Decisions, decisions — what if I’m wrong?!

Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Hum...
Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight into Human Decision Making (Photo credit: University of Maryland Press Releases)

A dear friend recently told me she’s having headaches and stomachaches as she contemplates a huge, life-changing decision, one that’s increasingly facing people in my industry, journalism — to stay or go. Should she accept a buyout (worth a year or more’s salary), or stay working? (She’s 62, and married.)

We’ve faced the same question a few times here as well, as my husband has also worked decades for a major newspaper shedding staff. But journalism doesn’t pay well. Not to mention, there are very few employers in my industry who’ll take on someone older than 40, so taking a buyout probably means your career is over.

I’ve made a few life-changing decisions, from accepting a fellowship in Paris for eight months, (leaving behind friends, family, career, dog, boyfriend, apartment) to leaving Canada to follow a then-beau to the U.S., a man I hoped I’d marry, (he bailed after two years of marriage.)

The problem with decisions is…every one you make, (and the ones you avoid), have consequences. And we simply can’t know, in advance, what those will be.

So how to make them and not freak out?

Decision Making Chart
Decision Making Chart (Photo credit: West Virginia Blue)

Mitigate your risks

If you’re moving “for love” (risky as hell for many people), certainly leaving behind a great job, family, friends and a place you like a lot — what else is there besides your sweetie? What if it doesn’t work out romantically? Can you afford the rent? Can you easily find work? Can you re-locate again, and how soon and where to?

Consult those affected

If you have children old enough to participate in the decision intelligently, include them. But some moves are going to be stressful and disruptive, even if they’re necessary. The times I’ve felt most betrayed, and it’s happened repeatedly, was when my life has been up-ended by others with no notice or discussion of how it would affect me as well.

Do your due diligence

If you’re thinking of working for X, do your homework! Check out to read others’ opinions of what it’s really like to work there. If you’re considering a college or course, ask others what they think. There is a lot of data out there and ignoring it is silly.

What’s the absolute worst that might happen if you’re wrong?

If you choose the wrong partner/job/city/university, getting out will have a cost, financial, emotional, intellectual. It’s usually better to get out quickly (or not get in) than stick to something not at all what you hoped for or expected.

Strengthen your safety net

Good friends, good health and some cash in the bank are all smart ways to give yourself back-up if something doesn’t work out as planned.

Make a list of pro’s and con’s

If one side is a lot longer than the other, that’s a clue. If you’re still stymied, put every item in order of priority. I wouldn’t ever want to live, for example, in a place with very little racial or economic diversity, or one that is relentlessly religious and/or politically conservative. Nor one with high heat/humidity, tornadoes or hurricanes. (That cuts out entire portions of the U.S.)

Have Plans B-K

Smart people always have a Plan B, just in case. I try to have Plans B-E, at least. Give yourself multiple options or escape routes and you’ll find decision-making less terrifying. How quickly or easily can you put the next plan into action? What obstacles would slow or prevent it?

No decision is perfect or risk-free!

The perfect is the enemy of the good; i.e. at some point, you simply have to get on with it! No decision is perfect and every choice means not choosing something else, whether the style of your wedding dress, your college or grad school or deciding to have children. Don’t make yourself insane asking everyone else for their opinions. You probably really know what makes you happiest, (or most miserable.) Go with that.

If a bunch of other people line up to second-guess your decision, whose life is it anyway?

Here are a few major decisions I’ve made and how they turned out:

Accept eight-month Paris fellowship, age 25.

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window
Paris Sunset from the Louvre window (Photo credit: Dimitry B)

Upside: best year of my life, great new job when I got back.

Downside: Broke up with boyfriend (secretly relieved.)

Move to Montreal at 28 to work for the Gazette, leaving friends, family, city I know well.

Montreal Old Port
Montreal Old Port (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upside: fantastic, cheap, huge apartment; great new boyfriend who later becomes my husband; some adventures in Quebec reporting, big-ass salary and low cost of living.

Downside: miserable, long, bitter winter; horrible newspaper with nutty management; taxes through the wazoo eat up most of my big raise. High crime rate, crappy public services.

Move to New York suburbs with fiance.

Upside: score a gorgeous apartment, he gets a good job fast.

Downside: don’t know a soul, people hard to meet or make friends with, cost of living is high, he bails on the marriage and finding work in New York journalism is, initially, really hard.

Marry him, despite doubts

Upside: fun wedding, honeymoon in France, decent alimony post-divorce.

Downside: humiliation and stress of brief, miserable marriage. Having to re-invent alone in a place with few friends and no job.

The greatest challenge of decision-making is forgiving yourself when things go south, as they sometimes just will. We can only use our very best intelligence and all the facts at hand. We are who we are!

Here’s a poignant post from C. at Small Dog Syndrome about many of the decisions she’s made in her early 20s.

This is an extraordinary radio interview with a 91-year-old man, Sid Rittenberg, who is the only American to join the Chinese Communist party — a decision that cost him 16 years in solitary confinement.

An amazing account, from Vanity Fair, of Malala, the rural Pakistani girl shot in the head for speaking out in favor of girls’ education there — and the journalists who later deeply regretted having pushed her into the spotlight. Their decisions clearly put her life in danger.

Here’s a sad/funny tale of a man who bought and renovated a house in L.A. — despite the dire warning not to from a tarot card reader. His house is gorgeous, but his wife left him.

English: An original card from the tarot deck ...
English: An original card from the tarot deck of Jean Dodal of Lyon, a classic “Marseilles” deck. The deck dates from 1701-1715. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do you make decisions?

Do you find it difficult?

44 thoughts on “Decisions, decisions — what if I’m wrong?!

  1. It really depends on what the decision is, but I usually include all the things that go up there, with an extra helping of gut feeling (apparently it serves law enforcement officials well). And you can add investments like stock or whatever to that safety net point if you have the means to do so.
    By the way, why Is the journalism industry not hiring people over 40? You’d think they’d like more experienced journalists, ones that have survived the years and know what they’re doing.

  2. Journalism is in utter chaos. They like cheap and malleable; journo’s over 40 aren’t eager to work nights and weekends taking orders for $40K a year. So they choose eager young un’s. It’s also a (mis)perception that we’re all fogies, dead-tree thinkers who have no fresh ideas.

    Unless you are a Very Big Name, it’s unlikely someone will take you on. I’m part of a new writers’ group here in suburban NY, all of us over 45, or even 50 — and the word of the day is “reinvention.” Our collective experience is astonishing, but no one is getting hired.

  3. Thank you for the link! My early 20s upsides have been a degree, a good marriage, and security in a financially tumultuous time. Downsides have been a long time at a bad job for little pay, and living a lot longer in a place I don’t like.

    I don’t think my decisions have been bad, in the same situations again without foresight I’d probably have done the same. But hindsight does add perspective. I can only make decisions based on the info I have at the time…but there are times I’d kill for a ten second blip of the future!

    1. Also! That “What’s the Worst That Could Happen” rule is an excellent one, especially if you add the caveat, “And Be Reasonable” – I think I’ve probably exaggerated some negative scenarios when contemplating major changes and allowed fear to exert too much influence at times. I probably wouldn’t have set my family careening off into the screaming void if I’d insisted on leaving a bad job and hunting hard for a new one. The reality more likely would have been, we’d have had to rely on savings and family, and possibly flipped burgers for a bit. Not actually a terrible fate when one’s in search of better things.

  4. Some places are just better than others, no matter how much we want or need them to be better than they are…I really wanted to LOVE Montreal and it came as a hell of a shock all the ways that decision turned out quite badly. Same with my rural NH “idyll.”

    You’ve had a good run, overall. Work, meh. You know now never to stay so long being abused. That’s a useful, if painful, lesson.

    London is going to ROCK! 🙂

  5. KM

    Thanks! This is very timely for me as I’m contemplating and collecting information on whether to stay with the organization where I currently work or, sometime in the next 5 years, attempt to jump ship and go full-time academia. After 10 very up-and-down years there, my career is finally starting to gain some momentum, but teaching and research has been a dream of mine for quite a while. I know I have some time before I have to make a definite, possibly final decision, but not really knowing (yet) what the consequences might be and which I would more regret giving up has been somewhat stressful.

    I wish your friend all the luck in the world with her own big decision!

    1. One of the tricks is to “try on” your decision. I did that once with a major decision — go to bed assuming you’ve decided to do X. How does it feel “knowing” you’ve now committed to this? If you feel crummy, you know what it is you really want(ed) to do.

      Much as some of my decisions have turned out fairly disastrously (that marriage), I don’t regret any of them.

      1. KM

        Thanks! I will try that. I’ve tried it waking before, but doesn’t always help, maybe because it’s not enough time to really (subconsciously?) consider all of the consequences.

      2. Part of the challenge is we just don’t *know* all of the consequences! I think it’s more a question of what’s the worst outcome and can you handle it financially, emotionally, physically, professionally? My first marriage blew up fast (which was emotionally devastating) but I had enough doubts I made sure to have a pre-nup to protect my home and income. So, it was horrible in some ways but the worst (homelessness, poverty, in my book) were not going to happen, nor did they.

  6. justaweirdthought

    Thank you so much for sharing something about “the art of making decisions”. Most of the decisions that I have made so far, have turned out to be wrong. Nothing went the way I expected it. That is perhaps one big reason why I hate cross roads!!But making decisions is one thing that no one can escape. I think it is best to flip a coin in situations where nothing comes to your mind.

    1. Maybe (?) you need to do more research. Not to be critical, but if nothing has gone as you expected, I’d do some very tough analysis of what it is you did expect…maybe too much? maybe not realistic? maybe too hopeful? You need as much information as you can find if it’s never working out. Maybe that’s the reporter in me, but I’m a big fan of finding out as much data as possible beforehand. In the old days (hah) I’d leap and hope for the best. No longer!

      1. justaweirdthought

        Yup. Perhaps expecting too much has been one problem. Now I like leaving things on fate (most of the times).

  7. What rich humor, honesty, and wisdom. I too have made some life-changing decisions that might have toppled me had I not had those plans “B-E” you so thoughtfully and rightly speak of. I have learned so much from my decisions and yes, those decisions do all have very colorful consequences (some good, some so so bad).

    One of the things I have learned is to be in a place that has a social safety net: friends, family, a career I love, savings, roots, etc. I’ve been in compromising positions because of a relationship and now that I am a mother of three it is not that I am risk adverse, but I keep my safety net first: a “good” place to live (and one that I can easily afford), a career I love, family and friends nearby, a city with mild weather, a relatively low cost of living, etc. I love my husband and we are happily married but the truth is tomorrow is not promised for anyone. And that tomorrow could uproot your life in a way that makes me thoughtful about how I take roots as I grow older and accept more responsibility. For those without children or without a career they “love” the narrative may be different but the advice is still the same: have a safety net wherever you go in life.

    One book I read (I’ll share the title later) really helped me put my decisions in perspective. I was nearing 30 (almost 10 years ago), and facing my first pregnancy in an abusive, destructive relationship that was tearing me apart inside out. This was the second such relationship I had been in (the first was a short-lived marriage that didn’t last a year). What was different was I was smart enough not to marry that guy, but was pregnant, knew I needed out, and uprooting, starting all over again after a failed relationship (only now with an innocent child) was one of the most difficult things I have done to this day. I survived that, got therapy for myself and my young son, went to grad school, met a wonderful man who I married, and my oldest son and I are both healthy and recovering a day at a time. While I was a single mother, the thing that kept my young son and I grounded was a safety net: a career I loved that was steady and allowed me financial freedom, family and friends who supported me through years of escaping that abusive situation safely, a city with a moderate cost of living that allowed me to be a single mother and still work in a field that I loved (the arts), and the wisdom to move on and know that what I survive will make me stronger and teach me something.

    I am now happily married in a healthy relationship with a good man and father, we have added two additional children to our brood and are steadily and happily raising all three boys surrounded by people who love us (and our children). I am still happy in my career and have made professional contacts and progress in my community.

    This post has touched me deeply and I appreciate you writing it. There was a book that I read some 10 years ago as I was contemplating that life-changing decision (to stay or go, knowing that as I go, that would mean I was starting over as a single mother). That book: Midlife Crisis at 30 by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin,, changed my life perspective. This book of essays explored the lives of several women who told of their lives at age 30 and how those decisions they made then affected their lives 10, 20 years later. Those decisions included career, family, friendships, relocation, etc. Despite its seemingly dramatic title, it was a powerful read, with perspective on the journey of life.

    Thank you for reflecting on your life, sharing it with us, and allowing us to share a bit of ours. I hope your friend finds peace and comfort in her decision. Take care.

    1. Thanks for such a helpful comment! The book sounds amazing and I’d love to read it.

      I realize, in hindsight, that not having a decent safety net (in Montreal, NH and NY — I was too new in all those places) was a huge stress. I think moving to any new place is crazy stressful (at least for me) and so I haven’t budged since 1989. I’ve had so much stuff flying around (see previous post) that remaining in the same affordable, pretty apartment, surrounded by friendly neighbors helped me weather it.

      I think it’s easy to overestimate ourselves out of optimism, when we need a lot of support to really thrive. I know for sure the price of isolation, as it’s when the con man found me and managed to do his damage.

      1. That book is indeed insightful. Let me know when you get a chance to read it, I’d love to know what you thought of it. It’s a quick read.

        I too have been conned by someone (or two). And I’m wiser because of it. I too have stayed put where I know my social capital is thriving (and has credit), my independence is possible and supported, and my safety net is a phone call away. Take care.

  8. I love it when you write! This is a great post, too. It takes a strong, fearless personality to point out the “rights” and “not so rights” as clearly as you defined — truly inspirational — and those pointers were wise and dead on. Thank you!!

    It made me think and I have to honestly say, decisions don’t stress me out as much as they used to. I think that’s because:

    1) I’m a professional divinationist who knows she doesn’t know everything. And hey, that’s helpful!

    2) I don’t like to complicate things. I know that whatever I chose, it was the right choice. Whether it brought heartache or joy, every experience brought something to my world that helped shape the person I am now, which also helps me help others better. I’m grateful for every tear, every change, every day.

    3) I stopped fearing change so much because I was going through it so much! I’ve also done the moving 1000’s of miles away without having a place to live, job, or contacts and those have been amazing adventures! Besides, fear’s a liar, anyway. (Except when it tells you that you should run from a salivating tiger or something…)

    4) I don’t believe in regret. To me, regret means you’ve done or said something that hurt yourself or someone else without thinking first. If you do hurt something or someone, take responsibility and see if you can fix it. If you can’t, then you need to ride the waves with as much grace as you can. If you can’t, then that’s time to do some shadow work to find out why. Everything’s an opportunity if you’re not afraid of your truth.

    5) I understand that I’m part of something much, much bigger than all of us and everything here is temporary — like toothpaste or life, itself.

    You’re right, there is no such thing as Utopia in any sense. But, I’ve always believed that it’s not the situation that matters, but how you handle it that really counts.

    Rock on!

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      Love your comment…all true! The day I flew to Paris for my fellowship I was crying so hard I could barely stand. Not because I didn’t want to go (desperate to flee) but because I knew the woman who would return would be profoundly different — and I had yet to become her. It was by far the best choice I’ve ever made.

  9. I think the hardest thing about decisions is being able to adjust when things only go half right, second guessing the whys and wherefores. We never make a decision based on full information, ever! So contingencies are king for me.


    1. True! It’s tough. I often wonder about staying freelance — just get a job! — but I know that I am generally happier working this way, even with all its stresses. Second-guessing saps your energy, even if we do it anyway.

  10. This is such a wonderful post. I have great difficulty making life decision, which probably explains why I live only 1km from my childhood home. Which is not to say I haven’t lived, but I could have lived a little more broadly. I’m bookmarking this one. Thank you again. x

    1. Thanks!

      I’ve never (yet!) been homeless, starving or without resources. I have (in NH, ugh) been friendless and even drove 3.5 hours back to Canada each week (!) to work teaching, but I still don’t regret that move. It was very lonely but it taught me a lot. I left my hometown in 1986, much to the annoyance of my friends who could not fathom my ambition. I’ve sometimes regretted my choice, but I also knew I’d be bored and frustrated professionally if I’d stayed. I have rarely found NY boring, even if plenty frustrating!

  11. I really wish major journalism outlets would put together a think-tank of some sort to deal with the changes in the industry. We need quality control to be put back into the process, and some way to make sure that experience and a good track record are rewarded.

    I think your friend ought to stay in the industry. A year’s salary just isn’t worth it. It sounds to me like they’re trying to buy her out before she reaches retirement age – assuming she’s in the States.

    1. She’s in Canada, but the issue are the same.

      There are such think tanks, like the American Press Institute, and I’ve reached out to them with some of my ideas. We’ll see if they’re receptive and actually have a budget to pay me for any of them. I agree with you, but I doubt things will get much better any time soon.

      1. Thanks for pointing API out to me. Their website has a TON of information that I’ll be digging through, and will likely help with several research papers in the next few semesters.

  12. Love, love, love your candor! Just reading through the list of decisions you made shows how little we can predict. Sometimes we make a decision for one reason, and even if it doesn’t work out for that reason, there’s a silver lining or side benefit that makes the “bad decision” worthwhile. I completely agree with your suggestions about doing research and considering the impact of your decisions on others…but your examples show that so many things are unpredictable and that it’s possible to make lemonade out of a lemon of a decision, especially if you’re open-minded and prepared.

    As for the specific issue about the journalism-related decision, my heart breaks for great journalists who’ve done quality work for decades and now are being run out of the industry by cheap, low-quality research and reporting. I’m a market researcher whose research has been extensively quoted by journalists…so while I’m not a writer, I’m very aware of and sensitive to all the mis-information that’s being proliferated by inexperienced, irresponsible journalists these days and the publications that don’t seem to care. I wonder what your friends other options are if she leaves journalism…how would she spend her time and what opportunities are there for her (whether as a writer or in some other field)? Then compare the opportunity of staying in journalism with the opportunity of whatever else she might try.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      My friend will likely stay on as she is quite happy in her work. She’s lucky to still have that choice.

      The problem with journalism (if you like it) is imagining (sad but true) anything we’d enjoy as much or more. More $$$, easily. More pleasure? More satisfaction? More adventures, paid? Hmmmmm.

  13. Love this post. Such great advice. I hadn’t thought of the safety net aspect but that is hugely important. Writing out the pro’s and con’s is something Kaz used to tell me. So simple but so helpful, especially (ironically) lately. I did this when I was trying to decide whether to go to my recent writer’s residency in Vermont. There was no guarantee my job would allow me to go so I had to decide whether I would quit to go. I decided I would quit, then 3 days before I was supposed to leave they granted a leave of absence. It felt a bit like a game of poker. I wasn’t bluffing but I was relieved.

    I’ve had to make some other decisions that are too personal to share here, but you can imagine, and some I had to make quickly. When there’s time, I think getting good counsel is wise too. Kaz was great counsel, and my brother is great counsel (btw he’s a journalist too, in DC).

    1. Thanks!

      I know you’ve been through hell and am sure you’ve made decisions we only dread. Jose and I (although we’re healthy now) have discussed what we would say in our eulogies of one another, where we wish our ashes scattered…without kids, it’s quite different.

      You’re right that wise counsel is huge. I recently faced some really nasty stuff from a family member and spoke to a few trusted friends before I did anything in reply.

      What sort of journalism does your brother do?

  14. It gets tough job wise for those over 50-55. Making riskier major decisions gets tiny easier if already one has experienced some life adventures and previous decisions with a positive outcome.

    Once upon a time I did consider journalism but…instead did my graduate degree in library and information sciences. Writing does sneak into one’s jobs: it’s necessary to do business writing as one moves up the food chain. It doesn’t matter what the profession may be.

  15. Pingback: Who Is Now A Writer? | Locsy With Moxie

  16. An acquaintance once told me that we take on many different roles in our life-time and each one starts out as a new chapter (good or bad) of our life-story. The decisions we make jump-starts the beginning of these roles.

    I just couldn’t tell him that… “The problem with decisions is…every one you make, (and the ones you avoid), have consequences. And we simply can’t know, in advance, what those will be.” I would have said it with gusto and quoted you had I not choked. This fear of making mistakes is pretty debilitating after experiencing the consequences of past mistakes.

    But being stuck in a rut is far worse than not deciding to fail forward at all. Seeing all the those who are living successfully, despite the baggage they once had to tug along, raises a tinge of hope in me as well. The more I will myself to believe that “If they can, I can”, part of me finds it easier to not sweat the small stuff. Sometimes I think it’s really just the “I can” attitude rubbing off…but hey, if it’s the good stuff why not embrace it? -chuckles-

    Decisions, decisions… a love-hate relationship with it will make or break you. It will always be there for us to deal with. No brainer. We live by making decisions.

    1. That’s a really interesting way to see it — and I think it’s true. Last night I attended a concert across the street from the office where I started my NY career, in March 1990. So many memories! I knew even then I would not enjoy the job that much, but it put a line on my resume I needed if I was going to get ahead here, so I did what I needed to do. I don’t regret it.

      There are people who will never re-marry, or even have a close relationship romantically, after they have been betrayed, for example. That’s a pretty major consequence of a poor decision (to marry an adulterer) — but do you know in advance they will break your heart? No, you don’t. All you can do is recover and (one hopes) try again with a cooler head and a few more probing questions! 🙂

      I was absolutely devastated when my husband walked out after barely two years and re-married within a year. But not terribly surprised — having witnessed similar behavior in his older brother. It’s one reason I insisted on a pre-nup to protect my ass(ets). You CAN find ways to mitigate risk. I think people tend to forget that.

  17. Just catching up with your posts at the moment. Been road tripping for the past month and it’s been excellent but I’ve been neglecting my reading – both on and offline – badly.

    You know the crazy thing about when I went nomad was, that it was a leap of faith… and maybe desperation. I have “absolute worse case” scenario solutions, but aside from that, I’m just discovering as I go, what I should have planned for and what I didn’t need to worry about. A month being half dead in Mexico City taught me a lot of things about resilience and asking for help and all of that, but I think back to it now and am incredibly grateful that I actually had people to ask for help from, because I don’t know how I would have managed otherwise.

    I am thinking i want to continue this for as long as I’m physically capable, but right now, ask me how this shoestring life is going to provide for when I am old and decrepit, or even younger and unable to do so for illness/injury, and I have no clue. Right now, I don’t even know where I want to live or what I want to do with myself, nevermind thinking 30, 40 years in the future.

    I would have had answers in my past life, having a settled existence somewhere, and a job that paid bills, provided for savings, superannuation, but now… it’s just a complete world of the unknown.

    1. I’d suggest this is a phase…a whole bunch ‘o freedom that will shake itself out sooner or later into something probably less scary but less constricting than your past life. I think it’s all pretty exciting. 🙂

      1. It is, and I really shouldn’t be worrying about this sort of stuff right now, as I promised myself 12 months without thinking about the future, living from day to day. But you know, at the weirdest moments, these things pop into your mind…

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