It was January of 1980, and I had just completed my first semester of graduate school. Everyone I knew applauded this decision, including my parents who were elated. They had helped me set up my tiny apartment, going with me to purchase an old door and cinder blocks that I turned into a makeshift desk. Nearby, the historic campus was stunning, and the picturesque town was built around the college community. And, the library where I spent most of my time studying was an easy walk to my classes. Everything seemed perfect on the surface.
But something was wrong…
Over winter break, while in Santa Cruz, California visiting a friend, I was exposed to a new world that was incredibly different from the one in which I was living. Instead of mountains, there was the ocean. Instead of snow, there was sunshine. And, instead of going to the store for groceries, we picked the ingredients for our meals from our backyard garden. I was exhilarated by the people I met and the ideas they were exploring, including alternative medicine, which was completely unfamiliar to me. As a budding neuroscientist, I was shocked to learn that there was a totally different way of looking at the world. There was also a palpable energy in which ideas, no matter how unusual, were celebrated, and I was drawn to the spirit of possibility. Then something shifted in me…
I decided to decide whether to move to California.
I didn’t decide to move, but decided to explore the possibility of moving. Instead of following the path I was on, I chose to question it, asking whether I should continue on my current trajectory, doubling down on the path through graduate school, or to set out on a new journey filled with lots of unknowns. I really didn’t know how I would land with this decision, but I decided to call the question.
There is a big difference between choosing to make a decision and actually making the decision. The latter is predicated on the former. If you don’t ask the question, you never get to make the decision. Each decision, whether to stay on the same path or change course, results in a new set of options.
Matt Haig beautifully captures the impact of each decision we make in his novel, The Midnight Library. He writes:“Every life contains millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcome differs. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations.” The key question is:
What do you decide to decide?
Most of the time a decision is triggered by a discontinuity — a spark that breaks your routine. For me, it was a trip to California. For others, it might be a job opening, a medical diagnosis, a marriage proposal, an argument, or an election. However, it can also result from a run of boredom, joy, anger, or sadness. The question is whether a spark inspires you to call the question— to decide to decide what to do next — or whether you ignore it.
Forty years ago, after much soul searching, I decided to sell my makeshift desk, pack up my Chevy Citation, and drive across the country to California with my cat, Axon. The decision forever changed my personal and professional life. Had I not asked the question, I never would have considered that option… Who knows if the decision to stay in school would have been better or worse, but it certainly would have been different.
Sparks of possibility fly by us every day. Some are tiny choices that light up your day and some illuminate a brand new path. By actively choosing which of those decisions you will make, you claim your agency, and take control of your destiny. Deciding to make a decision is the most important decision you will ever make.
The decisions you make today determine the decisions you get to make tomorrow.