So, you’re facing a challenging decision. On one side lies the familiar, the known, the safe. On the other, there’s the unknown – a future without guarantees. Merely contemplating the unknown can induce stress. Remember, your mind is a temporal wanderer, journeying into the past to reflect, ruminate, and analyze, while venturing into the future to plan, strategize, worry, and create.
Your body doesn’t discern between a thought and a reality. Thus, pondering an uncertain future can trigger the same distress as experiencing a difficult situation in real time. When we encounter such distress, our instinctual fight-or-flight response often propels us to flee discomfort, gravitating towards the safety of the known present. Even if it’s not entirely pleasant, it’s familiar. This instinctive response often prevents us from making significant changes in our lives. The unease associated with contemplating an alternate future can be overwhelming, causing us to recoil before we’ve even allowed the future a fair chance. This is normal and natural, a primitive response to challenge — that kept our ancestors safe from harm.
Many people only make drastic life decisions when compelled by necessity – a significant health scare, a brush with death, or a profound loss. When the present becomes untenable or life’s stability crumbles, we’re more inclined to embrace the unknown, as it’s finally more appealing than our current situation. But what if we evaluated our options based on potential and future contentment, rather than fear of the unknown?
Consider a scenario many of you will recognize. You have a job that’s reasonably secure and stable, matching your skillset, and you’ve ascended the corporate ladder. Along the way, you’ve accumulated various expenses – a mortgage, a family, a car financed on credit, and numerous bills. Yet, something feels amiss. As months morph into years and years into decades, you ponder: is this all life has to offer?
An inner void persists, one that no material possession can fill. You might find fleeting solace in substances like alcohol or sedatives, providing a temporary, sweet relief. However, if your life lacks purpose, nothing can truly fill that void.
So, you stand at the precipice between the known and the unknown. Your immediate concern centers on security and safety. Your mind envisions various futures, while your body responds with fear, nudging you towards the safety of the known. This is a primal survival mechanism whose signals should not be dismissed. But now, I encourage you to step into the world of values and to assess your options through the lens of your core values. If you’re uncertain about what those are, use The Values App to discover what matters most to you.
With your values identified, it’s time to incorporate them into decision-making. The Values App prompts you to rank your values, establishing a hierarchy, which facilitates decision-making based on importance. Let’s return to our dilemma: you have a stable job with a reliable income, yet you feel a void. An alternative future proposes launching your own business, becoming an entrepreneur, a startup founder.
As our future-oriented mind envisages the unfamiliar, we experience a surge in cortisol, our stress hormone. When we visualize a positive future, our bodies react as if it’s unfolding. This is why many of us are enthralled by big ideas like helming our own venture, exploring uncharted waters, and crafting something new. Framed positively, being our own boss and creating something purpose-aligned, promising increased fulfillment, seems like a dream. The body releases dopamine and oxytocin, and we begin to feel good about this potential future. Much of our actions are intertwined with our feelings.
So, how do you make decisions guided by your values?
Let’s say your top three values are creativity, freedom, and family. These probably resonate with those identifying with the above dilemma.
Access your future and past self
Imagine you’ve stepped 10 years into the future. To do so requires self-empathy. Who will you be a decade from now? A useful tactic is to reflect on who you were 10 years ago. Many of us cringe when recalling our past selves. We might deem our past selves naïve, unfocused, or even lazy. However, they were also youthful, vibrant, and filled with dreams and creativity. Some of that creativity might have been traded in for stability and acceptance over the years. Similarly, your future self will reflect on your present self. Right now, you’re brimming with potential, dreams, and beauty. But are you satisfied with the status quo? Is there anything you regret today that your past self might have done differently?
What if your past self had lived a life perfectly aligned with your core values of creativity, freedom, and family? Where would you be today? Remember, sometimes sacrifices are necessary. Through sacrifice, we gain a deeper appreciation of our victories. Sacrifice adds meaning and fulfillment to our journey.
Reflecting on my values and how my past self lived them, even though my past self was largely oblivious to these values, I recognize that I’ve sacrificed freedom and creativity to some extent for my family. I’ve built a career and established a stable environment for my family to grow and develop. Having a young child is one of life’s most demanding adventures, and financial stability can alleviate some of the distress as a new family navigates their dynamics.
My future self, smiling back at me from ten years hence, whispers that time is fleeting. I prioritized my third most important value, family, over the top two, creativity and freedom, for a decade. It was a necessary decision then, but now, I need to trust myself. I’ve accumulated the skills to start my business and hopefully succeed. What’s the worst that could happen? Not finding another job? Jobs might even become obsolete within a decade. In fact, staying in the current status quo might be riskier than taking the leap to create something new. Fear of inertia should supersede the fear of failure. Choosing freedom over safety is a decision we all must make, and it applies to every aspect of life.
There is magic in time travel, in assuring your past self that all the worry and anxiety were unwarranted. Although worry and anxiety can be helpful in dangerous times, as the old saying goes, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Bypass your fear through visualization and align your course through values. Trust yourself. And remember, not every decision has to be an ultimatum. You might find a way to work part-time in your current role and dedicate more hours per week to your side hustle. You could also reduce TV time and invest it in your side hustle or use some of your disposable income to pay someone to help set it up.
Prototype your life
You can see how core values can lend clarity and support decision-making, helping us overcome the innate resistance we all feel when stepping into the unknown. The purpose of this article is to provide some guidance on assessing what is most important in the moment, dynamically applying your values to the situation.
Engage your time-traveling mind deliberately, to reflect on who you were and who you will become. Stand in your future, look back at your present self, and converse as you would with a dear friend. There will never be a better friend to you than yourself. Reassure yourself that everything will be okay. Similarly, your present self should extend the same reassurances to your past self.
Treat your life as a series of prototypes. Can you build a minimum viable project, test it, iterate, and learn? This approach could save years of heartache. But remember, there are few easy wins or quick fixes in life. Anything worthwhile will be challenging. If getting started is too hard, maybe you need to reframe your current situation and find purpose in what you already have.
But remember, it is through challenge that we find meaning, and in meaning, we gain fulfillment. So, align your rhythms with nature’s rhythms. Take care of your body, connect with your emotions, clear your mind.
Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and travel through time deliberately, rather than by default, which usually results in anxiety and rumination.
Here is the formula for values-based decision-making
- Know yourself: Discover your values and establish a values hierarchy.
- Reflect on how your past self lived your values.
- Reflect on how your future self will be proud of the actions you take today. Are you setting your future self up for a fulfilling life?
- Ask the question, whatever that may be, and view it through the lens of your values.
- Consider the cost of not making the decision. Is there likely to be regret in the future if you stay on today’s path? Will your future self resent you for not stepping into the unknown? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the best that could happen?
- Remember, your life is but a brief moment of consciousness in an endless sea of eternity. No one will remember you in 200 years. You didn’t exist for most of the universe’s timeline. Life is a playground. Imagine being a disembodied spirit; Earth would seem like a paradise. You have the ability to dance, play, love, taste, and smell. Treat your existence as such, and your life will gather meaning.