re thinking about your future, don’t be led too much by events, and don’t stick too rigidly to your original goals. More specifically: keep comparing these two things to each other, weigh up each event carefully against the supreme criterion of your fundamental goal in life and ask yourself: “Will this contribute to my long-term happiness and well being, or not?”

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