Recently, I made a difficult decision that had been years in the making.
I kept wondering whether or not I should leave the city that I lived in. While I had gone to college nearby, most of my friends had moved away, and since then I hadn’t been able to find my own “tribe”. However, I had no idea where else to go.
Here’s a glimpse of the thoughts that constantly swirled around in my head during this time:
Should I go to New York City? I have lots of friends there and always have fun when I visit! However, I would have to have roommates, and it’s an expensive, dirty, and largely unfriendly city. But I could definitely find work there and wouldn’t need a car! Plus, the winter isn’t as harsh! Or maybe I could go to grad school and live in Ann Arbor? I’ve heard it’s a nice college town full of intelligent and friendly people, but haven’t I lived through enough freezing Midwestern winters? Would I be able to easily live there without a car and just ride my bike everywhere? Or maybe I could go back to California and be close to my family and finally leave the snowy winters behind me? But I don’t drive, so how would I get around? I grew up there, but none of my close friends live there now, and I didn’t really “fit in” during high school. So why come back now?
Welcome to the inner mind of a chronic, hyper-analytical overthinker!
Fast forward to 2020. Within just one month, I experienced a serious medical emergency and found myself within a full city-wide lockdown. This is what I had always feared: being far away from my family when a personal or collective emergency happened. I’d been dealt both at once.
This clarified for me that being close to family was a high priority. Not to mention, many of the other options lost their appeal. I mean, life in New York City now is not at all what it used to be. Besides, I realized that even after the COVID-19 situation was under control, I didn’t want to return to big city life anyway.
So, I asked myself: If I didn’t have my job, would I want to stay here in this city, or would I go back and live with my parents on the west coast?
This was a simple question to answer.
By the way, hello from sunny California!
Now, I’m going to break down the two strategies that brought me clarity when I had seemingly endless options.
1. Reevaluate your core values.
Brené Brown, a top researcher in vulnerability and shame, put together this list of values. When I feel overwhelmed about which direction to take, reminding myself of the different aspects of life that I can choose to prioritize (or not) helps center my thinking. By noticing which values jump out to us, we can narrow down those that matter the most, and then reframe the underlying question to emphasize them.
It’s important to say that it’s typical, and maybe even healthy for your values to shift over time. When I graduated college at age 22, being close to my family wasn’t a priority for me. I wanted to explore on my own. I valued my independence. However, as the years went on, I began to wonder if living a multi-hour plane ride away was truly ideal.
2. Think about the mundane, small details that would accompany each option.
For example, I recently considered leaving the corporate world for good to become a high school math teacher. I have always enjoyed tutoring and strongly believe in doing my part to close the education inequality gap. While the teaching profession does strongly align with many of my interests and values, I also worried it wouldn’t be worth all of the extra schooling to earn my credential (along with the salary reduction) that would come with this career change.
Should I be a teacher, or stay in the corporate world? Is spending eight hours a day in front of a computer answering emails and doing technical work really sustainable for me? How does anyone think this is healthy or natural for human beings to do? Wouldn’t helping children learn math feel more meaningful to me? But what about the salary reduction? What about the kids who hate math? Would I get tired of grading all the tests and homework?
All it took for me was asking myself this specific question: Do I really want to start my day teaching math at 7:50 a.m. every morning?
But I am more than happy to help out with homework occasionally in the afternoon.
After all of the vacillation and weighing of pros and cons, it all boiled down to one seemingly trivial question. Yet it isn’t trivial at all.
The simple, everyday aspects of our lives matter much more than we think. Starting the day leading a classroom of groggy children at 7:50 a.m. every morning is surely one of the (likely) many aspects of a teaching job that would eventually lead me to burnout. In contrast, beginning my day making tea and saying hello to friendly adult co-workers seems much more appealing.
The next time your thoughts are furiously racing through your mind and you feel paralyzed by the choices in front of you, pause and take a deep breath. Remember that what feels endlessly complex can always be broken down into simpler, foundational pieces. Revisit the root of the problem, contemplate your top values, and most importantly, don’t forget to review the details.