As children, we’re told by our parents when we’re good and when we’ve done something wrong. At school, of course our teachers and their dreaded red biros that they use tell us if we’ve got the right or wrong answer. The problems start when we go out into the real world – discover why on this week’s podcast episode!
*Resources mentioned during the episode*
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Hello there, and welcome back, as we look this week at one of my biggest secrets. Yes, I’m revealing all. One the biggest insights I’ve had relatively recently and something that I still need to work hard on trying to internalize is really one of my biggest life lessons, and it’s around making the right decisions.
Now, looking back, I used to always excuse myself by saying, I’m indecisive, I’m a Libra. Not to say that I’m particularly astrologically inclined, but of course, when you’re younger, you enjoy reading horoscopes. And being a Libra meant, the symbol is the set of scales, and I found that a very convenient excuse for taking so much time and struggling so much with decisions. I wanted to keep all the doors open.
Another concept I came across actually while I was travelling on my sabbatical back in 2013, just before I quit my job, was this German word, Torschlusspanik,which was the panic of doors closing.
And the idea was that I think I always wanted to keep every single option open, so I found it very difficult to choose a… In fact already at school, to choose subjects for GCSEs as it’s called in the UK and when I was 14, 15 you choose subjects. The only ones I had to really let go of were geography and art, I believe. Most things I continued with. I had all the sciences and maths and history and languages and so on.
Then, for A level in the UK, when you’re 17, 18, you have to choose three or max, four subjects, and in my case then I chose to do international baccalaureate at an American school nearby. And that allowed you to do six subjects and you had to do English, you had to do a humanities subject. I did history. You had to choose a language, so I had German. You had to do maths and a science, I did physics and then we had an optional one, which in my case I wanted to do theatre studies. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough people who wanted to do that, so I did Swedish as well.
But on top of that, you also did this philosophy class and you did all sorts of other things. So for me, that was really allowing me to keep my options open, to be able to both be a scientist and someone working in the media and journalism and goodness knows what else. The same thing happened, in fact, after I took a gap year after school and I went to university. I studied philosophy, politics and economics, PPE at Oxford in England.
And as much as it shames me to say it, one of the main reasons was it gave me the breadth. So of course, I could no longer become unfortunately an astronomer, an astrophysicist, one of the things I had been considering. There were some paths being shut out, but the breadth of that subject, the high quality of the university and the degree was something that would open doors.
Now, I’d never considered myself, or I’d never considered politics. I’ve never really been interested in economics. It’s a bit of a strange one, but a really incredible degree and broad, fascinating and really useful, whether I want to go into politics or into journalism, perhaps more likely.
And in fact, in the UK in particular, a lot of us study things that we never actually use, we never concretely turn that into a career. So lots of people will study geography or chemistry or whatever it might be, and then go off into finance and consulting and so on. I kept that breadth for a very long time. So again, that Torschlusspanik, the panic of doors closing, was something that really manifested itself very clearly for many years.
On top of that, I’ve also talked about this before, that I was this eternal good girl, and I more or less did as I was told. I was always trying to live up to other people’s expectations, whether my parents or at school. And that was very subtle, I suppose. It certainly wasn’t something I was doing consciously and it wasn’t something necessarily that people were expressing to me.
But I just had that very strong urge to get the good grades, the gold star, the tick from the teachers, the good girl. You’ve done very well. Because as kids, we’re told by our parents when we’re good and when we’ve done something wrong. At school, of course our teachers and their dreaded red Biros that they use tell us if we’ve got the right or wrong answer.
In fact, we have the manual, we have the textbook, in terms of science experiments. I always find this now quite counterproductive that of course when we were doing particular… we were trying to find if gravity existed. Of course, we knew that gravity existed. We knew that the dots were supposed to line up along the diagonal and if it didn’t, then, oops, maybe I shouldn’t admit this again, but a number of us obviously would just adjust the data to make it fit onto the line. And we’d get gold stars and got it right. We’d get the A, B, C grade. We’d get the percentage. You’re 98% correct or 82% correct or whatever. There’s always a right answer and our job was to find it.
However, the problems start when we go out into the real world, because if we’re looking for the right job in the right company as I was, or we were looking for the right partner and the right time to settle down, the right time to have children, the right country to live in, the right place to live and so on, that then becomes a problem.
So why is it a problem?
Well, first of all, you don’t even know what right is, because unfortunately, or perhaps I should rather say fortunately, there is no longer a teacher or a parent telling you, there’s no textbook, there’s no manual, there’s no person, no institution to tell you, yes, this is the right job for you. This is the right company.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you would have done many of these personality quizzes over the years to tell you what job you should have. And that certainty, I guess, of a quiz telling you what to do is very appealing. There’s still lots of quizzes and I’m in fact probably working on developing one for my website, which is going to tell you what entrepreneur are you, or this is the right thing for you. Or what Sex and the City character are you back in the day, what Disney princess and so on.
And there’s something very appealing about getting that really clear answer.
This is the job you should be doing, and that’s very helpful. But the reality is there is no one to tell you what job you should have, what company you should join, what right partner you should have. Is there a Mr. Right? Mr. Right Now, however you want to call it.
Should you have children, should you not have children? Should you stay in London? Should you move abroad? Should you travel and so on? Should you quit your job? Should you start a business? Should you go all in with your business? Should you work with this coach or that coach? Should you buy this book? Should you do that? Should you do this? And so on.
So how on earth are you ever going to know if and when you find it? Because there is no one to tell you, yup, that’s correct. So you may have done all the right things, I’ve done all my due diligence, I’ve researched, I’ve tried my best. I’ve landed on this choice. Okay, now what? Is someone going to give you a gold star? Is someone going to give you a tick?
No. Unfortunately or again, rather fortunately, I think, nobody’s then going to confirm to you, yes, this is right.
And in fact, as an aside, that’s why it’s so important I think to define what success is for you upfront, because otherwise, how on earth are you ever going to know once you get there? So you really need to know, okay, I want to feel this way. I want to have this, I want to be this, that and the other. So that when you do have, feel, become that, you know oh my goodness, yes, this is exactly what I was working towards.
But anyway, the first problem is we don’t know what the right answer is because there’s no one to tell us what that is.
Secondly, we’re never going to have complete information.
That’s in fact an economic concept. We have incomplete information. We don’t have 100% of the facts that we need to compare every single option that’s out there.
I always loved the idea of parallel universes when I was younger and still now. And I think for every decision we make, we’re potentially creating and also disregarding or throwing away an infinite number of other universes, other courses our life could have taken, but we can’t compare it.
So if I choose option A, B, C, D, E, F, and lots of other options we haven’t even considered just disappear. They don’t exist anymore. Maybe they branch off into another parallel universe and another Anna is going to another company and falling in love with another person, whatever it might be. But in this moment, all I can see is my one path and we can’t possibly compare all those scenarios, all the future possibilities.
And of course, that’s oversimplifying, because there’s one decision of, if I move to Geneva or if I study in England or America, if I take this job or that job, that’s going to also affect maybe who you do meet and fall in love with. And it’s going to affect all sorts of other things.
And we travel so much these days. There are so many opportunities. It’s that paradox of choice you may have heard of. It’s almost too much, too many possibilities, too many choices, so many different people we meet, and again, how on earth can we know that this is the right answer and not one of all these other possibilities? We can’t have complete information.
These are your five options. Boom, go. This is the job I’m going to choose. This is the husband I’m going to choose and so on. It’s not completely feasible, completely… What’s the word I’m looking for? Transparent at the same moment in time. I might be making a decision on let’s say I have this job offer on the table or this other job that I really like, but I don’t yet know and I’m not going to find out until later. So we don’t have all the options all at the same time, in order to make the decision.
And finally, this is the clincher and this is the big insight.
This is my big secret to share with you. So wait for it. Drum roll, please. There is no right answer. There is no right answer. It simply doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing.
So people may act as if there is an answer and your peers around you are behaving in a particular way. Society, again, teachers, parents, they may imply that there is a right way to live your life. They might suggest that this is an incredible job that you should be so grateful that you should be taking that. And, oh my goodness, it’s a ridiculous idea to quit your job and work on your own. And why on earth would you do that? Oh, why aren’t you getting married? Why aren’t you having children? And, oh my goodness, how come you’re traveling and all these things.
So people’s assumptions and criticisms and remarks and just your predicted thoughts of what people think as well might suggest that there is a right way to do things, but this is only one way. It’s not the way, and in particular, and this is key, this is your life. You’re the one who’s going to live this particular life. Only you can decide how to do that.
So if there is a right answer, which there isn’t, but if there is, you’re the only one who can decide that.
I’m always reminded of the Bronnie Ware book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, where the number one regret, the top regret of the dying, so these elderly people who were really on their final weeks, days before passing away, they shared the number one regret was, I wish I had the courage to live a life that was true to myself and not trying to live up to other people’s expectations.
So let’s learn from those people. let’s not have that regret. And let’s recognise that there’s no right answer. There’s no expectation to be living up to, it’s up to us to create that expectation if we want to have any expectation at all. Now the fact that there is no right answer hopefully means that the pressure is off.
There’s no need to agonise over your choices.
There’s no need to look for that external validation from the people. The reality of course is that there may be a whole host of different answers that could each be equally right for you. So you get to decide which one to pursue. On top of that, human beings are very adaptable and as it turns out, we’re incredibly good at post-rationalizing, so that we feel better about our choices.
So we’re going to create a story as to why this particular choice was the right one for us. And ultimately, we’ll make it the right one, because that’s the story we want to tell ourselves. That’s the identity. We don’t want it to be the person who’s made this incredible mistake, right?
So whether it’s a partner that we justify why we’ve chosen that particular partner, we’ve stayed with them, and so on, or whether it’s a job, whether it’s an investment decision, right? The interesting idea of course, me as a coach and me investing in other coaches as well, what I find is once you’ve chosen someone to work with, you’re completely relieved and you make it the right choice, because you’ve invested in this person or programme. You throw yourself into it and you create a story around how you are absolutely getting the results you need and this is the right thing and this was the right person.
And then in fact, you see that there’s a social proof element where you’ll recommend that coach to other people, because you see you’re getting the results and you want to share with other people who are getting results because of course I would never make the wrong choice. Which is good and bad, because sometimes we do make the wrong choice, but that’s really powerful that we are going to create a story as to why a particular choice is the right one. And that means ultimately, we will make the right one.
Okay, so first of all, if you have been looking for the right answer up until now, when it comes to your career, your family, your love life, then good news. I hereby give you permission, not that you need my permission, I give you permission to stop right now. And instead, take a moment and ask yourself, what am I really looking for here? How does this job or partner or particular decision fit into that picture? How do I feel about this decision?
Because by the way, and we’re talking about this next week, your intuition, your gut feel, your instinctive response is so critical to making a decision. We tend to focus on the rational arguments, the pros and cons. But remember, we can’t have complete information. So at some point, you need to make a subjective, instinctive choice.
And that last one is really key.
How do I feel? Because we’ve been brought up in that good girl, gold star education system. We’re so rational, intellectual, but we really do have to trust ourselves. And in fact, the biggest decision I made, I’ll talk about this next week, but the most instinctive or perhaps first ever intuitive decision I made at least for a long time, was quitting my job in 2013.
Because, goodness me, who would say that it was a good, rational, sensible choice to quit your job without a plan? This incredible job where lots of incredible colleagues and good training and job prospects and salary and et cetera, et cetera. So that was the first time, or at least the first time in a long time, that I really trusted my intuition, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
I think that deep down you do know how you feel. You do know what the right answer is. You just might not want to admit it, I suppose. You might be afraid of the answer. You might think, who am I to think that I can do this? Or, oh my goodness, this is pretty uncomfortable. I’m really getting out of my comfort zone. These are all subconscious thoughts. You might not be thinking them consciously, but those are many of the reasons or some of the reasons rather, that you might not be listening to what you deep down know is the right answer.
So for me, that good little girl who was always looking for the gold star, I have sort of learned that lesson. It’s taken more than 30 years and it’s something I’m still learning. It’s something that, in fact, my coach had to say to me again a couple of months ago, Anna, there’s no right answer here.
But I’m really trying to make my own answers. I’m trying to ask my own questions and I’m trying to really reflect and get in touch again with my intuition, which we’ll talk about next week again. If I can give you this one, incredibly empowering thought for this year and beyond, again, there is no right answer.
So please go out there, explore, get curious, open your eyes, open your hearts and see what answer you can create for yourself. Thanks so much, and I’ll see you next week. Bye for now.
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