48: The perfect decision.

- October 29, 2017 -

There are a number of big decisions I’ll need to make over the next little while, any one of which could significantly alter the course of my life.

Mainly, these decisions revolve around grad school (where I’d like to study, what I’d like to study..), but the connective tissues of these decisions extend far into other areas, affecting everything from how I imagine my career taking shape to where I imagine myself setting down roots. There is a great deal at stake, and this is a fact of which I am constantly cognizant.

In the process of making these various decisions, though, I’ve often found myself returning to something that Malcolm Gladwell once said in an episode of the TED Radio Hour podcast for both guidance and comfort. As you may know, Gladwell — a Canadian author — has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than 20 years, has written five internationally bestselling books, and has just completed the second season of his widely popular podcast, Revisionist History.

(He is, in other words, someone who has certainly been successful in making any number of decisions.)

Here’s what he had to say about his time at university, and how that relates, more broadly, to the ways in which we make plans for the future:

“I find it so preposterous … that there is an assumption that the thing that makes an education good or bad is knowable beforehand. I would have thought that the ingredients of a good education are largely unknowable.

The most important thing about my education at the University of Toronto was the fact that I met a guy named Tom Connell, and I hung out with Tom and had a million fantastic conversations with Tom and emerged from university a vastly wiser and more interesting person. …  How would I have known whether Tom was going to be there?”

Now, he’s not saying that, because such outcomes are “largely unknowable,” we shouldn’t invest any effort into the decisions we make. He’s just saying that we shouldn’t needlessly over-exert ourselves in our attempts at making The Perfect Decision because, really, there’s no such thing.

He’s calling our attention to the fact that there will always be unknown factors, that there will always be unanticipated variables and inconceivable influences, any one of which, for better or for worse, could drastically impact the outcome of any plans we’ve made. Or, to use his words, there will always be the Toms we meet without planning to and go on to have “a million fantastic conversations with:” the people, events, and external circumstances which shape our experience in ways we couldn’t possibly have known about beforehand or in any way prepared for.

He’s inviting us to let go of our need to know everything, to have sifted through all of the information and to have read all of the reviews. Because, ultimately, there really is no tidbit of insight that could prepare us for the unavoidable roller coaster — good or bad! — of even our most carefully made and intricately structured plans.


Waving from my desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.