By Vega Subramaniam
In ‘How to Overcome Your Decision-Making Hurdles: Part One’, we reflected on the stories we each have about our own decision-making glitches. We observed that for some of us, even thinking about good decision-making is “this-is-making-me-feel-terrible-about-myself” hard. We noted that the first step toward moving into confident, values-based decision-making is to acknowledge your story. Which brings us to…
Part two: Understand where those stories came from
So. About those go-to stories you have about how horrible you are at making decisions. There’s a context for them, of course. To wit: the messages we grew up with and are surrounded by. Our social systems – families, schools, community and religious institutions – relentlessly send us static-creating messages about what we should be doing, what is moral, what counts as ‘success,’ what we should prioritize. Some of us learn how to fall in line. Some of us learn to rebel. Regardless, fall in line or rebel, we’re still reacting to those social systems.
Many of us stop there: our parents made us feel this way, our religious institutions made us feel that way. Underpinning these social systems are layers of ideology that distance us even further from finding our most natural way.
Three ideological sources of static interference to our best decision-making wisdom
The ideological forces that uphold capitalism: No doubt you’re aware that we live in a time of alarmingly high and growing economic inequality, which damages our health and distorts our personalities. It also affects our decision-making at an individual level (though the jury’s still out on exactly how). At a really really high level, we might be aware of, and for some of us even pride ourselves on resisting, the ideological forces of capitalism that pervade all of our social systems (public education, the workplace, urban planning…). The ones that say unless you strive for the BEST of everything and live up to your FULL POTENTIAL and make and/or desire LOTS of money and are productive ALL THE TIME, you should feel vaguely ashamed at your laziness and wastefulness and no seriously, you have so much potential if you just put your mind to it, no pain no gain, there’s always an extra hour earlier you can get up in the morning, do you just not believe in yourself enough?
The ideological underpinnings of the Age of Science: In this category, you can find beliefs like: there’s a dualism between mind and body; subject and object; the doer and the done-to; (white) man (not people) and nature. That rational ways of knowing are superior to intuitive ways of knowing — or more, that you can only know through reason. That the scientific method
is the only path to truth. That only things that scientists decide are observable are real. So anything that you feel or can’t explain but just sort of know or learned through your ancestors are suspect. God forbid you make actual decisions that have actual consequences based on that tripe.
The ideological justifications for imperialism: Western powers justified, and continue to justify, genocide, slavery, and land and resource theft in numerous ways. One sine qua non of colonization was and continues to be the dismissal of indigenous ways of knowing. Phew. This is a really tough place. I wish I didn’t have to go here. I was originally considering not going here — how can I so seemingly casually toss in the underpinnings of genocide, slavery, and land and resource theft into a blog post about, of all things, individual decision-making?
But the thing is, it’s where all those people went who sat in that room with us a few months ago. It’s visceral, and inescapable. And the underpinnings of capitalism, dualism, and imperialism are inseparable. So we can only talk about our own individual lives, and how we live them and make values-based decisions in them, if we confront their massive combined weight on our psyches.
The answer is not: don’t be a capitalist, don’t be dualistic, don’t be an imperialist. That would presume that we have the option of checking out, of ideological purity. But we are, in fact, like Neo, caught in a simulated reality from which there is no escape.
I’m reminded of a seasoned social justice activist friend of ours who recently started working for a large, politically centrist organization. She got very tired very quickly of people giving her flak for ‘selling out.’ Her response to shaming from the holier-than-thou lefties is: “when you can pay my rent, health insurance, and transportation bills, I’ll come work for you. But until then, you can keep your disapproval to yourself” (she maybe uses stronger words).
When I think about how I’ve made decisions over the years, I’m reminded how we absorb the hopes, fears, dreams, expectations, longings, criticisms of our parents and their parents and our families and our communities. Coming from an immigrant community, I’m all too aware of the pressure we feel, as a community, to prioritize money, prestige, external markings of ‘success.’ To justify to others our existence in this country. To justify to ourselves why we left our homes and loved ones. To make the suffering worth it.
That sure goes a long way toward explaining some choices I made along the way that are so crazily misguided in retrospect that I have to laugh: why I chose the wrong college, why I started college as a chemistry major, why it took so long for me to make my way to the West Coast.
A lot of us choose paths because we’re told that’s what will lead to a life of affluence (which, as we’ve already established, is the only thing that matters), even though we have zero inclination to go into…business, or medicine, or law, or hotel management, or IT. Or, we postpone making the decision – about which school to apply to, who to request references from, when to take the GMAT/MCAT/LSAT – until the ship’s sailed, just to avoid having to do something we know is wrong for us but that we feel we must. Or we get in, and promptly drop out, or fail. Or succeed for some value of that word, and then punish, well, everyone – ourselves, our parents, society – with ulcers and resentment and a life of regrets. Or rebel but then flail around with no real plan because we were only running away from those options, not toward better ones.
In other words, our systems have a pathological effect on our abilities to make sound, values-based decisions.
Given that, we can be forgiven for feeling broken within it. As J. Krishnamurthi puts it, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
And as a result, those of us who hope to tread a new path for ourselves have few resources easily accessible to us that act as a counterbalance: role models, sustenance for our new ventures, positive reinforcement for our paths, love and family support, not to mention prestige and honor. We risk all of those things when we move toward wholeness.
My deepest desire for each of us is that we make our way back to wholeness.
One of the first and best ways to start down the path to wholeness is to start telling new, dare I say more accurate, or at least more nuanced, stories about ourselves.
So no more “intuition has no place in decision-making.” This notion holds no water. Without our intuition, we are incapable of making decisions. So when someone (including the voice in your own head) scolds you for basing decisions on your gut, share this with them. Your intuition is what allows you to make a decision at all.
No more “I’m horrible at making decisions” or “I’m the most indecisive person on the planet.” Really? That story you tell yourself about how much you suck at making decisions is true? I call BS. It’s not possible to live to the age you are without, occasionally, making good decisions. My guess is you haven’t been giving your process the love it deserves.
About that process, and giving it the love it deserves: that’s coming up in Part Three of our Decision Making series, where we offer concrete tools and tips to notice, build, and fine-tune your own wisest decision-making processes.