Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Danielle LaSusa PhD.
“I wish someone would just tell me what to do.”
You’ve said it, right? Admit it. It’s ok.
You won’t lose your creative or entrepreneur cred. Promise.
In fact, I’d wager that almost all creatives and entrepreneurs have whispered this dirty little secret at least once — possibly while clutching their head in their hands, curled up on the floor of the bathroom at 2:00 a.m. — unsure of which path to take.
Sometimes, the freedom of being your own boss, rejecting traditional routes, and forging your own path is exciting, exhilarating badassitude at its best.
And sometimes, being The Decider feels so paralyzing and overwhelming that you long for straightforward instructions at a punch-the-clock job with a friendly boss who looks remarkably like your dad.
When you have to choose everything from pen colors to mission statements, decision fatigue grinds you down. It’s exhausting. Worse, it can be totally debilitating.
So, what about freedom is so paralyzing? And how do you get unstuck and moving again?
Have you ever found yourself in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store, staring blankly at shelves filled with dozens of bottles, unable to choose, thinking maybe you just have to live at the grocery store now?
A myriad of possibly ideal salad futures greet your eyes. In the moments before you make a decision, your future is abundant and rich with possibilities.
But you know the moment you choose one dressing, you limit yourself. You define your taste. You pick one future.
The Latin root of the word decide is “to cut” or “to kill,” the same root as homicide and suicide. In essence, when you choose one possibility, you cut off or kill the others. Sometimes that “killing” strikes harder than others. You experience loss and grief for the futures that will never be.
Decision-making sucks because living in a world of expansive possibilities often feels better than living in a world of one, narrow, chosen reality.
But that’s only the beginning of decision paralysis. Behind that glazed, overwhelmed stare rattle some fundamental questions about your life priorities and values in the back of your brain, often without you even realizing it.
What Matters Most
In reality, you’re not choosing between balsamic and blue cheese. You’re choosing between weight loss and flavor, affordability and sustainability. You’re trying to decide what is important to you.
Choosing what matters is incredibly hard because no one can do it for you. Sure, the values of your childhood, culture, and community serve as easy defaults. It’s easy to abdicate responsibility to them — “Honey, you decide.”
But when you create something new, innovative, and all your own — frankly, when you build an authentic life — you must own up to the fact that YOU are the one who decides your values. You, and no one else. (Tweet this.)
This reality is terrifying. You are completely responsible for your choices. There’s no escape from that burden. It’s why the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “You are condemned to be free.”
Limits of Fortune-Telling
Then, of course, there is the little problem of not being able to see the future.
Let’s say you value hedonistic pleasure. You want the tastiest salad dressing — cost and calories be damned.
But which option will take you to flavor country? For that matter, which marketing strategy will garner the most customers, which album cover will impress the critics, and which paint color will give your new café that cozy, dinner-at-grandma’s feeling?
Research, imagination, and advice can get you some of the way toward answering these questions. But ultimately, we little humans can only know so much. Just as it is our plight as humans to be free, it is also our condition to be limited.
You cannot know in advance what will work or how you will feel. You cannot try out two or three different futures and then go back and choose which one you want. You can only follow your best guess.
That’s hard, though. Guessing seems arbitrary, not at all how you want your life’s work to feel.
How to Get Unstuck
So how do you stop spinning your wheels and get on with making decisions already? Here are three things to keep in mind when facing decision paralysis.
1. Get clear on your values. If you find yourself stymied by decision paralysis on a regular basis, chances are you haven’t yet figured out what matters most to you on a fundamental level.
Get help someone specifically trained to help you identify, clarify, and articulate your value; I help clients with this as a Philosophical Coach. Those values become a guide for your decision-making.
2. Know there are many ways to the top of the mountain. Perfectionism leads you to believe that if you always choose the correct option, you will find the one, right way to do things — unless you want to be an embarrassing failure who can never show your face in public again, you imposter.
But in truth, a lot of ways will get you to where you want to go. Yes, some of them may be more difficult, expensive, or mistake-laden, but each path will have its own lessons, opportunities, and new ways of building the future you want at the top of that mountain.
3. Embrace the experiment. In a TEDx talk I gave earlier this year about choosing values, I explained that you must build your worldview with the seriousness of a child at play. In other words, understand your life is one big experiment.
Guessing which strategy will save your bottom line and which will bankrupt you may not feel like a game, but it can’t be anything else.
That doesn’t mean the decision is not important — of course it is. It just means you are building a work of art and learning as you go. The work is bound to be messy, strange, and beautiful.
Like it or not, your life is built by the decisions you make, and the choices are yours. Even in not choosing, you make a choice — the choice to let fear or other people run your life.
In the end, a single, imperfect, authentic business, artwork, or salad dressing you’ve chosen will be more satisfying and enriching than a bunch of unrealized possibilities.
So go choose one.