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Key choices in life: (2) is there such a thing as a wrong choice?

Denis Bourgeois and Phil Dixon

January 2016

In this second paper, we wonder if, when dealing with key choices in life, there is such a thing as a “wrong” choice. In other words, we explore whether such choices can be termed “right” or “wrong”, and, if we can differentiate, on which basis.

 

In the first paper of this series, we defined what we meant by key choices in life and suggested some reasons why they may be difficult. 

We defined a key choice in life as any choice that will significantly contribute to shape who we are and what we do with our lives; it can be, for example, about marital life, children, career, involvement in studies, art or spirituality, fighting for causes, settling in a given region and in a given house, adopting ethical principles of behaviour…

We also explained how we worked in the research which is giving us the material to write these papers. We have built on our own experiences in key choices, and helped each other to draw lessons from them. Being both in our sixties, there was no shortage of material! We also drew on our experiences as helpers of others facing such choices. We complemented these personal sources by some reading (references will appear along the pages) and by about fifteen on-purpose interviews with people from our networks, with varied ages and profiles. They talked to us about some of their past or present choices or, when they were coaches, about their way to help their clients in such circumstances. In these interviews, we looked for points of view that would be different from ours and we tested the working hypotheses we had elaborated. Therefore, we are not presenting here the output of a deep academic research; it is rather a documented essay, written by reflective practitioners of choice (since we are all practitioners of it).

Is there such a thing as a wrong choice ? In our research, we have identified four bases on which such choices can be assessed. Each of them calls for a particular definition of what “wrong” or “right” choice mean. We have also identified a characteristic of the assessor’s mindset that may lead to a preference in terms of assessment basis and also in terms of negative or positive appreciation of it.

We will consider each assessment basis in turn and, when relevant, see how the assessor’s mindset plays a role.

Assessing a choice on the basis of its expected outcomes: does the choice bring what I expected when making it?

In this perspective, there are clear cases of “wrong” choices, i.e. choices that did not yield the expected result. In our interviews we got stories of marriages which were broken only after a few months, or of a business that was launched but never took off until it was stopped, two years later.

However, a number of cases are not as clear. Let’s take the examples of the choice to marry with someone, or to engage in a certain job; it is often difficult to label it “right” or “wrong”, rationally, because

  • we’ll never know about the outcomes of the other options the person had: other possible partners, or staying single, or other possible jobs

  • there are always pros and cons in any situation; how would we go about weighing them ?

  • in the cases of on-going outcomes of a choice (e.g. an on-going job or marriage), we’ll never cannot know whether our hindsight view of the choice will not change later because of further developments.

All in all, probably the best we can do is labelling some choices as “good enough so far” or “seems wrong so far”.

Alternatively, we can assess choices intuitively and feel happy or unhappy with them, with more or less certainty. But, from our observations, intuition works with a more global approach, hence it is also connected with the other ways of assessing choices; we come back to it below.

Assessing choices on the basis of all their outcomes: what does the choice bring to me, whether the outcomes are those that I expected or not?

There are always unexpected and unintended outcomes of a choice.

The clear cases of wrong choices mentioned above, become more complex to assess if we take into account all outcomes.

Here is a striking ex ample we collected during our interviews.

Fabienne was 25 when she got married. One week before the wedding, she said to her sister: “I’m making a damn mistake”.  Nevertheless, she went on. A few days after the wedding, she could not walk any longer. She was admitted in a hospital. Diagnosis: MS. Since then, she moves with a wheel-chair for she can only walk a few steps without it. The marriage actually lasted only a few months.

More than 15 years later, she is still fighting to recover and has engaged in a deep psychological and spiritual work that helped her keep positive and resilient and, in her view, led her to better understand the meaning of her illness and of her life. This is what she says about this choice she once made: “Though I told my sister I was making a mistake, I chose to make this mistake. I did not know the consequences that would come out of it but they also got me to make all this psychological and spiritual work. I do not regret anything. I never told to myself: “if I had not got married, what would have happened etc…”. Otherwise one is anchored in the past, in the negative. In my view, a wrong choice is a choice that causes regrets. I have no regrets about this.”.

This example shows that assessing a choice can be much more complex than simply looking at the expected outcomes. From the point of view of assessing the expected outcomes, this would clearly be a “wrong” choice since the marriage was short lived. However, Fabienne does not regard it as such; she actually introduces three more levels of complexity.

First, the choice had serious consequences on her health. Of course, one can challenge this and deny any cause-effect relationship between her marriage and her illness. It is striking to see how quickly the illness followed the marriage but it will never be possible to formally prove the link between them. The important point is that she made the connection. To her, MS was an unintended consequence of a choice that she felt was not right for her. This leads us, by the way, to one of the tracks we will explore more in depth in our next paper, the topic of which will be “techniques in facing key choices in life”; this track is: how does it feel when you’ve made a given choice, or when you’re imagining you’ve made it ? Many of our interviewees report that making such choices have some emotional and physical effects on them, though, of course not always as strong as in Fabienne’s case.

So, if we add to the expected outcomes a first unexpected one, i.e. the inner emotional and physical feeling one may experience after the choice, we get another basis for assessing it. In the case of Fabienne, who felt her body reacted negatively to the choice, this could lead us to decide that her choice was “wrong”, also on this second basis. However, this is not how she sees it.

She actually introduces a second level of complexity in terms of unintended and unexpected outcomes: thanks to this event, she engaged in a psychological and spiritual work which, in her view, she would not have done so deeply, had she stayed in good health. We collected other similar examples of positive unintended and unexpected consequences in our interviews. There are two kinds of them. First, they can be a chain of events; for instance, choosing a certain job gets a person to live in a region where she would have never thought of going and where she will become passionate about defending the local traditions, or where she will find her life partner. Second, failures and serious problems offer a huge potential for learning about oneself and about life and of developing one’s resilience. In Fabienne’s case, these two kinds of unintended and unexpected outcomes are bundled. Therefore a “wrong” choice, named as such on the basis of the sole expected outcomes, or on the basis of negative signals sent by one’s body, can finally be regarded as useful and positive.

However, there is a third level of complexity, in order for this shift to operate, as shown in Fabienne’s story. As she says it, a wrong choice would be the one that would gave her regrets, and she has none about this choice. Then, if the “right” choice, means “no regret”, it depends on the person’s mindset. This is probably a key to resilience, and to Fabienne’s unmistakable one: taking what happens positively and without regrets. “I never lose: either I win or I learn” is another way to express the same mindset (we could not identify the author of this sentence). In this perspective, there cannot be any “wrong choice”…

In the previous section, we said that in most cases it is impossible to fully assess a choice rationally on the basis of its expected outcomes. This becomes even more true when we enlarge the scope and embrace unexpected and unintended outcomes because the variety of pros and cons highly increases. Only intuition can possibly help us, and it greatly depends on our view of life. Most of our interviewees were able to give us an assessment of their past key choices and it was based on an all-embracing intuitive feeling, and on their view of life.

To sum up where we have reached so far, we have identified three bases for assessing key choices in life, based on their outcomes: expected outcomes, emotional or physical signals felt after it, and all expected and unintended outcomes. They can all lead to appreciate a given choice as a wrong one. However, we have also noticed that a positive, “no regret”, mindset will tend to choose the last of these three bases and to consider that there are no wrong choices but only mistakes from which to learn and grow.

This is not yet the bottom of it. From our interviews and from our own experiences, there is still another way to assess a given choice, and it is no longer based on its outcomes.

Assessing choices on the basis of the inner voice listened to when making it: did I listen to the right voice ?

When we face a difficult choice, several voices may speak in our mind and there may be a debate between them; some of these inner voices may resonate with some of the external voices around us (friends, family, etc…) when we talk about this choice with others. When we finally make a decision, we have given preference to one voice or one set of voices. This is again a matter of intuition but it is possible to be happy or unhappy with one’s choice because we feel we listened to, or failed to listen to, the “right” voice.

We gathered four types of stories on this theme in our interviews and in our own experiences.

a. When an inner voice says “no” to the choice which is in the process of being made, and the person feels this voice is right, but another inner voice suggests that it is, however, too late to “stop the train”.

Fabienne’s story (see above) is a good example of that and we have gathered several others and we give more details in “when it is too late to stop the train”. The person lacks the courage to stop when there’s still time to do so… and usually the expected outcomes do not follow. It is then seen as a “wrong” choice from the expected outcomes point of view; it will also be seen as a “wrong” choice, based upon the fact that the person didn’t listen to the voice that was giving what was felt as the right advice. From the point of view that embraces all the outcomes, however, over a longer period, it still might not be seen as a wrong choice, particularly if the person’s mindset makes her see the positive unexpected consequences.

b. when the choice is between an easy way (at short term) and a more courageous one, implying facing uncertainty and fears but seeming more in line with a person’s aspirations and ethics. This category is close to the above one but without the “stop the train” syndrome. People in this situation experience discomfort and hesitation but have more time to work on them.

A good example can be found in Diana’s story. What is felt as the right choice is then the courageous one, because it is the one that gives a sense of inner coherence and satisfaction. However, with a positive mindset, not listening to the voice that advises us in that way might simply be regarded as a “mistake” from what the person will learn.

Ethical choices may often belong to this category and they can sometimes be life-changing ones (e.g. quitting a job for ethical reasons). In this case, choices cannot be assessed from their outcomes but, precisely, from the inner voice that the person listens to, with the possible result of feeling in peace or in harmony with oneself (see example in this site).

c. when the choice is between two or more options which all bear opportunities for personal growth but which would each make the person someone different. These options do not seem to follow the same pattern as above (i.e. short term comfort vs more difficult but and promising change).

This occurs when someone reaches a crossroads in life when change is inevitable. We got instances of this when talking with young people after completion of their education and hesitating between several types of careers (see Joan’s story)… or with a recently retired man considering what he will do with his new free time. This hesitation might come to an end… or not. In such cases, the “right “ voice to be listened to might not speak out or might not be audible…

d. when the choice appears obvious.

This is the reverse of the former category. Some reports we gathered were about situations where people had a clear view of what they had to choose. “It seemed like there was no choice” was the theme we would hear in this case. Obviously then, they felt they were making the right choice. This can occur all at once, or after some hesitations and therefore it can be the happy end of one of the former situations above (categories b and c).

It is worth noticing that a “right” choice in this perspective (the voice one listens to) might prove “wrong” in terms of expected outcomes. An interesting example is Juliette and Bernard’s story. They had moved into a new house and were certain that they had made the right choice. Some of their friends or relatives had been doubtful about it and, among them, some had fun in betting on how much time they would stay in the house. They had fallen in love with this house mainly because of its garden and its environment and decided that some draw-backs of the house itself (including the number of stairs between its various parts) would be acceptable. Three years later, they were looking for a new house and were putting this one on sale… Clearly a case of “wrong choice” in terms of expected outcomes. Bernard says: “Often, when people warn us about something, we do pay attention; but in this case, we just felt they did not understand our logic. So there was no hesitation when we purchased this house. What happened was two things: 1. some events made the draw backs of the house more important than expected (including some problems with my wife’s health) 2. the garden is too big, too time consuming because the way of life we plan for the future has evolved, or may be it is clearer than three years ago. Was all that something we could have foreseen or was it unpredictable ? Probably a mix of both but I have no regrets, despite the discomfort of having to move again . We felt a strong drive to come here; if it is only for a few years, we may understand later why...”

Also note that the mindset remains very influential. What we wrote in the previous section about a positive mindset ruling out the possibility of any “wrong” choice remains true also here, even when the inner advice that seems right is not followed. Fabienne’s view of her story is a good example of such a possibility.

Is there such a thing as a wrong choice ?

This simple question has no simple answer…From this research, we found that the answers can be quite different.

To sum up where we’ve reached here, we have considered four ways of assessing a key choice in life. Each of them will generate a different definition of what a wrong or a right choice is. It is likely, by the way, that these four ways are also valid in some ways for minor choices but we did not consider this issue.

 

Assessment basis

Wrong choice definition

Assessment mode (rational or intuitive)

Expected outcomes

When expected outcomes clearly do not occur. In other cases, only assessment as “good enough so far” or “seems wrong so far” can be reached

Rational

Emotional or physical signals felt after it

When these signals are negative (e.g. severe discomfort, disease)

Intuitive, since the interpretation of signals is subjective

All outcomes, including the unintended and unexpected ones

When the negative outcomes are felt to outweigh the positive ones

Intuitive (too complex to be assessed rationally)

Inner voice that is followed when making the choice

When an inner voice says “no” to the choice being made and is felt by the person as being right, but is not followed

Intuitive

…And we have identified a characteristic of the person’s mindset which will highly influence her choice of an assessment basis … and the result of this assessment.

 

Mindset

Assessment basis that can be chosen

Is there such a thing as a wrong choice ?

Positive; no regrets; “I never lose: I win or I learn”

All outcomes (no other assessment basis relevant)

No; at worst, there can be mistakes from which to learn and grow

Vulnerability to regrets

Anyone

Yes, possibly

Finally, we can see that most of the ways to assess key choices in life rely on intuition and are therefore highly subjective. This comes as no surprise since we have seen in the first paper that, already when making them, rational decision-making techniques can hardly help.

The big question, therefore, is: “how to listen to the appropriate intuition ?”.

In the next paper, we will deal with it: how do people deal with their key choices in life; what are their techniques particularly when they face tough ones? This paper and the preceding one have set some bases that will be helpful to understand the logic of what literature, interviewees and our own experience taught us in this respect.


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