Life is full of big decisions. But they don’t really start until age 17.
Prior to 17, most of life’s big decisions—i.e. where you’ll live, which sports teams to support, which brand of toothpaste you’ll remain loyal to for the rest of your life—are decided by your parents. There is also a giant head start shaping our views on religion, politics, and whether or not LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.
I’d say maybe the only “big decision” areas, pre-17, were choices on drugs, sex, and alcohol.
And then bam, just like that, you go from no big decisions at all to having the (seemingly) biggest decision of your life. College. Where to go. To go at all. The choice here, as we were told, will determine everything. Your career. Your earning potential. Your chance to ever be happy again.
Late spring of my senior year, as close to the final deadline as possible, I had narrowed it down to two radically different options. Hope College (small, Christian, Liberal Arts college three hours away from home) vs. Kansas University (huge, 14 hours away, but it would be close to my grandparents). At Hope, I was “hoping” (pun intended) to keep playing basketball. At Kansas, I was going to watch my favorite basketball team, in person, in the historic Allen Fieldhouse.
It was so much of a win-win decision that it morphed into a lose-lose. I made a pros/cons list and the only thing my list achieved was making the decision feel even more complicated.
By January of my Freshmen year, it looked like I had made a terrible mistake. I was miserable. Sad. Pathetic. I almost exclusively wore sweatpants (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) and I think any footage of me from that era was in black and white with sad jazz music playing in the background.
I was ready to leave. Filled out a transfer form to KU. Filled out a transfer form to Central Michigan University. I was very much in the “anywhere but Hope” camp.
Then, just a year later, Hope was the greatest place in the world. Two years after that, I was wearing a cap and gown sitting in the basketball arena, on a court I never played on, my girlfriend/future wife several rows ahead. We were all listening to the commencement speaker, Heather Sellers, who was one of my favorite English teachers; a teacher who secured what I had known (and at times forgotten) since first grade – I want to be a writer.
The most important lesson I learned in college wasn’t anything in a class, or anything from a book, and it wasn’t even that last sentence; the whole “what do I want to do with my life” question/answer. No, the biggest lesson was finding out just how little my “big college decision” actually mattered in the end.
This led to a few questions that I’ve continued to kick around for the last six years. Questions like:
If the same initial decision could equal vastly different results, at different points in time (miserable as a freshman, happy the rest of the way), then did it really matter which option I chose?
And, if it didn’t matter, does that mean big decisions really aren’t that important?
And, if that’s the case, how does this impact my life moving forward? Doesn’t that make everything… a whole lot easier? More difficult?
Let’s Dive In
I think it can be tempting to summarize this whole Hope vs. Kansas story as, “See, that’s why you gotta stick with things, be persistent, never quit. Look how it all turned around.”
But I disagree with that conclusion. Mainly because I think I would have hit the same internal/external challenges at Kansas as I did at Hope in my freshman year. Those challenges being new environment, starting over, being away from home. It was kind of like choosing between pasta and buffalo wings with the goal of not getting heartburn; either way it was going to happen.
And, vice versa, I would have likely had the same turnaround story at KU as I did at Hope. It’s very possible, and I think accurate, to say that either choice (Hope or Kansas) would have worked out just fine. That the initial “big” choice really didn’t matter as much as the small everyday choices afterward.
Here’s what I mean; when I dig into what made things turn around, I realize the formula was pretty simple. The biggest thing was building a community. I went from having a great group of friends in high school to a great new group of friends in college. This took time to build, high school friends you’ve known for four, five, ten plus years. College friends you’ve known for, what, five weeks?
Then I started dating Ashley. We went to New York City together for our second semester junior year; part of a strange Hope College “study abroad” program. Does New York City count as a foreign country? Compared to Holland, Michigan, absolutely. Might even be a different planet.
There we were, together, fourteen hours away. No trips home. Nine million strangers around us. Mice running around the apartment. Giant rats in the subway. Ninety-nine cent slices of pizza dripping with more grease than sauce. It was a sloppy chaotic paradise, and I loved almost every second of it.
Could I have done it at 18-years-old fresh out of high school?
Probably not. But maybe. It may have just been harder. May have been more homesick. May have worn more sweatpants. Either way, things in NYC working out or failing, it would have been because of the little everyday decisions that impacted the outcome, not the big initial choice to hop on a plane.
The problem with putting too much weight on big decisions is it implies that everything is static; that our list of priorities will be in the same exact order the moment we make the decision as it will be a year, two years, ten years later. That what we care about one day will always be what we care about the next day.
The truth is, these big decisions impact our current self and our future self. And that future self, just like our current self, is a mix of our best self, our worst self, and our “meh” self.
What’s the meh self? It’s the random Tuesday in October self that just wants to auto-pilot the day, make it through work, get back home and watch Netflix. The meh self isn’t reflecting on anything profound. Meh self just wants a bag of chips.
And the worst-self isn’t thinking about how great things are. It’s thinking about how much the commute sucks, how you can always hear your neighbor’s footsteps upstairs, how it’s never warm enough outside.
It’d be great if “best self” was always at the wheel—the one that always thinks positive, eats healthy, sees nothing but good in the people around them—but it’s just not practical. Life is a mixture of all three; the good, the bad, and the meh. And if the bad and the meh are winning the majority of the time, then any decision, any situation, no matter how good, will ultimately start to suck.
Bad and meh self will find a way to complain that Hawaii is too hot; that the wine in Napa Valley is too expensive and overrated. On the flip-side, Best self can lose electricity and heat in December and still say, “Isn’t it great to have the whole family cuddled together under this one blanket?”
I thought I had the answer… until I didn’t
For a good six years, this “big decisions are overrated” philosophy served as my guiding light in all of the big decisions that came up in our marriage. Do we spend way more money than we have, take on a bunch of debt, to see our buddy play in the Super Bowl? Do we get a dog? Do we buy a house? I was almost disturbingly calm through each situation.
Because, in each choice, I figured that the decision really didn’t matter. You can be miserable with the debt, the dog, the house, and you could be miserable at the game, without a dog, without a house. Or, reverse, you could be overjoyed and think those were all the best decisions. Re-frame everything in a positive light. It’d be just like picking between Hope and Kansas. Pasta or buffalo wings. Crest or Colgate toothpaste.
The outcome ended up being a mixture of both liking the decision and not liking it. Using the dog as an example, Friday’s best self is thrilled to have a dog, can’t wait to take him on a walk. Monday’s worst self wants to list him for sale when he can’t sleep through the night and demands to poop outside at 3:30 in the morning. In winter, there will be more bad/meh days, in summer more of the best self. Evaluating the dog decision will feel different at different times of year. Overall, Crash has about a 92 percent approval rating.
Again, I believe it’s the daily mindset, the best/worst/meh balance that is far more important than the overrated initial decision.
And I thought I had this all figured out until about two months ago. A big decision came along that hit me harder than Thanos in the latest Avengers movie. For a while, this pending decision completely erased everything I thought that I knew. It introduced an entirely new aspect of the decision-making process that I hadn’t considered or had completely forgotten about. I’ll do my best to explain… on Wednesday.
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