I’ve often taken the old saying of “no regrets” to mean that we can’t really make mistakes in life, but that’s never felt true to me. I think we do make mistakes sometimes—I certainly have. Just recently in fact, I narrowly avoided a very big one.
I almost bought the wrong house.
I got myself way down the road—in contract, in escrow, with the deal almost closed—before I realized that it was not just the wrong house, but the wrong house, at the wrong time, in the wrong place—and that perhaps I don’t even want to own a house at all.
After a lot of agonizing, I mustered the courage to cancel the purchase. It was hard—but then I felt the relief and clarity of knowing that I was back on my own path. I lost a significant amount of money, but without regret, having had a close encounter with what would have been a serious error. In this case, even though it was at the very last minute, I knew myself well enough to avoid a mistake.
I’d like to use my recent experience, to ask myself again—how is it possible to make—or nearly make—real, life-sized errors, when does this happen, and can we get better at avoiding these situations?
In the piece that follows here, I’ll share some methods that I’ve developed from experience, in the context of my recent decision to buy a house—and then, very thankfully, not to buy it.
Most of the decisions that we encounter along our way are just as much part of our path as the possibilities that emerge from those decisions—as is how we ended up at the point of deciding. Whichever path we choose or end up on remains our path, and so in many ways we can’t really make a mistake—we’re just on our path. It helps to remind myself that “I can’t fuck it up[ Your intuition is what keeps you from fucking up your life—and, if it’s working, you pretty much can’t. ]”—but there’s an important if that follows. I can’t fuck it up if I’m paying attention to my intuition. If I’m not paying attention, or I insist on ignoring it, real mistakes can be made.
In fact, my experience has shown me that most often when I find myself feeling that I’m in the midst of a difficult decision, I have already been ignoring or unaware of some subtle message from my subconscious. Maybe, what we perceive as ’decisions’ are the result of a lack of familiarity with our subconscious processes. I agree with what Melissa Febos suggests in Body Work, that regret is less about “wishing to undo or to not have done,” and more about the pain of observing ourselves in a state of confusion, out of touch with our inner voice. Regret is the lament of the soul, crying its sadness at not being heard.
So, how can we get better at intuitive decision-making—helping us to avoid mistakes, and perhaps even allowing us to avoid some decisions in the first place? How do we connect with our capacity for subconscious decision-making so as to steer more true to our own course? How can we live more in that bliss of sweet clarity?
And, given that the subconscious operates indirectly, how can we improve, through conscious work, our ability to move intuitively? There might seem to be a contradiction here, but we can come to be more familiar with the unconscious by focusing our conscious energy in that direction—most of all, by practicing methods that exercise the connection between the two—between the embodied and the thinking self—between intuition and cognition.
We have to learn to approach the subconscious indirectly. We can’t go directly to the subconscious and ask it a question. We have to learn to move in its realm—the realm of the body. One way to understand intuition is as embodied cognition—intuition is the body thinking—and so many of these methods involve paying attention to your body. Another way of getting indirect is through metaphors, symbols, dreams, and other types of inner work, treating what you think, and what you think you know about yourself not as literal truth, but as a sort of symbolic language that points to something deeper.
As with any practice, we get good at what we do, and so the more we practice this intuitive yoga, the better we get at hearing what our subconscious trying to tell us, and at steering our path with clarity.
“Trying to Decide”
Early on, and really throughout this very lengthy, agonizing, and expensive process that I just went through, I found myself saying again and again that “I’m trying to decide…” I was glad for the many helpful friends who jumped in with their thoughts, reflections, suggestions, or just to listen to me tell my story about how I had found this place, what I didn’t like, what I liked about it, why it was a good fit, and how I was moving forwards—and as much I hoped that one of those conversations would reveal the answer, in the end they only added to my angst.
The thing is, as I know from past experience, the very first indication that I’m on the wrong path with a decision is that I am trying to decide. “Trying” is the key word here. When we are clear, we make a decision—or at least our conscious mind feels that we do, even if it’s often the case that the decision has been made subconsciously and our ego is just claiming it for itself. On the other hand, a state of trying to decide that persists over time is not so much an ongoing decision process as a state of confusion.
Among many versions of happiness or contentment, I would highlight the feeling of clarity as one of the strongest—and the ill-at-ease feeling caused by a lack of clarity is one of the least pleasant things I can think of.
In my situation, I found myself trying to decide from just about the very beginning. Even after I (seemingly) made a decision and signed the contract, I remained ambivalent, unenthusiastic, and uncertain. Many of my friends saw that too, and some of them even said so. Still, I was more focused on moving forward than on paying attention to what my intuition was trying to tell me—and it nearly resulted in a huge mistake.
When you find yourself in this place of trying to decide, instead of diving deeper into that confusion, take it as a signal to pause and try some new methods to get a different perspective on your situation.
Pause and Zoom Out
One thing I’ve learned about thoughts and emotions is to use them as messages, observing them as if on a screen instead of letting them be my entire experience.
For example, I can choose to witness my fear instead of being consumed by fear. Similarly, when you are faced with a difficult decision and find yourself in this state of trying to decide, you can take the feeling of being mired in decision fatigue as a message to pause and get some distance from the decision.
Fortunately I had a long period of time after signing and before closing. Although I didn’t do it consciously, I did get some distance. I went to Europe and did a long trek in the mountains of Corsica, just walking outside in nature for four straight weeks. When I returned, I still felt a pit in my stomach about the house, but there was a subtle difference. I didn’t feel tortured about the decision. I felt bad about the house. I didn’t like it. I didn’t even want to go there.
The time and distance from trying to decide had allowed my subconscious to speak quietly and slowly—and insistently, and clearly. Soon after getting back home, I had the difficult but very honest realization that this house just wasn’t the one for me.
When we are finding it difficult to decide, one thing that is often true is that we need more information—and that information may well not arrive or be available to us at the conscious level. We need to create some space to let new data, feelings and sensations in, and to let the subconscious operate at its own pace. Intuition doesn’t like to be crowded, rushed or prodded. If possible, put your decision on hold, and focus your attention on something else entirely, and something outside of yourself—even for an afternoon.
Go for a long run or a hike, listen to nature or something soothing in your ears, and see what emerges along the way. Of course, meditation is one of the best ways to practice un-thinking, and often results in a new perspective. When I’ve had the presence of mind to pause and zoom out, it’s often been the case that the answer finds me when I’m looking in the other direction.
Roll the Clock Forward
Another warning sign for me was that I didn’t really want to picture myself in this new house. I could form a partial image, but when I tried to go there it would get fuzzy. I’d feel overwhelmed, and I’d go back to planning, to the logistics of the deal. Thing is, when an important decision is at hand, it’s worth the effort to force yourself into your future shoes (and again, if you are resisting doing this, that’s a red flag in itself).
Set aside an hour of quiet time with your notebook. Slow down with some breathing or a short meditation and then roll the clock forward to put yourself in the position of already having made the decision. Imagine “yes” first, and capture how you would feel if you had said yes some time ago, and are now living in the future created by that decision.
Once you’ve captured the feeling of yes, shift gears, imagine saying “no,” and again imagine yourself in the future, living with the results of that move. How will you feel? As you inhabit your future self, do you feel longing or distress thinking of the other possibility? Beyond thinking about it, focus on the sensations in your body while you imagine the future scenarios. Do you feel excited? Relaxed? Tense? Grateful? Anxious? Don’t think about these sensations, just take note of them, along with whatever thoughts and feelings come up.
Once it feels complete, take some time away from the list that you’ve compiled and then look at it in the clear light of day, and see what impression it gives you.
I didn’t have the courage to do this exercise myself until I had been away for several weeks, but I did it when I returned, and the results were clear. In the “yes” column I had “view, sunny, warm, quiet, calm,” and “a place to live.” All positive, but under “no” I had “expensive, complicated, bad parking, broken, landlocked, unsettled, desperate, lonely,” “feels like retreat”—as in going away to hide—and, finally, “dead.” That sure helped to clear things up!
Fuck Yes, or Hell No
When I heard that some acquaintances were selling their house and that it met all my general criteria, of course I called them right away and suggested we make a deal. In fact, I pushed hard to do so. It seemed like good fortune had struck, and I worked hard to make it into reality.
As animals, we’re wired for yes—to do things, create, reproduce, take action and go places. Sometimes we get caught up in the inertia of a direction or a project that is no longer true to our present self. If you feel a subtle no, are troubled by something unspecific or plagued by anxiety when you think about going forwards—pause, step back, and dig deeper into what your subconscious might be trying to tell you.
Intuition is often the cautionary voice of “no” that protects us from making impulsive, naive or dangerous decisions. Socrates relied on his daimonion, a ’spiritual’ voice that “warned and prevented him from doing something wrong or harmful to himself” — and always in the form of a warning not to act. We don’t need help with yes—but now and then, we need our guardian angel to protect us with a no that perhaps we can’t come up with ourselves.
Do you feel an enthusiastic “fuck yes” about going ahead with your decision? The truth is, I didn’t—instead, I heard a consistent and not-so-subtle whisper of “Maybe…no.”—but I did my best to ignore this voice for weeks and weeks, until it was almost too late.
Listen carefully to the voice of no, my friend.
Whenever I would tell a friend about this house that I had found, I would reel off a long list of reasons why it made sense: the view, the south-facing sunshine, the trees, the fact that it was just the right distance from town, and on and on. What I often left out was that I didn’t love the house. I even developed a story to try to make that ok, saying that “I know I can’t have everything,” or even that this house was “a lesson in compromise.” Perhaps true enough that can’t always get everything that we want, but I was working too hard to find ways to make it fit.
As Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “…if you have more than one reason to do something…just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.”
Make a list of the reasons that you have for each of your options. How many are there on each side, and how clear and true do they ring? A long list of reasons that seem to make sense, especially when you are trying to explain to others why you’re heading in a particular direction, can be a sign that you are cooking up justifications for a decision that you’re not clear about. See if there’s a path for which you have a single, clear, true reason—and follow that.
Who Else is Involved?
I was in a very different place when I started looking for a home again early this year. I was still in the process of ending a relationship with a woman who I had developed a powerful romantic fantasy about, that she might move to live with me here in Northern California. Even though our relationship was already ending, she was still present in my psyche as I looked at houses, and although I didn’t think that she would literally come to live me with in this house, I did picture her visiting me there. I also rejected another possible home after imagining her not feeling comfortable there.
Are there other people who come to mind as you consider your options? Are you taking your feelings—or fantasies—into account? It’s usually much easier for our friends to encourage us to do something that we are considering than to warn us away, even if that’s what they are really thinking. Who wants this for you, perhaps even more than you want it for yourself? Who else is involved in your decision?
We can often use others to distract us from our own truth. When you find yourself thinking of anyone else in relation to your decision, strip away those external voices and focus on to your own true feelings.
Serendipity Can Be Alluring
Just because things seem to be lining up doesn’t mean that what is coming together is for you. When my friend P told me that some mutual friends were selling their house, I took it as a sign that things were going to work out. I had been stressed about the lack of homes on the market, and about finding myself a place to live, and this seemed like the perfect answer.
The truth was that it was the perfect answer, just not for me. Serendipity is a beautiful thing, but don’t let it’s allure charm you into a direction that isn’t actually your own. If it seems like magic is happening, stop and ask yourself whether the magic has anything to do with you. If not, let it pass—the beauty of the fortuitous moment has already occurred. It doesn’t need you any longer.
Ask for Reflection, not Advice
All too often, advice is weak magic—a way of suggesting to someone else to do some version of something that you wish you had the courage to do yourself. I really don’t like it when others tell me what to do, and I try to avoid giving advice in that way, but it can be very helpful for others to reflect to us that which we are blind to.
Instead of “here’s what you should do,” I might say, “I know you a little bit, and I have a reflection for you. Would you like to hear it?” Similarly, when I’m struggling with a decision, I’ll ask people that know me for reflections on what and how they see me in the situation. Do I seem like me? Do I sound calm and centered, or anxious and in disarray? Do I make sense when I talk about the situation? What are the words that I’m using that I may not be hearing clearly myself?
Most people are more familiar with giving advice, so to try this out, ask your friends to hold off with the advice—and instead, to hold up the mirror.
The fact is that even though holding her image in mind was part of my confusion, when I did have the chance to talk about this place with my ex, back before I signed the contract, even she suggested that it didn’t quite sound like me. At the time though, the wheels were already turning too quickly for me to give her reflection the weight it deserved. She knew me, she had the courage to reflect what she saw in me—and she was right.
You can also do this for yourself—try recording yourself explaining your rationale for each of your options. Listen to the recording, and then give yourself the reflection that you would give after hearing your own story as if it was someone else’s.
Test for Alignment
Even if you have felt—as I have for much of my life—that I don’t know myself all that well, you can use the you that you are right now as a point of reference. Sometimes we really are in need of a major change—and sometimes not. A good indiction of authentic need for change is an already-existing feeling of anxiety or depression, and a brighter or calmer feeling when considering a new direction. If you have the opposite feeling—you feel ok, and the potential decision makes you feel less that way—move with great caution.
Let Your Body Move
I know the feeling well of worrying over a question, my anxiety growing and growing, working myself up into a whirling ball of I don’t know what to do. Sometimes our minds are so cluttered and vibrating with energy and anxiety that we just can’t make any sense at all of what’s up there in the head.
At these times I’ve often found it helpful to find a way to get my body moving, especially outside in nature. Almost anything simple will do: walking, yoga, running, a favorite sport, dancing, a bike ride, or even taking a drive. Let your mind stay occupied with what it’s stuck on, don’t think about where you’re going, and just let your body go where it wants to, without thinking. You may be surprised where you end up—and take careful note of whether the direction in which you have moved has any relation to the options that you are considering.
In my case, when I let my body take me here it wanted to go, I often found myself moving away from the area where this house was located—a pretty clear message that I didn’t want to go there.
Emotions Are Not Feelings
Many of us are not all that attuned to what we are actually feeling. We tend to think of emotions as ”feelings,” but our emotions are often rooted in actual bodily sensations, and these physical feelings are direct indications of how you—the person—are actually feeling about what at first may seem like an idea or an intellectual decision.
Let yourself get quiet as you visualize your options and take note of the physical sensations in your body as you consider each one. If you don’t know what you feel or don’t feel like you feel that much, you might use the body scan technique to guide you. What do you feel, and where? Do you feel warmth? Pleasure? Ease? Pain? Tension? Nausea?
What do those feelings tell you?
Language is Revealing
What words do you use when talking about this decision? Again, you might record yourself describing your situation, or ask a friend to listen and take notes, and then look closely at the language that you use, paying special attention to words that you repeat, and words that are loaded with double meanings. Does your future with this decision feel big or small? Open or closed? Bright or dark?
Serve Your Future Self
Ask yourself, who are you becoming, and who do you want to be in a year, two years, three years, five years? I sometimes envision that future version of myself reaching back from the future with a golden hand, both pulling me forwards and also very much asking for my help. What does that person want from you, now, today? How can you be of service to your future self, and for each option that you are considering, who will that help you become?
Something’s Bothering Me
A week after I got back from my overseas trip, with the house in contract and deposit in escrow, my father asked me what was bothering me about the house. I couldn’t picture anything that felt that significant, just images of some small cracks in the drywall and a minor chaos of wiring around the basement circuit breaker panel. Just some repairs, no major issues—but it just felt bad.
When we are overwhelmed and confused, it can be hard to tell whether our hesitation is based in fear or whether it’s the result of an authentic intuitive “no.” It can help to know that unless there is some real danger involved, what feels like fear is most often actually anxiety about of the unknown—a ‘fear’ that some specific “X” might happen. Once we cross the threshold into wherever we are going, that unknown becomes more known, and the fear, or anxiety, dissipates.
An intuitive hesitation on the other hand often makes itself known as an unspecific, general feeling that something just isn’t right. It can be difficult to give much weight to this sort of vague feeling, but voice of the unconscious is subtle, and it may not choose or be able to reach us often or with much volume. If you feel something is off, take the time to give that feeling your attention. Thank it for speaking up and ask it to tell you more about what it has to say, what it wants from you, and what it needs. It can help to picture the voice or give it a name, an image, a character. Honor whatever sense or feeling you have about the situation, and listen until you grasp the meaning of the intuitive message.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
The Sunk Cost Fallacy “describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.” There’s some value to the old saying, ‘finish what you started,’ but on the other hand our commitment to ideas and projects—and to the satisfaction of getting things done—sometimes leads us to continue to advance the cause of a version of ourselves that we no longer are, or want to be.
I went further and further down the road with my house purchase, negotiating, doing inspections, signing the contract, putting down a deposit, arranging for insurance, and preparing all the funds required to close, hoping to find a greater sense of myself every step of the way, when in reality I was riding on inertia from a past version of myself. I was continuing with something that I started for reasons that had since changed instead of re-evaluating my options and actions in light of the present. I was serving my past self instead of my future self.
Don’t get caught up in pouring more and more energy into trying to find a “solution to a problem that no longer exists,” as my friend and fellow coach Robert Ellis puts it. Sometimes you’re out on a limb, a branch of your life path that turns out to be a dead end. It’s ok to turn around.
Give Yourself Options
Another of the most useful things that I’ve picked up along the way is the connection between having options and being “antifragile.“ As Nassim Taleb puts it, “optionality is a substitute for intelligence,” and “many things we think are derived from skill come largely from options.” Having only a single option is not freedom, and is not really even safe. More options are better than fewer.
Stability often feels like security, but that sense of security can be false, especially if it comes at high cost and leaves you with fewer options going forwards. For me, buying this house would have made me feel more stable, but I also took note of the sensations of constrained, constricted and claustrophobic that I felt in my body when I envisioned living there. Those feelings pointed me to the realization that I was moving towards a situation that would have reduced my optionality in way that I wasn’t comfortable with. I felt the financial burden would make me end up working for the house, just like I ended up feeling that I was ’working for’ motorcycles that I owned, towards the end of the time that I was a motorcycle rider—maintaining them more than I was enjoying riding them.
So—what are your options now, before and regardless of this decision that you’re trying to make? How would going in one direction or the other with the decision at hand affect your further options in life? Would saying “yes” increase or reduce your optionality? I’ve often been surprised to find that removing (or saying no to) things has increased my options more than saying yes.
Looking for an Exit?
When I was in the midst of trying to decide whether to buy this house, I realized that I kept telling people the story that I would buy the house, live there for a few years, and then, in my sixties, buy a sailboat and go cruising. In the shorter term, in an effort to make myself feel OK about going forward, I told myself that I could live there for two or three years, get the place fixed up, and then, hey, if I didn’t want to live there, I could always sell it or rent it out.
In both cases, I was already looking for an exit from the situation that the decision would lead me into. If there’s something of tomorrow in your story about the present, consider whether what’s showing up as ”someday,“ later, the future, or afterwards, might be what you’re really aiming for. Our real goals are often more difficult to aim for, and alternative projects are often forms of distraction, procrastination—what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance, keeping us from having to face our true path.
Start with Yes, but Default to No
As I stated in the beginning, we are wired at a very low level for yes—but it’s also true that when faced with something that seems like a difficult decision, the default answer should always be no. This is a corollary of Nassim Taleb’s One Reason rule—if it’s an easy decision, the decision makes itself, and you wouldn’t be having such a tough time searching for answers. If it feels difficult, see how it feels to shift your thinking to allow “no” to be more possible.
Just like not buying something is not only easier but often more gratifying than buying something (and perhaps returning it), considering a possible decision and then landing on “no” can be incredibly freeing, often moreso that whatever it was that you were considering doing. Not doing is a form of doing, and sometimes it’s good to remember this koan that’s often taught along with—or learned from—mediation: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
Change Your Mind
Throughout this three-or-more-month process, whenever I thought of changing my mind I would then immediately think of certain people who—so I thought—might think poorly of me. I thought about all the people that I had told that I was buying a house, and having to tell them that I had changed my mind—and I thought of how changing my mind might reflect on me as unable to commit, unreliable, unsettled, ungrounded, or un-something, and even how all of that might put certain friends off from the idea of setting me up with their other single friends. I thought about how one very close friend had alerted me to the possibility of this house being for sale in the first place, how he might be disappointed in me, and even that it might threaten our friendship. I felt a lot of shame thinking about changing my mind and imagining the consequences—at least, as I imagined them.
Changing our minds can feel like admitting that we were wrong. We’ve told the story a hundred times one way, and it feels awkward to have to tell another story. Perhaps, as I did, you called in some favors, and you feel it would be ungrateful to go in another direction.
Let me tell you something that I learned long ago about changing my mind, something that may seem a bit flip—but that is also true, and it’s helped me digest the idea of changing my mind in a more positive way.
Here’s the trick. When you change your mind, you get to be right twice! You felt “right” in the first place, before you changed your mind—and if you change your mind, you will be right again, in knowing that you want to do something else.
This little bit of jiujitsu helps me get over the shame of changing my mind and give over to the joy of a new point of view. If you’re thinking about changing your mind, you probably already want to change your mind, and if you want to, and you can, you certainly should!
It’s also true that we often have to try a decision on and wear it for a while before we have a clear feeling about what is right for us. As difficult, painful, and costly as it was, I’d rather move forwards decisively, as if I was doing something—as in fact I was, having signed the contract and begun preparing the funds to close—and then, if necessary, change my mind, than hesitating, undecided, and ultimately unknowing of anything at all.
As Desmond Ford wrote, “A wise man changes his mind sometimes, but a fool never. To change your mind is the best evidence you have one.”
Your Second Sight is Always “Right”
As I reflect on this recent experience, what comes to mind is most of all that my intuition is always “right.” I don’t mean that what comes up as a gut feeling is easy to interpret, or that my subconscious tells me literally or exactly what to do, but that when my intuition is speaking up, it always has something important to say, and that it’s right to put energy into figuring out what my subconscious wants to tell me.
It can be hard to know how to go deeper with intuition, because it is a subtle voice, and it often isn’t obvious what it’s trying to say. Your psyche is made up of many parts—characters, components, pieces of you, even ‘different’ personalities—and many of those parts are more subconscious than conscious. One way to understand it is that intuition is your inner vision—one of those subconscious parts, ready to tell you what it sees, and wanting to be heard. That part is ready to share its insight with you, ready to enlighten you with its unique point of view—which is also you!
Think about how badly you want to be seen, heard, and understood. Your intuition wants the same, but it can’t speak to you directly. The first step is to encourage it by listening, even if you don’t understand what it’s saying. You can even speak to your subconscious parts just as you would with anyone else close to you, and say “I hear you. I don’t understand yet, but I hear you. I love you and I want to understand how you feel. Please keep speaking to me. Tell me more.” As I ruminated over buying this house, I knew that something felt off, but because it was indistinct, I put more energy into getting it done than to listening deeper. My intuition was trying to communicate with me from the beginning, but because I didn’t pay much attention, it had to wave bigger and bigger warning flags in front of me, trying its message across.
Thankfully, my subconscious finally did get through to me—just barely before it was too late. I almost ’got it done’ before I got the message. Sometimes we have to slow down. We have to create space between all the thinking and doing to allow our intuition to reach us.
Going down the road as far as I did before changing my mind cost me a significant amount of money, but far less than what it would have cost me to go ahead with what would have been a real mistake. Now, I don’t feel landlocked, unsettled, desperate, lonely, or dead. I feel clear. I feel calm, alive and awake. I don’t know exactly where I’m going from here, but I feel like myself, and that’s the only way to be.