Life is a series of forks in the road. At each junction, you have to take one path or the other, and the whole rest of your life can be permanently altered by this choice. Should you go to college or join the Army? Should you buy a new car or a used one? Should you get married or continue living in sin?
We face way more of these life-changing decisions than we are aware of, because most of our choices are made by default. We had the power to change our life yesterday, but we didn’t do it; instead, we did pretty much the same things that we did the day before and the day before that. Yesterday, we passed many opportunities for choice, but by force of habit we took the most worn path.
Nonetheless, there are times when the fork in the road is obvious, and we are forced to choose. Graduation from high school is one such decision point. Your previous road is ending, and like it or not, you have to choose a new one. When you are looking for a job and receive two job offers, you also have to pick a path. Will you go to Dallas or Des Moines? It is clear at such times that the whole arc of your life is going to hinge on the decision you make now.
All forks in the road have certain common characteristics and generate certain psychological effects. When you reach one, you face a genuine dilemma: Should you go left or right? Unfortunately, your knowledge of each path is limited. You see the start of each path, but that’s all you really know.
You may also see big billboards put up by people who have already taken one path or the other and are trying to promote it. If the choice is Army vs. College, then the Army folks have their own advertizing campaign and the college people have theirs. The trouble with this information is that it is usually skewed by the economic and emotional needs of the advertizer. For example, if someone has already joined the Army, then to justify the wisdom of his own choice, he is going to try to sell it to you. If he can convince you to join his club, then it relieves some of his private doubt about his own decision.
The fact is, you can only fully understand where a path will lead by actually taking it yourself. At that point, unfortunately, you are at least to some extent committed to it. The only thing more difficult than choosing a life-changing path is TURNING BACK after you have chosen it.
Once you start down a path, you tend to become more and more emotionally committed to it, even if it doesn’t lead you where you expected it would. You have made an investment in the path, and investments usually create psychological pressure to actively believe in the choice and suppress dissent. You start wearing blinders and spouting patriotic slogans about how much you love your path. “What the best road in the world? LEFT! I’m proud to be a Leftie!”
What is really driving your boosterism, however, is the fact that you have already invested in this path and turning back would be just too painful. If you have already spent a lot of your personal resources on a certain objective or way of life, then you are probably going to believe religiously in it, even if it leads you into a swamp.
This is one of the basic dilemmas of decision making. You make a choice based on naive information, but by the time you can see the whole picture, you are already committed to your choice and have difficulty turning back.
Marriages and other romantic relationships offer plenty of examples. You start them with an idealized (and often delusional) notion of who the other person is and what the relationship will become. At the first fork in the road, you chose your partner based mostly on their billboards and your own distorted evaluation of them. Only by travelling down the road a certain distance do you find out who and what you really have.
That’s when things get complicated. When a road doesn’t give you what you expected, do you turn back or soldier on? The natural human inclination is to march ahead, killing off any messengers who question your choice.
Imagine that you are heading down a real dirt road in a covered wagon—say, en route to the land of milk and honey in California. Round about Las Vegas (a green little oasis), you decide to take a right-hand turn, based on a map that says this is a shortcut. At the fork in the road, you made a naive decision—go right—based on sketchy information—the map.
The going isn’t easy. You end up making your own road, and every mile presents enormous obstacles. The elevation drops and the desert gets hotter and hotter. Your food and water are running low, and you aren’t really sure where you are.
“When are we going to get there?” whine the kids.
“It won’t be long,” you lie.
So now you face the dilemma. Your supplies are running low. You don’t know what’s ahead. The path you chose wasn’t what you thought it was, but you have already made a huge investment in it. What do you do?
We can’t answer that question without being there. If, for example, your marriage isn’t what you expected it to be, do you abandon it, or do you try to adapt? There is no easy answer.
One factor you should not consider, however, is the magnitude of your past investment. If you have gone through a lot of pain to get here, that doesn’t alter the conditions as they now exist. The decision to continue or turn back hinges entirely on considerations of the future, not the past.
If you find yourself in Death Valley, the only important thing is coming out alive, not defending your past decision.
Every fork in the road is potentially dangerous and potentially rewarding, but always we have insufficient information to make a truly informed choice. Therefore, it is usually best to approach each path tentatively, with full knowledge that it is subject to change. All the patriotism and boosterism is distracting and possibly destructive, because it locks you into your choice. You shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking that this is the best path for forever; it only has to be the best path for now.
Ideally, you should set things up so you make one decision now but a little bit further down the road, you are free to make another, perhaps to correct any mistakes you made in this one or adjust your trajectory.
The best approach in an uncertain world is to develop lots of opportunities for choice, while the natural human inclination is the opposite: to make future choice go away. The world may demand that you choose a path and make some kind of commitment to your choice, but at least you can press for the shortest term possible. It is usually better to renew a contract every year than to commit yourself to 20 years right off the bat.
Sometimes, forks in the road are a crapshoot. Your information is so limited that you can only flip a coin and go with whatever comes up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you have left yourself the freedom to change. If you find yourself in the middle of a strange city without any guidebooks, maybe the best strategy is just to head out in some direction—any direction—and see what you find. Even if your initial path isn’t the best one, it is still going to be educational and will help you recognize a better path when you find it.
Forks in the road can also be deceptive. You may think there are only two choices available to you when in fact there are many more. When the question is Coke vs. Pepsi, both of these paths have huge advertizing budgets and big billboards, and this artificial rivalry may sucker you into thinking that Coke and Pepsi are the only options available. In fact, a glass of ice water might do the job much better, with virtually no cost or commitment.
The highest artistry in decision-making lies in finding these clever, unadvertised paths. If you are facing two intimidating choices, then you should always be on the lookout for a third, hidden behind the bushes.
Maybe you don’t have to choose Coke or Pepsi, Army or college, marriage or celibacy. Maybe there is something much more productive and fulfilling than any of these prepackaged alternatives. You just have to have the creativity and courage to see it.