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Academic life

Tough decisions: knowns and unknowns

When facing tough decisions, the first piece of advice we turn to is the good old list of pros and cons. But anyone who’s gone through this exercise for something more complicated than picking an ice cream flavour knows that the list doesn’t magically reveal your choice. Not all pros and cons are created equal. So how do we keep cutting through the noise and get closer to making the call?

Clients often come to coaching sessions looking for support as they grapple with a choice. Sometimes the decision is life-changing: changing jobs, leaving academia, starting a family. Other times, the choice at hand is important, but less critical: saying yes or no to writing a book chapter, joining a committee, attending a conference. In both scenarios, though, I’ve noticed that people struggle to differentiate between what I’ve come to call the knowns and unknowns.

The knowns: Just the facts, please

On your handy list of pros and cons, it should be pretty easy to identify the “knowns.” These are the factors in or consequences of your decision that you can name, measure, or know the answer to. For example, if you’re considering switching jobs, “known” factors might include your new salary, the number of courses you’ll teach, and the city you’ll be living in. If you’re trying to figure out whether to say yes to a book chapter or say no to focus on your dissertation, known consequences include the time it will take to write the chapter (time you won’t be working on the thesis!).

The known factors tend to be quantifiable or easy to predict. They’re concrete and tangible. If all of the items on your pros and cons list fall into the “known” category, great! You have a pretty solid list to start weighing.

The unknowns: Fears, assumptions, and other bogeymen

Chance are, however, there are few shadowy “unknowns” haunting your mind as you seek clarity on your decisions. These are the potential (but not certain) outcomes that we worry about or assume may happen, even without firm evidence. If the words “might,” “could,” “what if,” “I’m afraid that,” or the like are present, you’re probably dealing with an unknown.

In the examples above, fears and assumptions could include:

  • I might not like my new colleagues
  • What if my kids don’t like their new school?
  • I’m afraid my current colleagues will be disappointed in me
  • The book editors could take it personally if I say no
  • I might need that line on my cv to get a job
  • I’m afraid it will look bad if I say no

Sure, those things are possibilities. But you can’t know for sure, and you can’t know what the actual consequences would be. They say more about your own deeply-held fears and insecurities (which we all have and they deserve our tenderness!) than they do about the choice you need to make.

Clearing the clutter from your decisions

I encourage clients to shine some light on the unknowns. Often these fears are unvoiced yet they’re having an outsized influence on our thinking. Once we take them out of the shadows, we can see them for what they really are: a bunch of anxious what ifs that have no evidence behind them.

Scratching these unknowns off the pros and cons list can help reduce the noise and allow you to home in on what really matters to you in your decisions. You can start comparing apples to apples. For example, salary vs. salary. Time spent on one thing versus time spent on another.

I’m not promising that all your decisions will be easy to make. However, once some of the anxious clutter is swept away, you’ll have greater clarity and a much better chance of making your choice from a place of confidence rather than a place of fear.