By Natalie Rivera
Our decisions determine our destiny.
Even small decisions dramatically alter our lives, and a decision to do one thing always takes away an opportunity to do something else. Deciding to spend three hours a day on social media or watching TV or paying video games (like most Americans) means giving up the time to go back to school, train for a marathon, write a book, or spend quality time with loved ones. But, no matter how gross the cumulative loss over time, such small daily choices easily can be changed. Each day offers an opportunity to make a new decision; however, not all decisions are created equal.
Some decisions change EVERYTHING. Some choices are irrevocable.
Living on Autopilot
Many people don’t consider the repercussions of their choices—both large and small. They blindly follow their impulses, or worse, their familial and cultural assumptions of how life “should” be.
Most people respond to the stimulus of their environment with knee-jerk reactions, and their lives unfold on autopilot.
In the most extreme situations, their choices dramatically reduce their options, like choosing to drive recklessly and ending up in an accident that causes permanent disability or accidentally becoming pregnant at 15. Other decisions are more subtle, yet have lasting repercussions. Some people choose to settle for a practical career that they hate or take over the family business out of obligation. They may go to college for a degree they don’t want or drop out because they don’t know what they want. They may get married, have children, and climb the corporate ladder because it’s what they’re “supposed” to do. They may fall into habits or patterns that don’t serve them or keep experiencing the same dysfunctional relationships over and over again. They never stop to question their decisions and, if they do, it’s often only after they’re already suffering the consequences. They aren’t aware that they could have had a totally different and, most likely, dramatically more epic life.
Only on their deathbed are they haunted by the ghosts of their underutilized potential and unrequited dreams.
Taking the Wheel
On the other hand, there are those who do consider their choices, especially the irrevocable ones. They weigh the consequences of their desires and the long-term implications of their often-conflicting dreams. The results of this evaluation results in one of two outcomes:
- Some leap in headfirst. Their hearts long for adventure, for a path that’s less worn, for a life that’s less boxed. Sometimes they become overachievers who believe they can have it all—both the cultural conformity and the adventurer’s lifestyle. They may become corporate renegades who abandon the 9-5 model or entrepreneurs who blaze their own trail. They may become the career superstars who also try to be super parents. They may opt to move to a foreign country, an isolated island, or sail around the globe. They may become nature photographers who spend months at a time camping on sea ice or in jungles, or maybe they become secret agents who travel the world undercover.
But the truth is, you can’t have it all. The terrifying reality is that to choose one path (whatever that may be for you), you will never experience the other.
- This is why so many people never make a leap into the unknown. They are paralyzed by fear—fear that they’ll make the wrong decision. Fear they’ll regret what they’ll miss out on. They spend so long standing in trepidation that eventually they find themselves living the default life that their environment cultivates. The only difference between them and those who live on autopilot is that they ache inside for the dreams they never chose. It’s too late—the ship has sailed. What they didn’t realize is that whether they made that hard decision or not, a decision was made and something was lost. It’s inescapable.
Many people run from the truth and avoid pain so much that they miss out on life completely.
When faced with such earth-shaking dilemmas, how do you choose?
How do you choose whether or not to leave a marriage? How do you decide to quit your job and go back to school? How do you decide whether the freedom of entrepreneurship is worth the risk and uncertainty? How do you decide to move thousands of miles from your family and friends and miss out on important milestones? How do you decide whether or not to have a child?
All five of those life decisions are ones that I have made. Each one tore me open inside. The last one haunts me. Some life-changing decisions are easier than others.
While each decision presents a loss, it’s the ones that leave behind our heart’s deepest longings that cause the most excruciating pain.
I have found—through intensive firsthand experience and research into success and happiness—that there are three stages we must go through to make an educated decision worthy of our destiny:
1) HONESTY: We must be honest with ourselves about what we will lose, on both sides of our decision.
I read a poem by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Blue House,” in which he reflects on his life in his 80-year-old blue home. He considers the life of those who lived there before him, as well as the alternative life he did not live. He says, “I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.”
All sketches wish to be real.
Those words shake me to my core. Some sketches will remain etched only into our hearts, becoming nothing more. Only some of our sketches become our masterpieces.
Tranströmer used a beautiful metaphor to honor our forgotten dreams, our discarded sketches, and what might have been. “We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route.”
No matter what choices we make in life, we are destined to have a ghost ship.
We need not regret our decisions or lament having to make them. Our alternative lives continue on without us, floating adrift in an infinite sea. For me, this is a great relief. The question, then, is which ship we let sail away?
2) CLARITY: We must become clear which of the losses is harder to bear.
The man in the poem observes his blue home from a distance, while standing in the woods nearby. From that vantage point, he states that it was “as if I had just died and was seeing the house from a new angle.”
I have always lived by the wisdom that:
“Distance helps you take in more of the view.”
To me, this means that taking a break, such as time away from something, or creating distance, such as going on vacation, allows us to see situations in our life with greater clarity. When it comes to major life decisions, such distance of space or time can help. Try these perspective-shifting activities:
- Cut yourself off from talking or thinking about the topic of your conundrum. Distract yourself. Do something else (that makes you happy). Come back to it when you’re feeling inspired.
- Expose yourself to something radically different that provides a new perspective on life, like volunteering for a homeless shelter.
- Spend a day completely alone. Disappear from the world and engage only with your self.
- Spend time reading a book about someone or something that inspires you.
- Surround yourself with people who live the life you want but haven’t allowed yourself to have.
And when you’re ready, really ready to know your answer, sit down and ask yourself the following questions. Consider the decision you face, and imagine you are choosing to live LIFE #1 and allowing LIFE #2 to drift out to sea.
- What are the positive, meaningful outcomes I’ll experience if I choose LIFE #1?
- What are the negative, meaningful losses I’ll experience because I did NOT choose LIFE #2?
Now, switch your choice around in your mind, allowing LIFE #1 to drift to sea, and imagine what it would be like.
- What are the positive, meaningful outcomes I’ll experience if I choose LIFE #2?
- What are the negative, meaningful losses I’ll experience because I do NOT choose LIFE #1?
Put it all on paper. Include everything you can think. Be brutally honest.
Then ask yourself this final question:
When you’re 85 years old, which one would you regret NOT doing more?
At the end of this exercise, you’ll be clear.
But that’s okay because the weight will be lifted; the decision will be made. And, most importantly, you won’t risk letting life pass you by, robbing you of your potential for greatness.
3) ACCEPTANCE: We must accept the certainty of the life that is truly ours to live and honor the one we are leaving behind.
You may never know what it was like to live the life you don’t choose. It wasn’t yours to live. But you’ll be able to live the destiny you have created, knowing you made an empowered decision that honored who you truly are. Some of what you’ve left behind will fade from your mind completely; some will echo in your heart forever.
In order to create my beautiful life, I have sent many possibilities, people and pieces of myself to live upon my ghost ship.
When I find myself facing another irrevocable choice, I am drawn to the sea. I stand on the shore with the waves lapping my feet. When I look to the horizon I catch a glimpse of what looks like the shadow of a sail. I wiped away a tear, smile and waved gently to my phantom self and my life that I’ll never know, knowing that no matter what I choose, part of me will always be adrift.