Essential Lessons on Making Difficult Decisions in Life

In the last few months of 2007, I needed to make a difficult decision. It was difficult because the options had equal risks and benefits. Furthermore, the decision greatly affected how my career would do in the years to come. Taking the wrong decisions means I would spend years of precious time in mediocrity.

Essentially, the options are between:
1. choosing a commonly-followed way, or
2. pursuing my own dream.

At a glance, it seems clear that I should pursue my own dream. But, after considering the risk, it was not that easy to make a decision. The risk was obvious: If I followed my dream and fail, I would lose the opportunity of having a good, “guaranteed” lifestyle, and end up with an under-average life.

After struggling for months, I finally made a decision: I would take the risk and pursue my dream. It was a difficult decision to make, but I learned a great deal about how to make such decisions in life.

Here are the lessons I learned on making difficult decisions:

1. Tune out outside noise

One of the main reasons it was difficult for me to decide was people’s opinions. Not surprisingly, most of them advised me to follow the “proven” way. Of course, they did it sincerely to help me, but it made me difficult to listen to my own heart.

While we should always be open to people’s advice, at the end we should follow our own heart. To do that, first of all we should tune out outside noise. Don’t let what other people say confuse you.

2. Go where your passions unify

One sign of the right way to follow is the unification of our passions. While we know that we should follow our passions, sometimes we come into situations where different passions conflict with each other and make it difficult to decide.

In such cases, we should go where our passions unify. Think of your passions as streams of river. Rather than thinking about which stream to follow, why don’t you follow the big river that unify those streams? It takes time to find what the big river is, but it is worth the effort. For career-related decisions, my post on career tips might be helpful here.

This lesson helped me make my decision. By pursuing my dream, I have many passions of mine involved, while if I choose the other option, I have only a few passions involved.

3. Connect the dots

One other way to know where to go is by connecting the dots in your life. Look at the events in your life, especially the recent ones. Can you see certain patterns in the events? Can you see where they are pointing to?

The events that happen in your life often give you clues of the way to go. By connecting the dots, you can see what the right way is.

4. Seize opportunities

Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare, much rarer than you think… Nassim Nicholas Thaleb in The Black Swan

Continuing the lesson on connecting the dots, sometimes the events in our life give us a unique opportunity. They may open a door which normally wouldn’t. As Nassim Thaleb said above, opportunities are precious. So, if you find such opportunities, go and seize them.

5. Stay true to your heart

At the end, it all comes back to your heart. Which way do you think will make you stay true to your heart? Our mind often rationalizes things, but our heart can’t be tricked. If a choice makes you feel that you miss or deny something, there’s a good chance that it is the wrong way to follow.

***

Sometimes you already know which way to go, but you have doubts to actually choose and follow it. There is always fear of the unknown, and it’s not easy to overcome it. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Remember that your time is limited
    Our time on earth is limited. So don’t waste the precious time by doing the wrong things, especially if you do that to meet other people’s expectations.
  • The regret is in not doing
    The regret is not in failing, but in not doing. You might fail, but the important thing is to give it a try. You can always learn from failure.
  • Don’t wait until the situation is perfect
    Perfect situation will never come. There will always be something that makes you want to wait again. As I said above, your time is limited, so don’t waste it with not doing.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risk and be different
    People who dare to take risk and be different are those who will change the world. They are the history makers. There is quote I love by George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Photo by Ben McLeod

36 Comments

  1. Excellent take, all in all, but hardly original. There are two random comments that come to mind.

    1. Of course your friends and family encouraged the safe route. Not for the reasons you presume, however. They did so out of two motives: a. that you might succeed, thereby leaving them behind, and b. they feared endorsing the dangerous path, in the event that you might fail and have them to blame. The former is insidious, the latter cowardly.

    2. Nothing can help someone succeed like passion. It is the well from which springs determination and perserverence, which is the cornerstone of most success. The only, and I mean only enemy of genuine passion is time. Even the most passionate of seekers will fail if health and energy dissipate. One can only succeed on passion if it is given enough time. And some of us WILL run out of time.

  2. David,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. There are a lot of insights in your comment and I agree with you on both points.

    I especially like the way you connected passion with determination and perseverance. It’s clearer to see why passion is essential that way. I also like your warning about time.

  3. Hi Donald: today that I have to make a difficult decision about my career path, I just google the question how to take a difficul decision and here is your article. Thanks for all the great tips that you give and I am proud to say I will take the risk. I have been thinking for the last four years to work abroad and I will finally do it. Take care,

  4. Avex,
    Glad to hear you make the decision. I wish all the best for you.

  5. What jumped out at me was the idea that there is a “right” and “wrong” decision. If you set that concept aside it makes the process easier. There is just a decision to be made. Creating the “right” and “wrong” around the decision creates undo pressure. Consider your options and the consequences. Then take a leap of faith and have confidence that you will soar.

    I would say always follow your dreams. It wont lead to failure, unless you see it that way, it will lead you to things you may not have considered. When you are faced with a choice such as this one, share it with people that will be supportive and see the excitment in the possibility. Look for the people in your life that live fully not safely and share with them. Find yourself a Mentor and or a Champion.

  6. Joe,
    You have some good advice. Thanks!

  7. Donald thank you for your advice. I was researching something for a bible study lesson called “When You Have Difficult Decisions”. I Googled that title and the first thing that came up was your article. So I opened it.

    Your first point was “Tune out the Noise”. Very good advice for a Christian: getting alone with God in prayer. It brought that song to mind “Be Still My Soul”.

    The Lord is on your side; bear patiently the cross of grief or pain. Leave to your God to order and provide; in every change, He faithful will remain… Be still my soul … your God does undertake, to guide the future as He has the past; your hope, your confidence let nothing shake… Be still my soul… the hour is hastening on when we shall ever be with the Lord; when disappointment, grief and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, when change and tears are past… Be still my soul… believe in the Lord on high; acknowledge Him in all your ways… Be still my soul…

  8. Its not easy to make desicions always.And most difficult one’s are the One’s realting to life.U can’t predict which one will suceed and which will fail.But u need to take the desicions.The best way to thinks is to choose the way u l be happy with.Go with ur heart not mind as mind can create a way out of the problems arising due to heart but a heart fails trying to sort problems created by mind.

  9. I have a big decision to make. Someone make it clear, please.

    I amm seeing someone. They applied to a college, and so did I. The college I would transfer to I got into, and It is among the best in the country. The person I am seeing did not get in; they are on a waiting list sort of thing. I do not think they will get into the school. They do not have the grades to get in I don’t think. If they do not get in, they could transfer where I am now, but that is not even a for sure situation – I dont know if she really would want to come where I am now.

    If I stay where I am, I will be a standout student, and the professors promise to work with me to go wherever I would like to after undergrad. Also, I am a leader in many organizations here, and I would give leadership up transferring, as the school is huge.

    I have no idea which way to go, and I have only a few days to decide; I can not transfer after this semester.

  10. You’ve identified two major issues:

    1. how the decision will impact your relationship.
    2. how it will impact your leadership, career and
    academic opportunities.

    You wrote much more about the relationship issue, so I surmise that it’s very important to you. Maybe you need to evaluate that relationship in terms of where you might want it to go and where you think it is going now. Your education will be an asset for the rest of your life. Will your relationship be that permanent?

    Then you could consider whether or not the relationship could be strengthened by your being in two different schools. Would you be able to stay in close contact and see each other a few times per year? Could she choose a school where you could still be close, though not on the same campus? Could she delay her education, until you finish yours? Could she pursue distance learning? In general, can you find creative ways to have both?

  11. I have been in this situation. Looking back I should have done was was best for me in the long run. I stayed where I was instead of going to the better school and so I have missed out on many opportunities since. If your situation was mine now, I would go to the college that is best for me and she could then find a college close by to attend. If she insists that you do what is second best for yourself I would question the relationship as being a long term one. You can still maintain the relationship from a distance. If you do not do what is best for yourself and go to the best college this will always come back to you and will affect your relationship with this lady.

  12. hi…i am randomly looking for advice on how to make a big decision, and came across this post. I thought I might as well post my issue as I am getting nowhere with it.

    Problem:

    I live in australia and have recently been offered a job in the UK, the job starts soon, and after accepting I am having severe 2nd thoughts.

    The job is good, better experience and more exciting, a little bit more money than what i make now. I have lived in the UK before and did a similar job at the same place and now I have been offered a better position with a 2 year contract. I have been back in Australia for under 1 year.

    My reasons for being apprehensive about going back is that I am 31 and engaged, and wondering whether I shuold just settle in the one place. I would miss my family again and I would like to start a family in the next few years and see myself lviing in australia and not Uk long term. maybe i am just scared of change again as it is getting hard to keep moving around…

    any thoughts welcome

    confused!

  13. Hi Billy,

    I am in the process of making the same decision. My current two year German contract is up and I’m from the states. I have a sure thing now to go back home to my life and job I left there, but I’ve been offered a position to stay and move to Switzerland with a new job at my client’s office. It will be a new experience for me and enhance my resume. I’m struggling with my ‘gut’ – every day I sleep on it thinking I’ll wake up with the right decision and every day I’m more confused.

    I’ve made the famous pro’s and con’s list, but don’t know how to read it. I’ve asked for advice from friends and family, but everyone has a different answer. Quite frankly, I’m just tired of having to make the decision and at this point want to take the easy road – which is very unlike my usual adventurous self.

    I’ll share a piece of advice my older brother gave me last night that seems to apply to your circumstance – he turned 40 earlier this year and the most important thing to him now more than ever is family. If you want to start a family soon and be close to yours when you do then maybe that’s your answer…

    If you find that crystal ball, please share it with me.

    Good luck in your decision making.

  14. thx for the email…it was a nice surprise in my inbox…

    like u i haven’t made the decision. i have been given more time by the employer, but this hasn’t really helped! crazy right! like you i’m tired of the decision. the problem i guess is that they are both good options. I want to go, but something is holding me back – fear, apprehension…on the other hand, i know it will work out if i do go….like you the indecisiveness is totally unlike me, i have come and gone many times before, probably I am over analyzing things…i’ve searched for a silver bullet decision making tool online and there isn’t one, and no crystal ball im afraid 🙁

    swizterland is one of my fav places, i have spent some time in geneva…without knowing much about you, i would say go, ur next door anyway 🙂 once u get home, it will be very very hard to leave again

  15. I have been engaged for 4 months, this year will be mine and my fiance’s first holidays together. I recently received a phone call from my son telling me that his in~laws bought him and his wife round tickets to Europe for the holidays, which is where they live. My sons boss informed him that he cannot have the 3 wks off for vacation. As we all know jobs are very hard to come by these days and he can’t afford to lose his. He asked me if I would be willing to go in his place because he doesn’t want his wifes parents to be out the money for the roundtrip airline ticket. I would have to come up with money for a passport and personal spending money evrything else would be paid for as we will be staying with my daughter~in~laws parents. I would lose spending the holidays with my

  16. (Second part of comment) I would be missing time spent on the holidays with my amazing fiance’. But if I don’t go I wouldn’t be helping my son out in his dilema of trying to save his in~laws a wasted ticket to Europe. And would dissapoint him. I want to be able to help my son, but I don’t wanna leave my fiance’ alone for the holidays. Please some advise my heart is in two places!

  17. speak to ur fiance, maybe he is happy with yuo going? is yuor fiance going with you? if so you can go but spend time alone, you dont have to spend the whole time with yuor sons in laws. Europe is amazing and they will understand if you want to go off and do ur own things.

    If your fiance is not coming along, then its ok not to go. Your son will be out of pocket, but its not crippling. perhaps he can postpone the flight for a fee, recuperate some of the cost etc.
    it is a big ask from ur son, it sounds like you would be happy to do it if the circumstances were different. lucky son 🙂

  18. Can you help me with a decision, We as a family moved from Dublin to Cork just over a year ago. Im from Cork and wanted to m=be near my family & friends, but I’m getting the longing to be back in Dublin now, my husbands job is therem he is self employed and its mostly Dublin that he works in. My boy went to school in Dublin and he is happy to move back, We miss our house etc, we are very independent family unit, and I think I thought we were missing out on “family” being my siblings and grandparents, We have spent a lot our time with them and am enjoying it, but something is missing in Cork and I cant quite put my finger on what, Only I know I really miss Dublin but should I stay in Cork because my family are here. Please help, its two and quarter hours drive from Dublin to Cork

  19. Great page. I’m so pleased to see I’m not the only one who finds it so difficult to make a life-changing decision. Could anyone advise me too?

    I’ve been offered a job abroad, where I worked before for 4 years. The difference this time though is that I have, for the first time, a stable job in my home country. All being well, I could keep this job for the rest of my life. The job abroad, while secure, probably won’t be quite as stable.

    However, other than being close to my family, I do not enjoy life in my home country, and I find the job monotonous and often quite soul-destroying. The job I’ve been offered abroad would be considerably more interesting, as would life there, I believe. But what puts me off is uncertainty about the future; what will life be like as an expat when I’m 40, 50 or 60? What if I ever wanted to come back but couldn’t find a job?

    So do I choose stability and the daily grind over a more rewarding job and uncertainty about the future?

    Thanks for any advice!

  20. People in North America will probably choose stability over something exciting. Thats where I am at as well. Leaning towards the stable, more marketable, portable position compared to a higher, more exciting position. The only thing that makes the latter linger in my mind is that some people promised to support and help me in that new challenging position. Something you don’t get to see all the time. I am still confused but glad to see here that I’m not alone.

  21. I am in a huge life dilema that will change my it forever. I left my husband almost a year ago. I am with someone who I love dearly. He left his wife, I left my spouse. I had finacial security for the rest of my life with my ex. Now I have the love but we don’t have the same financial security, not even close. I have to workm he has to work.. we make the same amount of money. He has to pay child support and more expenses. I get very scared and frustrated becasue for 10 years I was worry free but I did not have love in my heart. He says everything will be alright and we will make it. I trust him but I do get very scared. I left a very nice and secure lifestyle for love. I know if I go back to my spouse it would be for convenience and not love. I do not feel good about it, besides I love the person I am with.. but the financial insecurity is making me very scared and doubt my decision. How do I know I am doing the right thing, love or security??

    • VR – You describe the exact same dilema that I am facing except that the roles are reversed. I am the one that will be paying the spousal and child support – bigtime! Add to that the 3 teenagers that I have and it only makes it worse. We all have the right to be happy. Why are we willing to sacrifice that happiness for security? Or convenience? I haven’t found the answer to that! I look at most of the people that I know that are still married and they are all living together just out of convenience. It is hard to consider going back to the convenient but secure life and totally ignore the love that I have found. But here I am seriously considering that. Sorry! I don’t think my reply will help you much, but it is nice to know I am not alone in this.

  22. Hi

    i need serious advice!
    i am with this guy from Germany for almost 2 years now, we were so happy together until we got seperated because my visa expired and i had to go back home to South Africa! We were 6 months apart and now i finally got a tourist visa to see him but i have doubts!!!! i have this dream of going to work on a cruiseship and seeing the world, but i cannot do it because i am inlove with this man!!! what do i choose LOVE, wwith the possibility of breaking up because we did not see each other for so long or my dreams and not kknowing if i will succeed or not!!!

    please help guys!!!!!

  23. dear yvette,

    easy choice, go see the world 🙂

  24. hello,

    i have found myself at a multi-forked road. I have a decision to make, where to live, my choices are live with my father in a small country town, close to other family members, no offer of full time work and what work is there is at a lower salary.next option: to stay where I am full time job more money and close to my children, and again another job away from everyone and equal money.
    now to follow my heart , i really don’t know what that is.I want a simple life ,would like to meet that special someone at some point. what has made me most happy is being near my children. and now that they are adults they are making thier own life.
    so any advice or thoughts would be greatly appreciated..

  25. Hi,

    I’m currently the Head of Training. i was invited by the company over a year now to head it’s Salrs Training Program. I love this job. I’m passionate about it and I feel I’m good at it. Been a Sales Trainer ALL my professional life. I climbed the rope so to speak. Now, I’m on top of the training career already. Receiving written and verbal commendations for a job well-done have become normal for me.

    Until yesterday June 9, the Company President/CEO, called for me in her office and told me point blank that effective next month July 1, 2011 she is appointing me as Head of Sales. I was stunned! left speechless. She said I can do the job and advised me that she will already look for a replacement for me as Head of Training Department. I told her to give me time to think about it which she graciously agreed on.

    Friends told me that I’ve been in training for so long and that it’s high toime for me to go into the “unknown” and that it might be be “politically wrong to say no to the CEO”. Other friends are telling me to follow my passion.

    Clearly, I’m on an “impasse”.

    Would appreciate a word or two from you.

    Thanks.

  26. Hi there,

    I am in a predicament myself and only have 24 hours to make a final decision- any help will be much appreciated.

    I have recently returned to the UK from a holiday in Turkey. I met some lovely people out there who have offered me a job. I would love to go abroad and work however I have 2 problems:

    1. My father would be very upset with me.

    &

    2. I would have to sacrifice a much better paid job with more career prospects.

    I am 20 years old however so surely taking a risk now would be better than in a few years time?

    Thanks in advance.

  27. hi

    i am stuck in a personal predicarment please help. i was in a relationship it was going well so i thought, fell praggy and lost the child. the guy was not there for me.we fought all the time and he somehow disappeard for 6 months without calling or anything. i thought he disappeard because i lost the child and everything.
    to cut the story short i got involved in a relationship with my ex boyfreind who i left because he is younger than me and had no job. the guy is kind, generouse and understanding. we click but the financial situatuation has not changed at all. i have a good job, a car and a house and he has none. i would love to start a life with him but i ca not because of his financial situation and sadness.

    the other boyfrend re appears all of a sudden and beggs me for forgiveness and claims he had personal problems and was afraid to include me in his mess. he says he loves me and wants to get back together. he has a good job and i feel i can build a life with him. i seriusly do not know who to choose between the two guys.

  28. I cuurently work in a telecom company in Nigeria. The Job is good in it own way compared to what is happening in the labour market. I got Perpanent Resident in Canada 3 years ago just before the full blown down turn in world economy with most people loosing their Jobs. I got married 2 years ago and have a son. I can only sponsor my wife to Canada if I am living in Canada. My wife does not have a strong income stream. We don’t want to loose the Canadian opportunity considering the risk of working in a very volatile area in Northern Nigeria.
    Prospect of getting a job in canada is extreamly remote and when you get one it will not pay what i am earning in Nigeria.
    My heart want to go Canada, my Mind tells me to stay where I am sure of good income, my body will just want to become finacially independent and my Spirit is looking for God’s direction!
    Can someone help me?

  29. If you have a good job in Nigeria, I suggest you stay there. As a professional you are able to work in your country. If you come to Canada, you will need Canadian experience and Canadian qualifications. You will be frustrated. You will end up doing manual labour to survive. Is it really true that you can only sponsor your wife if you are physically living in Canada? I know as a permanent resident you must not stay oput of Canada for more thatn 6 months…
    When you come to Canada as a skilled immigrant, you will still need to go back to school to gain Canadian credentials and experience. It will take you at least 5 years to be near where you are right now.

  30. I have just accepted a new job in a city 7 hours away from my current home and job. I am looking to rent a house and relocate, and lease out my house for at least a year until I settle down at my new job. My former employer has offered me a raise at my old job and asked me to stay. I love my current job and I’m comfortable in that community. But I have accepted the other job which pays slighly more (because of the new raise from the old job). What should I do? Finding a rental home is tricky and it means moving my kids. It also means renting out my house and having to deal with tenants for a year.
    Please help.

  31. Hi Donald, what your wrote is really inspiring! Right now I am a college freshman and I’m studying at a university away from home. It is one of the nation’s best universities and a lot of factors were considered before I made up my mind to finally pursue my studies here. I would like to share that I sacrificed a lot just to be here, and I’m glad with my decision. Reading this made me remember about my personal experience. Take care!

  32. Like many others, I arrived here by google. I work for a large company, and have recently been given a new opportunity within my own company.

    The new position could lead to future opportunities, but it is not a certainty. My wife has a career that would prevent her from moving, so new position would require a 2 hr commute, one way and longer hours. This would leave less family and personal time.
    I am happy where I am at, and I may get a similar opportunity in a few years that would be closer to home, but that is not certain either.
    My heart is conflicted. I change my mind several times a day.
    I have until Friday to make a decision. It is going to be a long week..

  33. I have a huge decision to make… I’m 30 years old and started the year off single and working as a bartender. I have a degree but haven’t found a job in my field in recent years. So, I decided to join the Navy and I leave in February, which left me with an almost eight month waiting period. Well, one month after signing my contract I met the love of my life who wants me to stay, move in with him and get engaged. I have to make this decision pretty soon, and I know my heart wants to stay, but my head (and my dad) says go. He is willing to try to make it work once I go in, but I won’t even know where I’m stationed until next summer. He has a good job and family and friends here, and some important responsibilities, so it would pain me to take him away from that. I’m torn.

  34. This article is amazing you don’t know how much you’ve donde thank you.

  35. Hi everyone.. I have a major career decision to make with time running out! I was awarded a place to train as a Speech Therapist & due to start end of week. Thing is I’m only 50% sure/interested. It’s 2 years intensive study and am starting to dread it. Other issue is have been trying to get work for a while but finding it really difficult. Course would improve circumstances but not sure if my heart is in it. Could do back to old career in drama but very insecure! Advice appreciated.

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