When I sold my business in 2015, I knew that, literally within 15 minutes, I would be asked by my entrepreneurial peers: “So, what are you going to do next?” No even “what now“, but “what next?” This looming question, and the decision that it foreshadowed, troubled me deeply. As I sat with that at this new and powerful juncture in my life, I realized that decisions had been causing me a lot of anxiety, and that I didn’t feel very good at deciding.
I searched myself for a solution, for an answer that I could give myself to the question of “what are you doing next?”, and the message I got was “Decide Nothing”. Most of us grow up in a left-brain world where we are expected to decide what to do all the time, in small ways and in very very big ways. We develop analytical habits and build our skill at thinking about the world in terms of facts and best options, and approach possibility and opportunity as either/or events that we can actively, consciously decide what to do with.
And sometimes we can decide.
But—it turns out that, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile puts it, “we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking”, and, perhaps because of that, or vice versa, who actually enjoys making decisions? Deciding isn’t often much fun, and most often, it’s exhausting. More importantly, deciding often simply doesn’t work. We get stuck, we struggle for an answer, we may choose something, but we won’t be happy with our choice.
Especially if thinking is the only method we have for making decisions, having to decide, not wanting to decide, or being unable to decide can be the source for a whole lot of anxiety. In fact, this negative feedback loop of wanting an answer, trying to decide, being unable to decide, and being unhappy about the entire process (and the lack of a answer) is essentially a recipe for depression.
“Human knowledge is one thing, human wellbeing another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.”John N. Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Something became clear to me in hearing “Decide Nothing” → that it was possible to consider another way of working with possibilities. It took me some time learn how to do that. To begin with, I simply avoided deciding. In fact, whenever it occurred, I used the feeling of an impending decision as a signal to do something else. I would notice the feeling of a decision coming, of being stuck or the possibility of being stuck, and I would steer myself in another direction.
The first result of this change was an immediate reduction in my anxiety level. I stayed away from the spiral of trying-too-hard-to-decide, and after some time, I started to see that most decisions would take care of themselves.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I had a further realization which gave me some insight into how my non-decision decisions were happening. I describe what happened in this podcast interview with my friend and fellow coach Camden Hoch, and I’ll describe it again here:
Trail running is something I’ve come to later in life. I never thought of myself as a runner, but like many others I was inspired by Christopher McDougall’s great book Born to Run (and a girlfriend who was an avid runner), and I gradually came to love it. One day I was out running one of my favorite trails here in the Bay Area, and I found myself flowing along, my mind quiet and relaxed as my body made its way along the trail. In this state of flow, my mind was free to be the observer, free of being in the moment and therefore free to see the moment as if from the outside. In that moment, my mind observed my body making intuitive decisions about where to place my feet, how to shift my weight, where to direct my attention ahead along the trail. My mind saw intuition working, and (I swear), I heard myself think: “If my body can do that, then I can do that.”
Intuition is not conscious decision making. If I stopped to think “where should I put my feet?“, let alone “I’m aware of myself thinking ‘where should I put my feet?’” it would be too late to put my feet in the right places. Intuition is unconscious or subconscious decision making, and it happens before we become aware of it at a conscious level.
“If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.”Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity
From that moment on, I became see myself use intuitive decision making more and more often. I began to live much more in what’s known as wu-wei. And, since we get good at what we do, my intuition has gotten better and better with practice. In the past, I didn’t trust my intuition because I had only rarely seen it at work. Now, I use it all the time, and I know that it works—and I can naturally trust that it will work.
Something to consider about analytical vs. intuitive decision making: a conscious decision can be wrong, but (at least for a sane person) an intuitive decision cannot be wrong.