Scary decisions and how to handle them
We regularly make decisions. First are simple decisions, such as whether to eat lunch at 12 pm or 12:15 pm. Second are large decisions, such as a job offer or being accepted to several top choice universities.
Those large decisions might be difficult to make, but often we’re picking which between
B will give us the most benefit, assuming that the effort we’ll spend is roughly the same - e.g. comparable universities have similar course loads.
However, there is a third type of decision that we say no to by default, that fly under the radar. This is when the decisions require vastly different efforts. We often don’t realize we’ve made our decision by avoiding a high effort, scary option, instead of saying yes, and “how can I make it work?”
- We decide “no by default” to the higher effort option
- Analyzing “scary” decisions
- Just say yes, and the rest will follow
We decide “no by default” to the higher effort option
Not applying for a job, because it seems intimidating, is a decision. This is saying “no by default” to the “higher effort” option. Simply surviving, and not thriving, is also a decision - it is saying “no” when faced with the decision to explore outside one’s comfort zone.
We by default tend to say “no” to this type of decision, because we have the option to. Because nothing’s going to happen if we say no.
Ways of identifying this type of “no by default” decision are thoughts such as “It’s too difficult, maybe next time.” “I can’t do it.” - without further reasoning on “how can I make it work?”.
“If you’re scared of something, you should do it!” is a way of thinking that has served me extremely well when I face decisions. It’s always pushed me toward a better life (how else am I going to have new material for this blog?) but it’s taken a long time to learn to let go of my fears.
In this article I will walk through how I manage these scary decisions in a practical way.
Analyzing “scary” decisions
Identify situations where reluctance comes from fear. If we fear something, it’s often that we care a great deal, and not that it is an unattractive option. If what we were scared of was actually unimportant to us, we would be indifferent to it, rather than fear it. We shouldn’t let fear get in the way of what we care about and desire.
One of the times I had been scared shitless was a 4 day span I took to interview for a multi-national gaming company. The final interview round had candidates fly in to Paris, France. Unfortunately, one of the courses that I required for my master’s degree had a final exam the morning of the return flight.
I was too paralyzed to even study, due to preparing for the interview. If I truly hadn’t cared about getting the job, I wouldn’t be scared - it was precisely that the outcome meant so much to me, that I was terrified.
I cared much more about the interview, and choosing it over the exam was the scary option. Falling back on what I knew, which is to study for an exam, was the easy option.
Pinpointing when I was trying to turn tail and hide. During the process, the thought had actually crossed my mind to give up on the interview, and instead study for my final exam. I had also secretly hoped to not get into the final round interview. Then, I would be able to say “well, I didn’t want the job, anyway” and not need to face the fears and the strong desire head-on.
To those on the outside, it was probably a no-brainer: “Of course you’d take the interview!” But in my mind at the time it was very conflicting. I found something I wrote in my journal at the time (habit of 4+ years): “(It feels like) running into the sky, throwing myself off a cliff, to a destination that cannot be seen, but such velocity.”
How often do we say no to opportunities because they are outside of our comfort zone?
When I finally just took the leap of faith, said yes, and made the arrangement to fly out to the interview, I was suddenly forced to face all my fears.
Hence the solution: just say yes, and the rest will follow. There are ways that we can achieve the outcome that we so desire, as long as we don’t let fear paralyze us and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Just say yes, and the rest will follow
Well, maybe some success will follow, after we put in hard work. There is always an incredible amount we can do that’s within our control, to make a difficult situation less scary, and thus make us perform better.
Do what is within control
Once I decided to do the interview, I started to plan. Since I was pretty much griefing my final exam anyway, the interview had to be worth it. I didn’t want to just survive - I wanted to be at the top of my game and absolutely crush it.
The interview start time in Paris, France would be 8 AM, which was 3 AM Toronto time. I started changing my sleep schedule by half hour increments a day, and changed my eating schedule gradually as well. This was so that my peak energy times would at least align with the work hours of the interview.
The day before the interview, in Paris, I spent 6 hours walking at tourist destinations, but also planned to get to bed by 10 pm local time.
I ended up overestimating my walking speed and went a bit too far (but I was at the foot of the Eiffel tower!) and had to get a taxi back to the hotel. The trip ended up costing just below the cash I had on hand (no Uber without mobile data, and didn’t feel comfortable enough taking the metro without mobile data). This was a minor suboptimal situation in the plan, but it all worked out.
I’m glad I didn’t stay at the hotel all day, but went out and enjoyed Paris, since cooping myself up would only make me more anxious and perform worse the next day. My mind was in a relaxed and joyful state - something that happens when exploring new, wonderful things in a city I hadn’t been to before.
A relaxed mindset was the goal, and it’s my secret sauce for performing well in high pressure situations. In high school, the day before the Taiwan-version of the SATs, I didn’t study at all, but listened to Lady Gaga on repeat. Scored top 4% across ~150,000 examinees. This worked for my CFA level 1 exam as well.
So I hit the hay at 11 pm, and woke up amazingly refreshed and on my A game the next day.
I was scared, but by preparing what was within my control, sleep schedule and energy management, I was able to perform at my best, despite being in a scary and difficult situation (that I cornered myself into by saying yes, oops).
Often, the scarier option is the one we want the most, but we let fear say no by default. Knowing this, we should say yes more - the rest will follow.
I’ve grown a lot from fighting against “no by default” thoughts and saying yes to scary choices that are worth it. It’s turned out to help me grow much more than I could have imagined. Otherwise, sometimes I wonder who in their right mind would want to build a video game studio while working and studying full time? That’s just looking for trouble! But years later, I couldn’t be happier.
There’s a lot within our control that we can do to turn the odds in our favor. Instead of paralyzed by fear, it’s helpful to execute on what can help us be at our best.
Worthwhile opportunities come now and then, but may be scary due to the high effort required from us, and the difficulty they pose. But let’s be ready to say yes!