I am currently 25 years-old and I have been working to find a solid path forward in my life. I feel that I have a lot of opportunity, but that I am being asked to choose a path that somehow limits the direction I can travel. In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker sums up many of the feelings I have about my current point in life. He writes, “Your twenties are a decade without clear paths, as if you have been walking for a good while on a well-lit road and now it ends at a dark forest; there are hundreds of directions you could take, none of them obviously right. Like many, I fond myself standing and staring, hoping for a sign.”
Booker describes the insecurities he felt as he went through law school and thought about the possibilities of his future. He described the challenges that he and his other classmates faced in preparing themselves for the next steps after college, especially when the next steps were not clear. It is reassuring to read Booker’s story and see that many people face the same challenges and insecurities that I go through. I am back in school after graduating with a degree in Spanish and Political Science, and I am pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Nevada. Despite a good job and the opportunity to pursue further education, feelings of insecurities and a pressure to have a clear plan still well up inside me.
The quote from Booker and his honesty about his fears helps me recognize that my doubts and worries are baseless. I am reminded of a quote from Colin Wright, “the fear of accidentally working too hard to get someplace we don’t want to be can be paralyzing, but it’s an irrational fear.” The message from Booker is to keep moving and be actively engaged in the world, and when we remember the quote from Wright, we see that we can let go of our fears of not ending up where we want to be. That type of fear is not based on the reality of our experiences, and is therefore, irrational. The important thing to remember during periods of doubt is that we are not alone in feeling insecure, and that our actions will ultimately open new doors if we have the courage to push forward through the forest of unclear choices.
I was recently listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast where host Chris Stemp interviewed Jennifer Mueller to discuss creativity. One of the ideas that Mueller shared was that there is never truly a best way to do something, and that we can be creative to look beyond what has been tried in the past and find new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Her views align with thoughts from Colin Wright’s book, Come Back Frayed where he writes, “There’s no simple answer to the questions of bests, or even betters. Each and ever stand taken on this subject is loaded with context and subtext and pretext. If a firm position is taken there is also pretense, because deciding that one’s own point of view trumps anyone else’s is, well, pretentious.”
Wright focuses on the ways we adopt and become set in our perspectives of the world around us. When we decide that our vantage point is the only correct perspective for interpreting the world, we limit ourselves and what we see as possible. From our point of view something may be clear, but we may miss very important aspects of what is truly taking place. Our perspective will always be influenced by our experiences of both big and small life events. Anything as small as a smile from a stranger to events as large as promotions or marriage shape the background understanding we have of the world, influencing the perspectives we take. Recognizing that our experiences are unique allows us to understand ways in which others think of the world differently, and may see different realities and possibilities. The key is to avoid bunkering down in our own point of view and surrounding ourselves with people with similar views.
When we do make an effort to expand beyond our own point of view we allow ourselves to be creative in new ways. We expand our perspective and create new connections when we recognize that our best way may not be another person’s best way to approach a given situation. From our vantage point something may be clear, but taking a step beyond ourselves to view the world from new perspectives will help us see that our best way is just one option. The more this skill is cultivated the more we can develop creativity in our lives to find not just the single best way to live, to work, or to eat, and we can find interesting ways in which our reality interacts with others based on each choice that we make.
Fred Kiel addresses our decision making in his book Return on Character as a way to describe the thoughts, choices, and actions of leaders with strong moral character. Kiel contrasts the idea of a fast brain, or subconscious brain, with a slow brain, or rational brain, and the ways in which we make our decisions. The fast brain is reactionary and always acting to guide our choices without needing energy or attention, but it is our slow brain that guides our moral character and our willpower as Kiel explains,
“Our slow brain is where we do all our conscious and analytic work. It provides us with tools of logic and reflection … Our slow brain can call on a number of beliefs or rules and use them to guide our decisions. It can also override the intuitions of our fast brain, a process we know as willpower. Our slow brain can also learn to identify and ignore erroneous signals from our fast brane, which is how we demonstrate self-awareness and wisdom.”
I really enjoy this quote because it shows how reflection and self awareness-both result from our slow brain, but help to also develop our slow brain and improve the choices we make. What that means to me is that reflection and self-awareness are conscious decisions and tools that can be used to build and improve our decision making and thought process. When we are more aware of our fast brain and the impulses and desires it creates, we can logically think through our impulsive desires to determine whether we are seeking a need or just looking to fulfill a temporary pleasure. Slowing down and applying logic through self-awareness can help us understand not just our choices, but our reactions to the world. We can avoid poor judgements about actions, decisions, and how we treat others. Our slow brain can be trained to help us eat better, treat others with more respect, and drive nicer. Our willpower will grow, our self-awareness will be boosted, and better choices can help us become more productive when we cultivate a strong slow brain and pair it with a well habituated fast brain.
Kiel continues to explain how often we usually engage our slow brain over the course of a day, “Amazingly, most researchers agree that very few of the choices we make in the course of a day — from what to order for lunch to which business alliances we form—are guided by conscious thought or our slow brain.” This means that we are not pausing to reflect and make choices that are as logical and rational as we would like to think. Keeping this in mind can help us understand the importance of using our rational brain at meaningful times so that we in some sense train or set up positive habits for our fast brain. The idea that Kiel lays out about our lack of slow brain thought can also help us understand the importance of how we view others. Judging poor decisions and actions of others can be done in way in which we view which brain, slow brain or fast brain, the other is engaging. This can help us better understand others, and understand that we often do not make decisions that are much better or much more thought out. Thinking about thinking in this way allows us to build more self-awareness to help our slow brain become a better thinking machine which will further drive our self-awareness and understandings of others in a positive feedback cycle.
I recently read Colin Wright’s book Act Accordingly which he begins with the following quote: “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”
I love the idea of acting accordingly that Wright lays out in the beginning of his book. He acknowledges that acting accordingly and understanding that we only live once will manifest differently in our lives depending on the type of person we are. The way we chose to spend our time on this planet and the decisions we make while we are here are shaped by an infinite number of factors, but keeping Wright’s quote in mind helps us see the importance of maximizing the decisions we make.
Wright continues and ends the introduction of his book by writing, “Far more than jus a phrase, acting accordingly is a framework for decision-making that places importance where it belongs: on you and how you spend your time within the context of your life.”
I believe that the first step to living a life where one acts accordingly is a dose of self awareness. Thinking about how to act accordingly and then evaluating your life and the decisions you make will start to build that self awareness. This is a process that requires honesty, and you must be able to step back and evaluate your choices and actions in different areas. Choosing to spend time watching television or being distracted by social media may not be the best way to act accordingly, but if you are not practicing self awareness, you may not realize how much time you are spending with those activities.
The area I have struggled with lately is balancing my time to make decisions that will allow me to live a life that is full and enriching. Constantly moving, interacting, and thinking can be very taxing, and after a full day of work and a lot of time spent reading, it is very tempting to turn off the mind with a tv program at the end of the day. What compounds the difficulties for me is being in a relationship and finding time to be with my significant other while still engaging in all of the activities that interest me.
I think that Wright would solve my problem by encouraging me to follow the ideas that I have had for starting my own company. By creating my own venture I would become my own boss and could build a more flexible lifestyle for myself. This would open up the world to me to create an environment and routine that allows me to maximize my decisions and still create time with my fiancé, focused on her desires, and being close with her. This is a large step, and for many it would not be the right decision. I think there is value from being in a secure position, and I think one can still maximize their choices. What it may require is taking control of those small moments where constant dings and alerts keep us distracted by social media or useless television.
In the United States we really like the idea that things are either good or bad. My personal belief is that we get locked in to these “either or” ways of thinking because it is easier than trying to process information. Good or bad, Republican or Democrat, lazy or hardworking, all provide shortcuts in our mind for us to classify people and decisions. In Packing Light, Allison Vesterfelt writes “sometimes there are not right and wrong decisions. There are just different choices with different benefits, different ramifications, and different baggage.” This quote unpackages so much in my mind of the hold-ups that I have when looking at other people. When you watch mass media, politicians are portrayed as good or evil (or often evil and more/less evil) and their decisions are often criticized as either good or bad for society and the country. It is so difficult to imagine how many decisions go into a single piece of legislature, and all of the different benefits and ramifications that go along with a single decision in any piece of legislature. After reading this quote and trying to stop seeing things in the black or white, I have noticed how often it is that we take a mental short cut and describe something as being either one thing or the other. Vesterfelt’s quote helps me realize that we cannot simply ascribe categories to any one thing. Looking at something as an “either/or” limits your understanding of that thing or person. Our lives are very complex, and the decisions we make come from the web of complexities that we see our lives and choices through. For an outsider a decision may appear to obviously be right or wrong, but we have to remember that in that situation we are filtering that decision through our own perception without having and vision of the pressures and factors that went into the decision for the other person.
By simply accepting that nothing is either right or wrong, and that nothing fits into the duality and dichotomy that our mind seems to love, we can take a softer position on other people, our own actions, and the composition of the world. When you try to analyze something to understand what part of it is a plus or a minus, you not only gain a deeper understanding of the world, but you stop making hateful decisions, and can build compassion in your life. We all make decisions with some of them being easy, difficult, great, or not ideal, and by not berating ourselves and others for our decisions but by trying to be mindful of why we or others made decisions we can broaden our vision, and understand others better.
With Vesterfelt’s quote, the core of her idea is that we can spend too much time worrying about our own decisions and become stuck in a routine that rewards inaction versus action. When you are so caught up worrying if the next decision is the right decision, you get to a crucial point where the decision must be made, and it is easier to take not action and remain in the status quo. This is where Vesterfelt was building an awareness of her decisions so that she could avoid classifying any decision as right or wrong. She began to see that any decision she made would have both positive and negative consequences, but that the only way for her to grow is by embracing the consequences and fully applying herself to whatever decisions she makes.