One way to overcome analysis paralysis

July 14, 2022

by Ravi Raman

Vanilla or chocolate?

This was the crucial decision outside of Dairy Queen recently. My son thought long and hard about it (a few seconds is a long time for a three-year-old) until – with my pointing it out – he realized that he could have both! The vanilla-chocolate twist it was, with sprinkles of course. Zero regrets about that choice. 

Any flavor would have been great, but not having to pick one or the other was especially sweet. Even better was that the quick choice gave us more time to move along with our lives and explore the little town we were visiting.

Big decisions can bring even the brightest minds to a grinding halt.

If you have ever been left staring for minutes at a menu, scrolling endlessly through Netflix, or leaving a store empty-handed after an hour of trying on clothes, you know what I mean. 

Even worse is the paralysis that humans face with BIG choices. These choices are things like:

Should I hire person A or B?

Should I fund that new product line/feature?

Should I quit my job and travel the world?

Should I pursue that leadership opportunity?

Should I completely switch to an entirely new career?

Should I retire?

Or even BIGGER choices like…

Where should I live?

Should I get married to this person?

Should I start a family (and when and how big should it be)? 

Life is nothing but a series of choices. In the nearly eight years I’ve been a professional Coach, it’s been clear to me that making these choices, and doing them well, is a key to progress and growth. Doing them well includes not exhausting oneself in the process. This comes from understanding something fundamental about the nature of choice-making. 

When intelligent and ambitious people make choices, I’ve found that they tend to approach them intellectually. This isn’t bad; in fact, it’s pretty helpful – after all, it was my memory and knowledge of “twist” soft-serve cones that helped my three-year-old out of the decision bind I mentioned earlier. 

However, the intellect also tends to analyze decisions like Google maps optimizes the best route between points A and B. While this is an intelligent way to get between two places (sometimes, not always!), decisions in life have infinite variables, most of which are hidden from the perception of the mind. The most visible criterion, such as “compensation” in a job change decision or “speed” in a mapping algorithm, may not be the most important in reality when it comes to navigating the complexity of life. 

Choices can never be good or bad

For most decisions (perhaps all?) what makes an outcome “the best one” is not easy to answer. This makes approaching decisions as optimization problems governed by the intellect incredibly challenging. I’m convinced that when it comes to major life choices (and career choices) there is no such thing as an optimal decision.

In Zen teaching, the parable of the Chinese Farmer captures this notion better than I ever could. The punchline is this: events can never be fundamentally good or bad, they are only stepping stones to whatever happens next

We are confused when we view events as right or wrong, good or bad, or superior or inferior. If you have a clear mind and a strong sense of what choice to make, then make it and trust the calculus of your most profound intelligence coming to the fore. If you don’t know what to do, you can just pick an option (which includes doing nothing) and move on with your life.  

With enough perspective and a proper understanding of the complex forces and fundamental principles that move life forward, we can use our smarts and knowledge to be informed while making choices clearly and quickly, knowing full well that whatever is chosen is never “good or bad” but just an event that moves us forward to the next move in our game of life.

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