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Key choices in life: (3) how do people cope with them ?

December 2016

Key choices in life are sometimes difficult. We have studied how people of various ages, profiles and origins cope with them. Our goal was to explore the range of possible ways to deal with key choices in life. There is two reasons for doing so. First, when one is not mastering a job, it is always interesting to look at how others cope with it, not necessarily to imitate them but as a way to trigger one's intuition about what can be good for oneself. Second, we tried to explore, below the high variety of answers we would gather, the limited number of invariants, i.e. of basic mechanisms that could tell us something about human nature and the laws of a quest, or, in other words, the look for order below the apparent chaos.  In this paper, we will share a selection of our « raw material Â» i.e. some excerpts of our interview notes and of texts read.


In the next one, we'll look for this order underneath the chaos. This research, up to this point, has been conducted by Denis Bourgeois and Phil Dixon. We have collected data together, made some first analyses and written two papers already posted on this site: "Key choices in life: (1) what makes them special...and often difficult" and "Key choices in life: (2) is there such a thing as wrong choice ?".  However, Phil coud not carry on beyond this stage. Therefore, this paper has been produced by Denis, who bears the whole responsibility for it.

In the first paper , we have defined key choices in life as choices that will significantly contribute to shape who we are and what we do with our lives, be they about marital life, children, career, involvement in studies, art or spirituality, fighting for causes, settling in a given region and in a given house, or adopting ethical principles of behaviour. As we have also explained, we have built, in this research, on our own experiences in key choices and on our experiences as helpers of others facing such choices. We complemented these personal sources by some readings and by some fifteen on-purpose interviews with people from our networks, with varied ages, profiles and origins. 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. 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). Its important limits are those of the sample of people we've talked to, of the amount of literature we read, of the time we spent reflecting on it and, more widely, of our awareness of ourselves and of life.


Dealing with key choices in life : excerpts of texts and interview notes

 1. (middle-aged man)

This was a period when I felt my time in the organization I had been working for long was coming to an end. I had started to think of leaving and creating my own consulting business. It occurred that it was a good time to leave: the key projects I had been leading in my job had been completed and new ones had to start. Just at that moment, I received a proposal for a new appointment in the same organisation, to what I would have thought a few years before as a very interesting position and a great promotion. So, I had to give an answer. All of this was a nudge. When I received this letter I felt I will not accept. When I came back home at night, I told about it with my wife; she is a great coach. And then my decision was made. And it went well; in the months that followed I got several proposal of consulting jobs. I enjoy spending more time at home with my children. It is a happy transition !

So, before your conversation with your wife, your decision was not fully taken ? How did this conversation help you make the decision ? You are right the final decision was not taken. I think it is wise and perhaps a need for me to talk with good people about important decisions to be taken. And of course my wife, both because she is a good coach and because my decision obviously have important consequences for our family. Italked with my dear teenage children about it too. To make a long story short, I think the essence was a conversation about my purpose and quest and how to achieve that in the best way. I felt that staying on with my former employer, I would be doing more of the same, and that, if I worked in a new setting, I could help people and organisations in better and more effective ways.


 2. (middle-aged woman, fighting for gender equality in her country, who recently decided to apply to a prestigious European university to do a PhD, which is not common for a woman in her country)

How did you make the decision ? In our magazine, we reported about Sheryl Sandberg's book and we asked the question she asks in her book: “what would you do if you were’nt afraid ?”. We ( the editorial team) contributed personally and my contribution was: “I’d do my PhD”. Then I received a lot of support and encouragement from colleagues and friends. I am really excited. Before, I needed to know where I’ll be in two years, five years, ten years. That was a source of anxiety. Now, I am not certain about my future but I trust the universe.

That’s a huge change; how did you reach this ? I don’t know exactly. I probably moved slowly towards the edge, during the past years, with much anxiety. Then I finally let go and took a leap. I took a leap of faith and we'll see where it ends up.


 3. (middle-aged woman)

In all choices, I use the same mechanism. I am very intuitive, I go with my gut feeling, without questioning my decision. I’ve made important t choices this way, like moving into a new location, without knowing anybody there. That was easy.

Can you tell me a bit more more about your intuition, which usually enables you to make big decisions ? It’s almost a physical sensation; I feel the choice is right. For example, when I visit a house and I decide this the one I will live in. When I look at it, I’ve done some poor choices in my life and they were about relationships. I particularly remember one that I initially felt was not for me. But the man insisted and I did not listen to my intuition. In these cases, I don’t value my own opinion as much as others’.

Any technique to stimulate this intuition?  Prayer, meditation, to calm down the noise. Journaling, which helps being honest with myself.


 4. (see «Diana's children»    in this site for the full context; she is about to decide to stop giving priority to her professional career and to take a less constraining job in order to devote more time to her children)

I talked to my husband and he told me he would support me whatever the decision I would make. I also talked to a former boss who was some sort of mentor to me. His advice was that I should go ahead with the company I was working with, but trying to move to another position. In a way, this made me clarify that I did not want that… So I went to my HR VP, and told her about my intention. This was a huge risk since I did not have the official offer from the other company but it was important to me that I was upfront with her.  In fact, she was very supportive; after this meeting, I had her blessing! This reinforced my decision and it made me feel so much better ! Deep down in myself, I was realizing my kids should be my priority now, it was my duty as a mother.


 5. Shirley MacDonald ( we could not find where this short poem has been published)

All I need to remember

In each and every choice

Choose Love rather than Fear

The Path of Love and Joy

I choose Love

I choose Peace

I choose Joy

Love, Peace and Joy.


 6. (coach, who is also a Yoga teacher)

I shall refer to the Vedic doctrine of Antahkarana, which in Sanskrit means inner conscience or manifest mind. It is a paradigm which describes four mental components. These four functions are: Manas, which refers to the five senses; Chitta, which is composed of all our impressions, experience, learned behavior and knowledge; Ahamkara which refers to the ego and sense of self and, finally, the Buddhi, which is the intuitive ability to see, discriminate and understand. The Buddhi represents Pure Knowledge, Mind in its highest form. The Buddhi is generally clouded by the mind's three other components. A view held by many schools of yoga is that meditation serves to un-cloud or purify the Buddhi. The idea is that, via meditation, one witnesses thoughts which arise in the mind and which are composed of impressions coloured by Chitta, Manas or Ahamkara. When those thoughts pass and dissipate, impressions left over represent functions of the Buddhi.( SWAMI J. Coordinating the Four Functions of Mind Http://www.swamji.com).  So, the thing is to make decisions in this Buddhi state ; this is linked with the balcony view in change management. Many traditions say the same: first, clean up, make the vacuum; then Shakti, or the Holy Ghost act through us. Sometimes a decision made on an impulse does not stand the test of time. When some time has passed we do not see the situation in the same way. When I help people facing a choice, I invite them to reach a meditative state, I help them disengage, become neutral, before making the decision.


 7. Ignacio de Loyola, the founder of Jesuits, wrote his “Spiritual Exercises” (first published in 1548), where he gives advice on how to make key decisions in life in a Christian perspective. Here is a very short summary on this particular topic (paragraphs 169 to 189).

Either one is clearly inspired by God,

or, things are not so clear.

In that case, a decision cannot be made under the pressure of emotions and fears but in a state of quietness. It should also be made with the finality of life in mind, which is the service of God. When hesitating between several options, two methods, each starting with a prayer to God begging for guidance in the choice.

- make a list of pros and cons for each option then consider to which side reason is inclined. Then go back to God and ask for validation

- imagine another man facing this choice (whom you do not know and whom you wish to be as perfect as can be) ; what would you advise him to do ? ; then, imagine you are lying on your deathbed and you consider in retrospect the choice you have made: how would you see it ? ; then again, on the day of the “Judgment”, considering the choice you have made, how will you see it ? Then, as in method 1, go back to God and ask for validation.


 8. (coach, talking about how he helps clients facing such choices)

I am attentive to the voice inside the person that is not heard and might be important. I draw the attention on it; sometimes the best option is ignored because the person dares not think of it or voice it.


 9. (senior man)

At that time, I was around forty and I had reached a crossroads regarding my professional career. I was strongly tempted to drop the mainstream world in which I was engaged and to take a more marginal route. I was willing to give more spiritual meaning to my life and to dig deeper into the knowlegde of life and human beings. And I felt the job I was doing as a sociologist did not allow me that depth. On a night of this period, I had a dream :  I was driving on a road wich made a 90° turn on the right. If I had gone too fast, the turn was such that I would have rushed out of the road, on its left side ; however, I managed to avoid that by driving carefully ; at the same time, on the opposite side of the road (right hand side), I was leaving a friend and colleague who was standing there. When I woke up, the interpretation came to me clearly and immediately : I will not take the more marginal, esoteric route, at least as a profession, it would get me out of the path I have to follow, but I will also avoid to follow the mainstream career, symbolized by my colleague in the dream. I had to find my way between the marginal route and the classic one. I'll have to walk the fine line, being in the world without being possessed by it. More than 20 years after this dream, I can say that it guided my life and my career choices. What it suggested to me is what actually happened, in ways that I could not imagine Ă  that time. I've worked in the field of social sciences but I managed not to be trapped in the game of publications in (to me) uninteresting acadĂ©mic journals, in the constraints of university job search, finding improbable niches that allowed me to keep the freedom I needed.


 10. (coach)

My client was laid off; he started reviewing his life and how he would like it in the future (more family life, new types of jobs). Then his company offered finally to keep him. Was puzzled. I asked him to describe his life when his son will be 10 (he is 5 now). He actually helped him get a clearer image of his North Star.


 11. (coach)

I look at the person, I listened to her when she tells me about the options she has : the light in her eyes, the sound of her voice, the body attitudes. It tells a lot about what she really wants, deep inside of her. When I notice something when she talks about one option,e.g. a sudden increase of light in her eyes, an enriched timre of the voice, at some moment of the conversation I share my observation with her. That does not mean she will take the option that sparked this but my job is to draw her attention on what happened.

….During the conversation, it may also happen that the person mentions an option that she had not mentionned before and which actually appears as the most attractive for her. Sometimes, people forget to focus on what excites them most, as if they thought that this would be inappropriate. It is as if they needed to give themselves permission.


 12. (young graduate)

Had applied for a job in several consulting firms. Has chosen the firm XYZ on an intuition. After the first round of interviews with them, she felt good. This feeling was about much more than having perhaps succeeded : I felt respected, I had been clear, authentic, I had not told stories as one sometimes do, like suggesting that, from my younger age, I had been passionate about corporate strategy. She had the same feeling after the second round of interviews. This was visibly shared by her interviewers. She got hired. It is during the recruiting process that I realized that a major criterion of choice for me was the ability in my job to keep my freedom of expression. I had not realized this beforehand...I'll see if this is a place where I can explore myself, spread my wings or if I find myself stucked down.


 13. Kamlesh Patel – Indian Guru ( http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/listen-to-the-heart-629835)

...When we truly come from the heart, we need not go through an elaborate mental process of making choices; we always know what is right. It is only when we compromise our intrinsic goodness that we need to deliberate over choices in life. Think about it! The next question is: how do we cultivate and perfect this ability to listen to the heart? The answer lies in the question – by cultivating the ability through a practical method. The best method is meditation on the heart.


 14. (coach)

In fundamental choices one has to accept what life proposes to us. When I coach, I am inspired by this idea. You can tell when life is present: there are expressions or signs of peace, joy, love. The wrong choice leads to death. If I cannot identify what life proposes to me, life will let me know whether or not I did the right choice.


 15. (coach and workshop leader)

As l'Abbé Pierre (a famous French priest) once said: “life is more about assent than choice”. Life sends us messages but we do not pay attention to them. In sum, what I do in my workshops is to teach people how to see them. It’s a permanent decoding. When we are no more able to decode, we need to refocus. There are various ways to do it, to find again one’s verticality, the link between mind and body (Yoga, Tai chi…). The key to hear life’s messages is spiritual. It’s a daily work, it requires a discipline of life.


 16. (coach)

I once worked with a coachee who was the CEO of a small company; she was offered to become a CEO of a bigger one but hesitated because that would have meant not having a second child.I asked her: what is it you are looking for in your life ? What would be the attributes of your life,as you want it, outside of your job ?

She came up with a dozen of attributes (ex. financial independence…). We made a grid, she gave marks from 0 to 10 to each of the attributes according to both scenarios. But I did the additions, without showing her. Then I read out the results and asked her to attentive to her body’s reactions ( heart beat, breathing, skin sensations). She finally made the decision of taking the job of CEO. The non conscious brain knows... 


 17. (senior man)

If the choice is about accepting or not a proposal: for a job, for a week end, a party…and you are not sure about what you should do. You are not enthusiast about this proposal but there would also be draw backs in saying no, or the risk of perhaps missing an opportunity. This happened to me and I once found a way to deal with this kind of situation which worked well for me and at least for some of the people to whom I gave the tip. Figure out what would be necessary for you to be enthusiast about the proposal. Then go and make it a condition for you to accept. If this condition is accepted, bingo ! If not, or if you even can't find what would make you enthusiastic about the proposal, then no regret in turning it down.


 18. Le courage de changer sa vie (The courage of changing one's life)– Anne Ducroq, Albin Michel 2004 (free translation)

p 191. "When we find ourselves at a cross roads, we always guess it. Something in us does not sound right."

p176, quoting AndrĂ© Rochette:  "Very often, questions we have to solve in our lives last for some time, the solution progresses at its own pace before its gets ripe. For long, our answer to events will be more or less reactional, more or less free, but that's how it is : maturity comes through walking along a path. One day, the time has come, we know how to act. When the situation is ripe, we leave the world of choice and we are in the world of evidence. In other words, there is no more discussion inside of us. What needs to be accomplished is accomplished. That's all. We can then leave without looking backwards. A chapter of life is over."

...However, it sometimes occurs in life that we have to make decisions when we are not ready. In such cases, let's at least accept to make errors. No regrets, let it be. Anyway, depending on the choices we make, if me make misatkes, we will pay for them. No need to add regrets on top of that...


 19. François DĂ©livrĂ© – Le mĂ©tier de coach, Editions d'Organisation, Paris, 2002 p 262 (free translation)

“It is impossible to propose a client a method which will help them to make the right decision. This would be contradictory with their freedom and with the ethos of coaching. Jacques Antoine Malarewicz very rightly writes: “the client is going to make you believe that you can help them make a decision”. He hypothesizes that when a client comes to a coach about a decision they have to make, they have already made it but they want to confront with the coach as “the person who is supposed to know”. Therefore, the problem of someone who hesitates about a decision is self-confidence: they have trouble announcing the decision or taking responsibility for it.”


 20.  (senior man)

Before engaging in a relationship with a woman, and there has been a number in my life, I always ask for a sign. I gave myself a convention : I will engage if I see a butterfly, in any form, in a rather short period of time after I have asked myself the question. And it works. I once saw a truck of Roquefort Papillon passing in the street ( a famous French cheese brand named Papillon i.e. “butterfly” in French). Another time, it was a pin on someone's sweater. Another one was at the end of a workshop, I felt something could happen between another participant and me. However, I was hesitating. On the last morning of the workshop, she came up with a tee-shirt showing a beautiful butterfly on its front...


 21. (senior man)

If you are seeking your way, it is because you did not dare before...When we are on our way, it is visible in the eyes, the voice, the body. The body speaks, it is an antenna.


Dealing with key choices in life: other techniques we gathered

 22. Staging the choice

Get two or three partners to each personify one of the options you have. The person who must choose allows each partner in turn to speak in favour of the option they are personifying; the person who must choose decides when she interrupts one and let another speak, and when the conversation stops.


 23. These were gathered when I did my research on ethics and change (see in this site). They are useful to make decisions in ethical dilemmas but can be useful for other ones.

Imagine you tell your son what you have chosen

Imagine what you have chosen is the title of the front page of your local newspaper.


 24. Once a choice has been made, if it requires perseverance in a long lasting change of attitude or behaviour

Commit oneself to do something precise, in line with the choice that has been made, and make this commitment public in some sort. Avoid staying alone with the choice.

Create a symbol of the change: e.g. a drawing that will be present in one’s environment, as a reminder of the engagement

Writing a journal, setting up reviews, alone or with someone, about how the change is applied


 25. Useful questions when considering options

What would make you happy in each option ?

What is the best that can happen ?

What is the worst that can happen in this option ?

In that case:

  • how can you prevent that ?

  • if it happens, what would you experience ?

  • how would you recover ? 


 26. Choices where the various options will each lead to become a different person.

This typically happens with young people at the end of their studies, through their career choices, but also at older ages at big turns in life (e.g. at the doorstep of retirement).

Name the different persons you might become: e.g, “ the entrepreneur”, the “tramp”, “the artist”, “the monk”. Describe these persons:

  • what will be your typical day ?

    • what will you do ?

    • what will you feel ? experience ?

  • what people will you work with, talk to ?

  • what will you most appreciate in it ?

  • what are the dangers ? how will you prevent them/ cure them ?

  • what will you gain or learn ? What will you need to overcome ?

  • what are the conditions for this option to be successful ?

  • what animal (or plant, or object) would best symbolize it ?

  • are you sure you are not idealizing this life ?


 27. Sleeping on it

Before falling asleep, write the question you have in mind on a paper and put the paper under the pillow. Ask for a clarification about the choice to be made… Then, on the next day, let the answer come.

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