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The road not taken – making those tough decisions

November 16, 2015

This week saw Sam Burgess continue the fall out from England’s demise at the recent rugby world cup, when he packed his boots and scuttled off back to play rugby league for South Sydney Rabbitohs in Australia. Amidst claims he lacked the stomach to fight for his future in rugby union from former Bath coaches and colleagues, Burgess himself said it was for personal reasons – he misses his mum (and who doesn’t miss their mum?) and because he wanted to spend the rest of his career playing the game that’s in his heart.

It was a meteoric rise and fall in rugby union for Burgess, who played just 21 games for Bath and won five caps for England. Compared to other League-to-Union converts such as Chris Ashton (19 tries, 39 caps), and Jason Robinson (28 tries, 51 caps, captain and world cup winner) he obviously falls short, and will be remembered more alongside Andy Farrell and Joel Tomkins in terms of ‘what could have been?’ and the road not taken.

In fact, The Road Not Taken is a narrative poem by Robert Frost, one of the most popular and critically respected American poets of the C20th, published in 1916. The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that his friend, Edward Thomas had shown on their many walks together.

Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended, in saying that the poem’s narrator is one who habitually wastes energy in regretting any choice made: belatedly but wistfully he sighs over the attractive alternative rejected. In Frost’s words, Thomas was a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other.

Here’s the poem in full, see what you think. Maybe Sam Burgess should have read this when weighing up his options in making his decision?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

While a case could be made for the sign being one of satisfaction, the critical ‘regret’ analysis supports the interpretation that this poem is about the human tendency to look back and attribute blame to minor events in one’s life, or to attribute more meaning to things than they may deserve. Frost commented this is a tricky poem, very tricky implying that people generally misinterpret this poem as evidence of the benefit of free thinking and not following the crowd, while Frost’s intention was to comment about indecision and people finding meaning in inconsequential decisions. For what it’s worth my view is that whichever way we go, we’re sure to miss something good on the other path.

Most people don’t realise Frost was being ironic when he wrote on how he will someday look back and claim “with a sigh” that choosing the “one less traveled … made all the difference.” People wrongfully interpret this as evidence of the payoff for freethinking and not following the crowd, when it actually comments about people finding meaning in arbitrary decisions. The point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, stuff just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter.

So did Burgess make the right choice, how do you think he went about making a decision on what appears to be a hard choice? Did he see it as a moment he had to stop agonising about one of his life’s toughest choices, and instead view it as a valuable opportunity for self-definition? How do you feel about truly hard choices?

Tough questions reflect the tough options – like Burgess had, or whether to start your own business, or to get down on one knee and propose – cause many of us to break out in a cold sweat. Both options have huge merits and significant possible drawbacks, so most folks respond with hand wringing, misery, and dread. But that’s not the best way to look at hard choices, argues philosopher Ruth Chang in a thought-provoking TED talk in which she offers a liberating new framework for making life’s toughest calls. Here’s the link:

For lots of rational folks, the natural way to look at truly hard choices is the same way we look at any other choice. As always, there are pros and cons to each alternative, but in the case of tough choices they’re of different types, so the alternatives are hard to weigh. How do you compare the perceived benefit against the downsides?

In this view, the problem is your imperfect knowledge of your preferences and your lack of foresight about how options will play out. The natural response is to pine for more information of your two possible futures and you could view them side-by-side, you’d be all set.

The result of this fruitless search for sure comparisons is a whole lot of unhappiness and, in many cases, a final decision to throw up our hands and just choose the safer option. If you can’t really justify the new or scarier path, it’s pretty hard to pick it, after all.

But according to Chang, this isn’t the best way to look at hard choices. It’s a mistake to think that in hard choices one alternative really is better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which, and since we don’t know which, we might as well take the least risky option, she says.

Or to put it another way, even if we miraculously had all the information to hand, hard choices would still be hard. Why? These choices are all about values, and no data or advice can tell you what’s most important to you. There simply isn’t an objective right answer to truly tough calls. It’s not that we can’t find it; it’s that it really doesn’t exist.

So when you face your next hard choice, don’t beat your head against the wall trying to find the “right” answer. There is no best alternative. Instead, see the choice as a fork in the road, an opportunity to choose whom you really want to be. The alternative is to be a drifter, one of those people who don’t declare themselves for anything, who allow the world to write their story, who blindly follow affirmation or avoid the terror of the unknown.

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities. They over complicate it. Fear of picking the wrong option leads to a period of limbo where nothing gets done and the issue seems to grow bigger and bigger.

That kind of procrastination hell is something I’ve gotten to know intimately through my work with startups. I’ve seen people take what should be an easily and straightforward decision and turn it into an impossible one, all out of fear. Here are a number of things I’ve learned that will help you make any tough choice better and faster – and without those knots in your stomach and box of frogs going off in your head – when you see the road before you diverge:

Visualise the options Imagine, as vividly as you can, what life will be like if you choose each of the possible options. Try to make these visualisations as realistic as possible for both the good and bad aspects of each choice. Spend more time focusing on the aspects and the uncertainties of the options that could occur the most, since these tend to have a much greater influence and impact on how good or bad a situation is overall

Avoid the obvious traps Don’t just accept the obvious default. Don’t just select whatever benefits you most right now. Don’t focus only on a few noticeable details. Don’t make the decision based on emotion. Don’t exaggerate the importance of a decision. Don’t make the decision based on what others say.

Look at the big picture. Look at how it will affect you in both the short and long term. This one may be a ‘too good to miss’ opportunity but how will it affect other priorities and, if now is not the best time to do it, what risks if any are there in putting the thing on hold for an agreed period of time? If you cannot manage this project in addition to another that’s waiting in the wings, which one gets the nod and why?

Be clear on what you really want Know thyself. I’ve learned that waiting around often means you’re not happy with any of the options, because they’re not right for the moment and you simply end up with analysis-paralysis. The real reason someone might be unable to make up his mind is that neither option is what he really wants

Don’t choose something just because you’re supposed to Once you identify what you really want, you’ll need to quiet the voices in your head or of skeptical people around you that tell you that you should want something else. If you’re feeling pressured into making the decision that looks good, step back and examine your reasoning. If you can’t come up with a good answer, you know it’s not for you.

Remember that doing something trumps doing nothing This is true 99% of the time. I have clients who have been paralysed by their inability to figure out what they want to do in a business matter. They’re so afraid of taking the wrong decision that the opportunity goes by and they’re still working on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Protect the downside, find as many downsides to an idea as possible. Avoid being the giddy optimist. Maintain a glass-half-full perspective, but carefully consider everything that could go wrong before going forward with a decision. Work hard at uncovering possible hidden warts the thing might have and by removing them you’ll only make it better still. Protect the downside; that is, limit possible losses before moving forward.

Practice being decisive The same people who have trouble with the big business questions often keep telling the waiter at the restaurant that yes, they still need more time before they decide what they’d like to order.

If you’re chronically indecisive, build that decision-making muscle by starting small. Give yourself 30 seconds to decide what you’ll have for dinner. Follow through on that decision. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Then work up to bigger things.

Does this give you anxiety? Ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is if you pick wrong. Making small decisions in a timely fashion will help train your brain to think through questions more quickly.

No one makes perfect decisions 100% of the time. We buy the wrong book, we date the wrong people, we stay in a job longer than we should, we order the wrong pudding. But action works in your favour, while inaction never does. When you delay making a decision because you’re afraid of messing up, nothing changes. But when you’re proactive, you’re choosing to move ahead, and that’s one of the best decisions you can make.

However, despite the above thoughts, there are some simple realities. We are all emotional decision makers whether we like it or not, we like to think we can be rational but we aren’t. I will weigh up the pros-and-cons, and then trust my gut instinct to make the decision. Generally when we go against our instinct we end up making the wrong decision, and almost all of our decision making is based on just one key piece of information – we often over complicate things.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. So back to Sam Burgess, and the fork in the road, ‘what could have been’ and the road not taken. Did he make the right decision? I don’t know, must have been a tough call.

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