Skip to content

How to Make Wise Decisions

Erik Larson Apr 2, 2013 3:38:45 PM

Decisions are the hardest part of life, the times when we set out and take fate in our hands. The word "decision" is stark – it comes from the Latin decidere, meaning to cut off. No wonder difficult decisions can put us on a knife’s edge. We must try to make wise decisions because they are literally cutting off life directions.

To do this, we try to understand our decisions before we make them. We seek advice from friends and experts, we gather facts, we read, we search the Internet. Many of us know to sleep on big decisions, and a few of us even apply some math to the effort.

In the end, after all that work, it is still impossible to make the "right" decision, because no matter how hard we try, we can’t predict what will happen. We should try to understand the decisions we face. We have responsibilities to ourselves and those around us to make the best decisions we can. But making wise decisions is more important than making "right" ones.

A wise decision is one that we will not regret no matter what happens. We should understand our decisions as best we can, not to find the impossible right path, but to have confidence and peace of mind about the decisions we make, come what may. To decide without regret, we must first understand ourselves.

The secret is our instinct for empathy, for understanding how others feel. It causes us to seek out people who faced similar decisions. That is a valuable intuition. We not only figure out what may happen, but a wiser part of us also learns how we will feel about the world after the decision. In this sense, empathizing with someone is the very best way to communicate. By putting ourselves in their shoes, we feel what they felt, borrowing their life for a moment to better imagine our own future.

I believe empathy and the insight it brings is the essence of wise decisions. It gives us valuable distance from our decision, what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls the “outside view.”  At the same time, it keeps the decision real, giving context and depth to our decision by putting us in our own shoes, as they will feel after we decide. Talking with other people allows us to visit the world our decision may create, and use that experience to better know our own mind.

Doing this, we gain wisdom. And this wisdom gives us confidence, so our motivations become winds at our back. More importantly, this wisdom gives us peace of mind, so when real world fails to obey our imaginations, we can continue on our course and not head back to port in fear.

To make wise decisions, we must imagine how life will be after the decision. We must step outside ourselves, and try on the experiences of others to better know our minds. We can't worry over our decisions forever, returning again and again to a vain search for the "right" one. We must accept the truth even when it hurts. Then we can decide wisely.

By Erik Larson, Cloverpop founder, @erikdlarson.