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Key choices in life: (1) what makes them special... and often difficult

Denis Bourgeois and Phil Dixon 

February 2015

We make many choices in our lives; we make choices everyday.  What will interest us here are the key choices in life - those that are often termed life-changing. This paper is the first of a series originating from the fascination we have for these choices and for the important moments in life that are associated with them. In this paper, we will focus on what those choices are and what makes them different from other, more casual ones.


In following papers, we will explore other questions about choices: is there such a thing as a wrong choice ? How do people deal with these key choices ?  Do these choices offer different challenges depending on who faces them and in which phase of their life?

We will not pretend to bring readers definitive answers to all these questions. Our purpose is to share our on-going research, assuming that this may sometimes help readers face the challenges of their own lives. We believe that raising questions and sharing thoughts are more useful in this respect than offering ready-made solutions.

We have built on our own experiences in key choices, and helped each other to draw lessons from them. Being both in our sixties, there was no shortage of material…We also drew on our experiences as helpers of others facing such choices. We complemented these personal sources by some reading (references will appear along the pages) and by a dozen  on-purpose interviews with people from our networks, with varied ages and profiles. They talked to us about some of their past or present choices or, when they were coaches, about their way to help their clients in such circumstances.  In these interviews, we looked for points of view that would be different from ours and we tested the working hypotheses we had elaborated.  Therefore, we are not presenting here the output of a deep academic research; it is rather a documented essay, written by reflective practitioners of choice (since we are all practitioners of it)


Key choices in life: a definition

 The frontier between key choices in life and others is blurred. It would be accurate to say that there is a continuum along which choices can be ranged from key ones in a person’s life to daily routine ones.

A good metaphor could also be the continuum from strategic choices to tactical/technical ones. At the strategic end, we find key choices, which may be about marital life, children, career, involvement in studies, art or spirituality, fighting for causes, settling in a given region and in a given house, adopting ethical principles of behaviour, or any choice that will significantly contribute to shape who we are and what we do with our lives (which means that what will be regarded as a strategic choice will depend on the person). At the technical end, we find choices about details, that most often are ways to achieve some strategic decisions already made, hence the comparison with tactics. For instance, our choices to marry were strategic ones, whereas the choices of the colour of the ties we wore on these days were tactical/technical ones. Perhaps a little less at the far end of the technical side, but still part of it, were the choices of the styles of the wedding parties.  

Nb: we make no difference here between making a decision and making a choice. When we make a decision – to do something, or to become something- we choose between at least two options, one of them always being doing nothing or changing nothing.


Some characteristics

Key choices have some characteristics in common. They appear in our interviews (we’ll come back to this in the next papers) but they can also be logically deduced from the definition we have given above.

Let us first propose a thesis. Rational decision making techniques do not work with key choices in life. This means in particular that we cannot just decide of some decision criterion, possibly giving them different weights, then review each possible option and assess how they perform against each of the decision criterion, and finally computing scores for each of them and picking the best one. This does not work for three main reasons.

First , in this type of choices, there will be pros and cons that will range from very practical to very immaterial ones, from short term to long term ones; we cannot weigh all of them on the same scale. Second, since these choices have long term impacts, we are not necessarily able to know in advance which choice criteria will be most relevant in the future.  Third, rationally choosing between options would require one to know the results of what would happen if each of the options was taken, sometimes many years later; clearly this is impossible to predict with certainty. This is not special to key choices in life; however, some technical ones can be dealt with in a rational manner, so much so that they can, on occasion, even be delegated to a computer (e.g. choosing the fastest route to get somewhere). It is also possible, when the future consequences are not easily predictable, to use probability calculation in case of repeated occurrences of similar choices. However, this rational tool is not relevant in case of key choices in life because these do not occur very often in similar ways; each one is an unique case and one does not put one’s life at stake by tossing a coin.

Key choices naturally bear strong consequences (all strategic choices do). This often gives them a high emotional impact. This is particularly enhanced  since some of them are irreversible (e.g. having a child). Even when they are apparently reversible (e.g. in western countries, to-day, divorce is a way to stop a marriage), the stakes are high because these choices  are in fact not fully reversible: we cannot really get back to the initial situation we experienced before the choice. At best, a choice that has been “reversed” will have made us lose time and miss other opportunities; at worst, it may also result in long lasting effects in these domains.   Here again, this might not be special to key choices; however the stakes are higher with them because the risks involve important elements of life.

In other words and as we view them, these key choices in life are complex, there is no rational way, no martingale to get along with them, they bear heavy consequences as felt by the person involved and therefore they are easily stressful…

Good luck !


Why these choices may be difficult

 From the lines above, one can wonder how these key choices in life may ever be easy. However they sometimes are.

They may even seem obvious. In these cases the person hardly ever considers any other option: what they have to do appears clearly. William Christie, a famous harpsichord player and baroque orchestra conductor, reports[1] that, while he was a student, he attended a harpsichord concert by a famous player. He was so struck that, as soon as he went back in his room, he wrote this player a letter. Surprisingly, he got a quick answer and an offer to meet him. This is how he was invited to this master’s class and how a huge career actually began, whereas he initially had no previous intent to follow this route. Sometimes, a calling or “love at first sight” leave us without any doubt, whether it is about a partner, a place, a job, a project (see also the birth of Leo’s project in this site).

However, such choices are frequently a little or much more difficult and are not made in an instant.  From what we said above about them, it appears that key choices in life carry with them number of potential difficulties. No surprise then that they come up frequently. Moreover, this is reinforced by the fact that, in such cases, they raise the questions: who I am or who do I want to be as a person? What is essential in my life ? When the choice runs smoothly we may not even think of these questions; instant intuition does the job. In all other cases, one cannot escape them, even if they are not worded so clearly. One can even wonder if sometimes it is not the main function of such choices to bring us back to them. As a consequence, such difficult choices will not leave us in peace until we’ve been through them, contrary to some technical choices where we may hesitate between two options (e.g. shall I take vanilla or strawberry ice cream ?)  but where we will not experience the same amount of stress and discomfort.

Paradoxically, what is essential in one’s life is frequently what is the most difficult to define and express clearly. Trying to enhance one’s awareness of it may easily generate discomfort and anxiety because this means facing not only the uncertainty of the future but also some part of the unknown and the unexplored inside of us. So, we can easily live for a while without thinking too much about it…until some choices in life compel us to. Another aspect of these choices may make them difficult to face: they imply some loss, and sometimes heavy ones. Not choosing maintains the illusion that all possibilities can be made real; choosing one option means accepting to let other ones vanish, and, along with them, very often, letting go some of the sources of psychological comfort that have helped us so far cope with our anxieties. Choosing means grieving, therefore it takes time.

Consequently, making those choices leads us to contact an internal compass that we do not necessarily contact on a daily basis - a part of ourselves where we can consider those big questions in life, where we build the meaning of our lives. Contacting this compass may or may not enable us to define clearly what is essential in our lives but it will at least provide us with a platform upon which to make choices in ways that we may intuitively feel compatible with this essential.

This is very apparent in the stories of Bertrand, Diana or Joan. They all show how burning those questions are, and how difficult it is most often to answer them.


Additional remarks

We are conscious that big changes in life sometimes do not result from what we term here “key choices”. These big changes may result from events on which a person has no decision power (e.g. an earthquake), or at least no conscious one (e.g. a severe illness). They may also result from such casual choices as the many ones we all make everyday, without imagining their unusual and disproportionate consequences: for instance, choosing to take a given road to go to work, at a certain time, and being an innocent victim of a car crash on the way, which will cripple the person for the rest of their life. Or, in a more pleasant way, accepting an invitation to a party where one knows nobody and where, unexpectedly, one meets another person who will end up being her/his partner. Though some little choices, seemingly without high stakes, may have big consequences, we will not focus on them here. They are linked with the mysteries of chance, luck or destiny which are not the subject of this paper. What matter to us here are choices which people, rightly or wrongly, regards as key choices while they are facing them.

We are also conscious that the approach we are taking here is by-passing an endless and fundamental philosophical debate about our real freedom of choice. From some points of view, what we will choose is already written in the book of our destiny. From others, we believe we are choosing something whereas in fact some social conditioning  is speaking through us. We are not taking part in  that debate here. Though it might be interesting from a philosophical point of view, it is of no help when one faces key choices regarding for instance a partner or a career. At certain moments, we feel we have to decide, however strong or weak our decision power is in reality, and what matters to us in this paper is what happens then.

More questions…

In this paper we have set the stage: defining what we mean by key choices in life, and describing, in our view, what makes them special and often difficult.  Before we let people in and see how they deal with them, another issue in this introductory phase still deserves attention. Whether a choice is made easily or not does not guarantee us that we are making the right one. Then, how can we tell right ones from wrong ones ? And  is there such a thing as a wrong choice ? This will be the subject of the next paper.

[1] In a radio interview broadcasted by France Musique in 2013.


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