And time yet for a hundred indecisions

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of toast and tea.

~T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I am really bad at making decisions.  I’m okay admitting it.  There are things that I’m good at, like cooking, standardized tests, and knitting amigurumi characters.  These skills are of varying utility, but I think it’s safe to say that being good at making decisions would be potentially more useful than any of them (although you would be surprised how much garden-variety absent-mindedness and stupidity people are wiling to forgive when they find out you got a perfect score on the ACT).

Most people are pretty bad at making decisions.  Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daneil Kahneman shows how the human mind is constantly tricking itself into selecting wrong answers and doing things that are objectively illogical.  The most poignant chapter for me was the one that shows that we are inherently inept at assessing our own happiness; we lose track of the differences between day-to-day happiness, moment-to-moment happiness, and life fulfillment, leaving us with an inaccurate pictures of what we really feel.  It’s a long book, full of fascinating and disheartening truths, but it is also a truth of life that people are required to make decisions every day, even when they are completely unprepared to do so.  Even though it is impossible for anyone to make all of their decisions with infallible rationality, it does appear possible for some people to at least make a decision, often, miraculously, one they’re fine with living with.

I, on the other hand, am so risk-adverse and analytical that I will agonize over my to-do list, losing precious moments of productivity while I weight the relative merits of doing my laundry before versus after going for a run.  Extensive restaurant menus cause me anxiety, so you can imagine the nausea and existential crises that ensue when I have to make an important decision, like what to do with my life now that I’ve achieved the goals {(1) graduate college (2) move out on my own, and (3) get a job} that have been driving my more quotidian decisions for years.

Ever since graduating high school, I have kind of coasted by a on a proscribed path.  I don’t even feel like the places I ended up after college were really the result of decision-making on my part any more than they were on luck.  I found a job connected to the university from which I graduated; I moved in with a friend, in the one neighborhood of Chicago where I knew someone; even my decision on what college to attend was made out of an inherent desire to avoid making a decision—it was the best local school that had the major I wanted, and smart people go to the best school they can.

They say that life can be improved by living more “mindfully” and doing things “with intention,” so I’d really like the next major move I make, whether it’s a big life change or just sort of staying in a holding pattern to be the result of a choice, rather than happenstance.  At the same time, it’s overwhelming how many and how few choices there are before me.  I obviously couldn’t possibly draft a neat list of all my options, though the lack of such a list may be fueling the illusion that they are fewer than they really are.  And, no matter how long that theoretical list may be, I’m constrained by the realities of the Great Recession, my college debt, my limited network, and the fact that writing is a far from stable lifestyle.  Seeing my high school peers now teaching English in Taiwan, toiling in cubicles, slinging lattes at chain coffee stores, wearing Superbowl rings, and working for legal non-profits, I know that I have options.  And I’m plenty grateful that with a college degree and decent job I have more options than many others do.

But I have big dreams and, when you’re a smart kid, those around you have big expectations, so it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a modest success.  I need goals.  I want something to strive for.  But I think right now, the decision that I have to make, and that everyone in my position who wants a fulfilling life, a life of more than computers, commutes, cubicles, and cable tv has to make, is how to define my goal and my success.  Do I do it by traditional standards? Do I do it by the positive change I’m imparting on the world? Do I do it by reaching for my difficult and perhaps unattainable dream?  Or do I do it by the happiness that I experience in the small moments of every day, the kind of gratification we often delay in favor of those other kinds of goals?


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