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Key choices in life: (4) in search of our inner compass

February 2017

This paper concludes, at least for today, this site's series of paper about key choices in life; it tries to draw some lessons about them. These choices request that we contact our inner compass, i.e both perceiving it and following what it suggests, which is not always easy as we could see in the preceding papers. Since this site's theme is our quests in life, exploring our ways to get in touch with this inner compass is also getting closer to the mystery of our quests and of the way we give meaning to our lives.


First, a few reminders... which you can skip if you have read the preceding papers.

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.
These papers are the output of a research carried on by Denis Bourgeois and Phil Dixon and they are based on the material that they have collected together. However, for reasons of availability, Denis wrote this paper alone. 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 in these papers 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.

Then, some preliminary warnings.....which you can also skip, at your own risks, if you prefer jumping directly to the heart of the matter

Two precisions about our mindset in this work.
First, on our aim in this research: we did not intend to work as sociologists, i.e. trying to understand how and why some people or social groups use such or such approaches when facing these choices. The size and the composition of our sample were not designed in this respect. We did not try either to offer a law telling how one has to approach such choices. This would have been too ambitious and perhaps even impossible.... Our aim was to explore the large variety of possible approaches and to see if, behind this diversity, one could find a few invariants, thus allowing us to get closer to the mystery of this compass.
Second, on some choices we made about questions to investigate. We hypothesized that the ways to face these key choices were the same for all domains of life : work and career, family, love relationships... Most of our interviewees and most of the documents we've studied support this idea. However, there is no full unanimity about it and this would deserve further investigation, which we did not do here. We have not been very far either in the distinction between various types of choices and in the study of whether or not they require various and specific methods in facing them. For instance, there are choices with an option which is comfortable versus another one more demanding in terms of courage, or choices where one has to choose between some change and the status quo. Most of the time, we did not feel appropriate to follow this track.

The text below is a synthesis which will refer to all papers of this series and, most often, to the 27 contributions mentioned in the preceding paper. References to these contributions will make use of the number which was assigned to them in this preceding paper. Though all contributions have been useful in elaborating this synthesis, they will not all be mentioned here in order to avoid too long developments.

In search of our inner compass : a few general principles

Choosing : a process which takes time

... Because it includes several successive phases
We have very often observed that key choices in life are not made in a single moment, once and for all. We did collect a few examples in our interviews that may look like this but they are a small minority. Actually, in these examples, it is as if the various phases described below are experienced at very high speed. In all other examples, these phases spread over time. It can also happen that they do not exactly follow each other but somewhat overlap.
Three phases can be identified :
- maturing: of course it starts with the initial tasks, realizing even that a choice has to be made, identifying the options, then studying them, which can be more or less long and be done in various ways
- finding out what to choose : the time comes when one is aware of the option which is best for them. However, the inner voice that prompts this is not necessarily yet the only one to speak. The decision is still subject to doubts. The maturing phase and this one may therefore mingle for some time. Finally, in a way or another, the decision to be made becomes clear. One could say then that the choice is made but a third phase comes...
- engaging : the decision remains to be implemented. In some cases, this goes without any problem. In other ones, however, it is not so simple, thus showing that the choice is not yet fully made. Here are three types of cases where this happens.
First, the choice may be about a behaviour that needs to be constant over time (e.g. stopping some addiction).Then, the challenge is to remain faithful to this decision, even when the positive energy which supported it goes through ups an downs.
Second, in other cases, one may encounter opportunities to go back on one's choice, which therefore invite to confirm it. For example, someone decides to no longer accept such or such type of job because they feel it is not good for them. As if by chance, they are offered an opportunity precisely in this type of job, in good conditions, well paid, whereas they have not yet found a job that better suits them. Quite often, in such examples, one has to reject the temptation of giving up one's choice and one's good resolutions. Only when such tests stop coming up or stop raising any temptation can it be said that the choice is really made.
Finally, first steps in implementing the choice may allow other ideas to appear, which in turn modifies the initial choice. For instance, one decides to live in a given region or a given district but, while looking for a house in this place, one gets by chance some information on another place that ends up appearing as the place to go. In this type of case, one could say that these first steps in implementing the choice are only a moment in the maturing phase, where possible options are explored, even though the person thought they had already made their choice.

... Because mourning often takes place
Choosing means giving up. It implies a loss, that may sometimes be a heavy one when the choice is a key one in life. Not choosing maintains the illusion that all options can happen ; choosing one of them means that we accept to give up all other ones and, wih them, very often, to also drop some sources of psychological comfort which have helped us so far to calm down our anxieties. Choosing implies grieving and it is well known that grieving requires time ; this time may vary, depending on the nature of the loss and on the individuals but it can never be totally by-passed.

The limits of rationality : a supporting role with some importance

We initially hypothesized it in the first paper : rational decision making techniques are not efficient with these choices. Our interviews support this idea and one can also demonstrate it rationally. As we already wrote, one cannot just decide about 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.

However, is rationality totally ruled out ? No indeed but it rather plays a supporting role, with however some importance. Rationality can be found in its elementary form, which is logical reasoning. It is generally used by a person to assess the coherence of a choice with other elements of their lives. For instance, this happens when someone considers their priorities in life in order to check whether or not the choice they intend to make is in line with them. So, in this frequent case, there is a part of rationality in the choice process but it comes as a support for self-awareness or as a reminder of a fundamental basis which can only be reached by intuition or inspiration. It is true however that some philosophers have tried to build a rational foundation even of the goal of their life but the average individual does not seem to do so, at least among those we met.

Moreover, let's not forget that rationality is perfect to justify ex post what intuition may have dictated, as we'll see further below.

Therefore, if there are such limits to rationality, if it cannot play the lead role, it comes down to intuition, or inspiration, or the inner compass, as one will like to call it, to play it.

Fear is a bad adviser

This came up in all choice stories we heard. When a choice is difficult, it means that the person needs to overcome some fear, in order to be happy with the decision they will make. Fear is said to be a bad advisor and this is confirmed here.
Fear of what ? Fear of the unknown and of change, or fear of failing, of course, but after all, they are not the most difficult ones. This is here that a text from Marianne Williamson, made famous by a speech by Nelson Mandela, probably takes its full meaning. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us." (Marianne Williamson – A Return to Love – Harper Collins, 1992, quoting " A Course in Miracles" - Foundation for Inner Peace, USA).
Very often, people dare not moving towards what attracts them most, towards what would get them closer to the best they can hope in their life, as if they would not feel allowed to, by others and above all by themselves (see contributions # 2 and 21 in the preceding paper).

A paradox: choices are appointments with ourselves but the others are quite useful

In our key choices in life, we are alone in front of ourselves. We are alone because these choices invite us to express or clarify who we are as unique individuals. In such circumstances, when someone chooses to do as every one else, or to conform to the expectations of their social environment, it generally does not sound right. However, in the choice stories we have collected, some of them being briefly mentioned or fully reported in the preceding papers, the other is very often present. They appear not so much as advisers that would tell the person what to choose, this seldom works, but rather, in to-day's terms, as coaches. Of course, the other is not necessarily a professional coach, it can be a partner, a relative, a friend or a colleague. Their first job is to offer a friendly ear, allowing the person facing a choice to clearly speak out their questions and even their fears. The others' other jobs, which they each do their way, are asking questions, encouraging, reassuring, opening new horizons. Others bring fresh air when one keeps going round in circles...


In search of our inner compass: many ways, not as different as they seem

There are many ways to access the guidance of our inner compass. The preceding paper gives 27 examples of them and there are certainly other ones. It can almost be said that their number is infinite because, very often, people will combine several methods all along their choice process and each one will make a personal mix. However, behind this diversity, one can find invariants, at least in the examples we collected. I draw from them a central hypothesis, which by the way is offered in more or less similar ways in contributions # 14 and 15 of the preceding paper: a voice in ourselves knows, we just need to accept what it tells us.

A voice in ourselves knows

This voice that knows can also be named inner compass, intuition or inspiration. If our vision of the world includes transcendance in some ways, one can see there the guidance of God, of a guardian angel, of the Creator or any name fitting one's spiritual approach, which might not necessarily be that of an established religion. If our vision of the world excludes any transcendance, one can see at work the unconscious, be it the one of psychoanalysis, that knows things we do not want to see, or the one of neuroscientists, which is the part of the brain's activity which we are not conscious of. Actually, this does not matter here ; the result is essentially the same.

How can one distinguish this voice among all those that can be heard during our inner debates ? There is no 100% effective trick which would allow this; at least, we did not meet any one that could give it to us. However, two clues were frequently mentioned in our interviews. First, this voice, when followed, is a source of serenity. As described by a person in the preceding paper (contribution #18), "we leave the world of choice and we get into the world of evidence". It causes a whole series of sensations, including physical ones, which we can learn to recognize along our lives. Other words and feelings that are associated with this voice are positive energy, peace, joy, love (see in particular contributions # 5 and 6 in the preceding paper). Second, this voice does not fluctuate. As another contributor says in the preceding paper (#6), "it stands the test of time" whereas others might not. Even better, this voice, when it is set aside, periodically comes back knocking at the door. As someone says somewhere else in this site: "We do not give up our dreams, we learn how to live besides them but they stay there."

What does this voice know ? No matter whether or not it knows the "right choice" because this notion is ambiguous, as suggested in an other paper; what it does know is the choice that will leave us in peace with ourselves.
It may occur that it only gives a partial answer, when the choice is too impressive. I am thinking here of Joan's story, a young graduate at the start of her career who feels torn between two possible ways of living her life. This is translated by the choice she has to make between two job proposals, which each symbolize a different way of life. It is understandable that, at Joan's age, the question of what she will make of her life may be too impressive, that it comes too early for Joan to be able to clearly give an answer. This voice suggests to her something that, by the way, she will need some time to accept: taking one of these two jobs without thinking that she is making a definitive choice, without really lifting the fog. When the fog is too thick, this voice knows the first step to make, we just need to trust it about what will follow. And there is always such a thing as a first step. It is like in those tales where the hero or the heroine is in a desperate and impossible situation and where he/she finds in the bottom of his/her pocket a small object which seems insignificant, like a thimble or a match. This object will enable her/him to do a small thing which, in turn, will open the possibility to do another one, which could not have been foreseen beforehand, and so forth until she/he finds a solution, until the fog lifts.

What can prevent this voice from being heard? Fear, as we've seen above, but also agitation and stress. Hence the fact that, in many of the examples we collected, practices are mentioned that aim at restoring or keeping inner calm, peace, some higher mindedness (see contributions #3,5,6,7,13,15). In these states, this voice does not vanish whereas the other ones do, those precisely which usually make it inaudible. It can also be said that these practices are a good way to get ready for the day a key choice comes up. Going back to one's goal in life and its fundamental priorities (see examples #1,7), then assessing whether the choice being made is in line with them, can be seen as another version of this approach. It is indeed in these moments of higher mindedness, of inner peace and unity that one can clearly see these priorities.
However,this voice happens to be heard and recognized in other circumstances that are associated to a more ordinary state of consciousness. Other methods in this perspective are mentioned in the examples we collected. They can also help this voice to become audible but one can also say that they help a person to agree to hear it and to accept what it says. This will anyway be my hypothesis in this paper. In some cases, it is indeed very difficult to tell whether we did not hear, or we do not want to hear or we heard but we do not accept to follow what we heard. Finally, this does not matter: when everything becomes clear, when the choice becomes obvious, it is anyway because we both heard and accepted.

We just need to accept what it tells us

Contribution #1 in the preceding paper is a typical one. The man, let's call him Stan, reports that, when he received the letter proposing him to be promoted, he felt he would not go for it and that, therefore, he would quit the organisation he was working for. The voice that knows had spoken. Then a whole work of acceptance started. Of course, he talked about it to his wife because this decision had a financial impact for the family but he also talked to her because, he says, she is an excellent coach. This links to a quote from contribution #19 : « ... when a client comes to a coach about a decision they have to make, they have already made it...". In fact, his wife-coach helped him to accept his decision, to reassure himself that he was in line with his priorities. Explaining his decision to his daughters was another means to clarify what was taking place in himself. In this example, the time needed to accept a choice was very short. In other examples, this time may be much longer because this voice that knows can be disturbing if something within ourselves has to be clarified, if we experience some sort of disharmony in the domain linked with the choice...Bearing in mind that a disharmony or an ambiguity in one domain may hide other ones. Key choices in life, when they are a problem, are tools for inner re-alignment.

Hence the fears, the need for grieving, mentioned above, the need for reassurance about what this voice tells us. Hence also the variety of methods helping us to accept what it says. They can be grouped in a few categories, aiming at the same goal but each with their own logic. None of them actually gives the solution in itself: at least for most of them, they play the role of a trigger, they let us do a certain work so that, at some point, the intuition and the evidence arise.

Clarifying the choice : daring to include what really matters
This work has been mentioned by several coaches among our interviewees but it can also be done alone. We cannot make a good choice as long as the problem is put in a wrong way. In the case of contribution #12, a young lady becomes aware of a major choice criterion she had not thought of before and this criterium is no less than the possibility of being herself in her job. When she becomes aware of this, she simultaneously feels she has found the job that fits her. Often, when the problem is badly put, a major element is missing among the choice criterion or the choice options. As a coach puts it in contribution #11, « 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 ». This is also what the coach of contribution #8 says : « ...sometimes the best option is ignored because the person dares not think of it or voice it". We have the same idea in contribution #17, where it is recommended to set out the necessary conditions that will make an option acceptable. Rather than passively facing a choice that has been defined by others, the approach is rather to reframe it in such a way that what counts for the person comes to the fore. Then the choice becomes much easier.

Over time...
Sometimes, there is just a need for some time to let the decision mature and the mourning be made. A typical example is in contribution #2: the person, let's call her Bima, does not really know how she embarked on her project whereas, a few years before, she was scared of it. The quote of contribution #18 illustrates the same idea. The advantage of taking time, when it is possible, is that this leaves whole periods of time when one stops thinking at the choice to be made. It is sometimes by not thinking about it that the decision becomes ready. This links us to the next category.

Subterfuges against analytical thinking
Allowing time to let the decision mature, and also « sleeping on it » (see contribution #27), are methods which show us that a good way to make progress in a choice process is to stop thinking at it for some time, hence to disconnect mental processes.
It is a central element that we find in many of the examples and methods mentioned in the preceding paper.
Being attentive to emotional and physical reactions to a proposal or an opportunity (see contributions # 11,16,21), whether they are noticed by the person involved or by others, is a way to apply this idea. This leaves no time for mental processing. Something else expresses itself, that cannot be manipulated. The same applies to dreams. Of course, one can always manipulate the interpretation of this non-verbal messages but they can anyway play the role of a trigger. Contribution #9 illustrates this well. There are always several possible interpretations of a dream and, in this case, the dreamer, let's call him Alain, immediately choooses one of them when he wakes up and, at the same time, the dream triggers in him the awareness and the acceptation of this voice that knows. Did he make « the right interpretation » of his dream ? We'll never know, provided even that such an interpretation exists, and it does not matter. The point is here that, through this, Alain could make a choice he has been happy with.
Contribution #16 is also significant. The coach invites his client to make an exercise which seems very rational: giving marks to each option in view of each of the criterion she has defined, then adding them to get a global score for each option. However, this is only a pretext. What will matter is the physical and emotional reaction of the person when the coach will read out the results of her marks, not the results themselves. The dream, the marks, in those two examples, are like scaffoldings that one folds back and forgets once the house is built.
There are other scaffoldings and they were not rare in the examples we collected.
Among them are methods of questioning that shift the person away from their usual point of view when considering their choice issue. For instance, how would you see that on your deathbed (contribution #7)? What will be your life like when your son will be ten years old (contribution #10)? In the same category, contribution #22 suggests to set up a debate between several persons, each personifying and defending one option. By extension, one can also include here talking to someone else about the options between which one hesitates and paying attention to the sometimes unexpected way we present them. Talking to another person, particularly if they are neutral regarding the matter, is also a way of shifting away from one's usual viewpoint.
We also find here ways of questioning that make the person imagine and, if possible, feel the experience that they would live if the various options were chosen (contributions #25 and especially 26), a very "left-brain" exercise.
Surprisingly, advice given by others - "if I were you, I'do this"- can also be placed in this category. As said above, in such choices, others cannot "be us" but what they say can act as a trigger. A good example is in contribution #4 where Diana realises that she does not like at all what a former mentor advises her to do. Consequently, this helps her to progress in accepting what she feels should be her choice.
As we can see, this is a very abundant category. Moreover, in order to avoid adding too much to the text, I have only mentioned a part of those we collected and that are listed in the preceding paper. These mental processes which, so often, ones seeks to disconnect, appear to be a major obstacle...

Reassuring oneself
This is another important point, and it is directly linked with the fears which are mentioned above. One can reassure oneself alone but others are often useful. The common point between caution and fear is to consider potential dangers but caution would assess them in cold blood whereas fear builds fantasies out of them. Fantasies vanish more or less easily and talking about them to others can help because it implies to explicitly or implicitly acknowledge one's fear and its irrational side.
In this respect, questions like "what is the worst that can happen in this option ?" (contribution #25) can help de-fantasise. Inversely, one can be reassured by checking with trusted partners that one is cautious and has taken into account the risks associated with the option that is being chosen, that no key element has been forgotten. Whereas there is a risk of fantasising the dangers and therefore of overestimating them, another risk is to fantasise over the chosen option and therefore to no longer keep one's feet on the ground.
For some people, this entails the ex post rationalization of the decision that has been made and its presentation to others in a rational way, with "decent" arguments in a given social environment. In our western society, it is anyway often easier to appear as a rational person than to say: "I just felt it this way" or " I had a dream and I understood from it that I should choose this".
However, as we have seen above, rational thinking can also reassure if it enables to check that what the voice that knows suggests is in line with other choices already made or being made or with one's life priorities.

Here is perhaps a category of methods that, unlike all others, cannot go without a vision of the world which includes some transcendance, in a way or another.
Ancestors of these methods, which we did not meet in our contemporary examples, are omens. The principle here is that the state of a sacrificed bird's guts, or any other natural element, can tell the future of what has to be done, provided these signs are collected and interpreted correctly. In the same spirit, we have divination from drawn elements as in Yi King or Tarot. However, we met offsprings of this very ancient family. There are actually three sorts of signs which follow a gradation.
The more explicit signs are events that can be regarded as logical effects of the superior will that guides a person's destiny. For instance, someone chooses a professional career but then only finds closed doors. This can be a sign that this is not their way.
There are also coincidences, or synchronicities as defined by Jung. For instance, a person hesitates to engage in a project that will take them to Italy and, as they have to give an answer, a passer-by sings an italian song. Of course, this may not mean anything but it can also be interpreted as a sign that is sent to the person, if they believe that such a thing is possible. The point is then not to over-interpret what happens since these signs might not always be clear. Contribution #15 insists on the necessary training to the decoding of these signs.
Finally, there are arbitrary conventions that a person gives to themselves ; in this case the sign has no logical link with the choice to be made. A good example of this is the man of contribution #20, let's call him Henri, who will engage in a relationship with a woman if, when considering it, he sees a butterfly under some form. It works for him because he has given himself this personal convention. However, as to the absence of any logical link between the sign, the butterfly, and the subject, the relationships, it may well be only in appearance ; in French, « papillonner » means flying like a butterfly but also flying from one relationship to another, a way of behaving Henri has indulged in...

Finally, some choices request consistency ; They are those, in particular, which are about a permanent change of behaviour in the long term. Giving up an addiction, adopting some positive practice in one's daily life belong to this category. It is one thing to make the decision, when the need for it is strongly felt, another is to keep applying it over time.
Methods we collected are based on two principles (contribution #24). First, arranging around oneself a sufficient number or reminders, in all sorts of form, in order to keep the good resolution in mind. Second, probably the most powerful, avoiding to remain alone with this resolution. Announcing it in public at least to relatives or friends changes them, whether they want it or not, in potential witnesses of moments of weakness if not in friendly watchers.



You who sometimes try to find your way, dear companions in this big orienteering event that life is, I do not know if these lines will help you feeling and listenting to your compass when by chance you lose contact with it. They are like a buffet where one helps oneself according to one's taste. Perhaps, like these scaffoldings cited above, some of them may sometimes act for you as a trigger or help in some preliminary works. With these lines or by any other means, I wish you anyway to live your future choices well.
These lines will have at least helped their author. Even before I started this research with Phil, I sometimes had the feeling of a compass; from the subtle sensations it would give me, I felt it was located in the middle of the chest, at the heart level. This by the way resonates well with some of the contributions mentioned above. However, if I nevertheless felt the need of this research, it is because this issue of key choices in life was far from simple to me. Carrying the research and writing these lines strengthened in me the awareness of this compass. After all, this is a comforting idea, even if it cannot solve everything by itself: this voice that knows exists in ourselves, we just need to listen to it.


#2 JM 2017-03-10 10:45
"Le choix est une affaire d’expérience, de discipline et de retenue...Des esprits qui vagabondent aspirent en vain aux hauteurs pures de la perfection, celui qui veut de grandes choses doit concentrer ses efforts, seule dans la limitation la maitrise peut se révéler, et la loi seule peut nous donner la liberté.” Le peintre Léo Marchutz, cité dans "Léo Marchutz, entretiens avec François de Asis - François de Asis -
A l'Atelier, Aix-en-Provence, series Carnets de Voyage - 2014
#1 Yves MICHEL 2017-03-04 13:46
Bonjour Denis et bravo pour ce travail de recherche et de synthèse que tu et vous avez réalisé ici !
Tâche d'une immense ambition, sachant que ces déterminants de choix essentiels sont aussi très personnels, et car tu savais à priori que tu ne pourrais pas apporter de "réponse" claire...
Je trouve que tu as bien synthétisé quelques éléments clé, de mon point de vue.
Une suggestion : insister sur la connaissance de nos préférences (genre MBTI, ou neurosciences); en effet, par exemple, un introverti et un extraverti s'appuieront sur des critères très différents pour faire leurs choix...
Je fais le voeu que ces éléments apporteront quelque lumière à chaque lecteur/trice...

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