I am one of those people whose nature it is to solve problems the hard way. If there are four easy ways to accomplish something, and one hard way, I’ll discover the hard way first. Only later, if I take a step back from the problem and take a more detached view, will I discover all the easier ways. How have I survived? I’ve been extremely lucky in having developed a circle of people around me who are prepared to show me where I’m making a task more difficult than it needs to be. These are people who will, lovingly but firmly, show me where I’m wrong. Still, there are times when those people are mistaken. The hard way sometimes is the best way and, very often, the only way. If you can learn to tell the difference between being principled and being stubborn, you’ve received one of the best gifts life has to offer.
So this is for all my fellow travelers who tend to overcomplicate life’s problems, or who overestimate the effort required to solve them. Whether it’s because you want to prove something (to yourself or someone else), or because you just can’t see any easier way, these are a few guidelines to help you determine when to trust your instincts and when to listen to well-meaning friends and family.
1. Trust someone’s experience, not their ideas. When listening to advice, ask for and listen for your friend’s experience, and compare it with your own. Often, someone with absolutely no first-hand knowledge of a subject will have strong opinions about it. Be wary, for example, of dating advice from your buddy Bill who has been married for thirty years. He may have good advice about how to sustain a long-term relationship, but he will likely be clueless about how to meet, court, and date a woman. It’s the same with your own experience. If you know New York City to be safe at night, but a friend who has never been there is talking about how dangerous it is, don’t let the force of his opinion turn you from your reality. His opinion might be based on information from years before, or he might have remembered some incidents he saw on the news and taken it as a pattern. It doesn’t matter who talks louder; your experience will always trump someone else’s argument.
It’s the same when people talk from the point of view of a particular social or political ideology. Trust their behavior, rather than their ideas. The feminist activist who dates jerks, the family values activist who has an account with Ashley Madison, the men’s rights activist who has never dated a woman or been to family court, all have their story. But until they back up their ideas with experience, it’s just talk.
2. Keep in mind that family may never be satisfied no matter what you choose. It’s sad to say, but even healthy, relatively functional families don’t always know what they want for you. Or their ambitions for you may be mutually exclusive—they may want you to be a successful entrepeneur who travels the world while also spending all your free time at home with the kids. There are even some parents of adult children, sadly, who will never be happy with their kids’ choice of a mate, and will do everything they can to convince them that they could do better. In some cases, they may actively attempt to sabotage the relationship. Don’t let it happen. Set clear limits with your parents and, as a last resort, separate from them, at least until they take your relationship seriously.
3. Do a cost-benefit analysis. Even for some smaller life decisions, it’s worth getting out pen and paper and mapping out those expected costs and benefits. It’s worth noting that sometimes, even the seemingly easier decision won’t reap the expected benefits. Many people pursue some supposedly lucrative career under pressure from their parents, and enter their fields after months or years of training only to find out that jobs are not as plentiful, or as well-paying, as they were led to believe. They’ve sacrificed the career they really wanted for an elusive goal that vanished the moment it was within reach.
4. Remember there are very few mistakes until around age 35. When clients in their 20s ask me “Am I making a mistake?” my usual response is, “I don’t really think mistakes are possible for you right now.” We all would like to get things right the first time, but that just doesn’t happen often. There can be setbacks and delays, and some decisions will move you further along towards a goal than others. But until you hit your mid-30s there’s very little you can do in the way of making a serious, irrevocable mistake, short of landing yourself in prison or ruining your body with alcohol or drugs. Even when there are mistakes, their long-term effects will likely not be as catastrophic as you believe they might be. I don’t mean to diminish the heartbreaking effects of divorce, debt, psychological addictions, and toxic relationships. I’ve been through all these, and know many others who have. They are all extremely painful in the short run, and are all temporary inconveniences in the long run, if you face them honestly and persistently. Kids grow up, debts get paid or expunged, and wounds heal—sooner with psychotherapy, later without it.
In my experience, there are some decisions that are easier to make:
• When I’m faced with the choice to solve a problem alone or with others, solving it with others is usually the easiest and best choice. Doing something alone if I don’t have to makes a problem harder than it needs to be.
• Whether it’s harder or easier, the choice that will lead to the fewest regrets and second thoughts is the best one.
• Making sacrifices is OK, if a child will benefit.
• Money, security, and validation from others almost never feels as good as standing firm in my convictions.
• If it involves music, exercise, coffee, poetry, or sex (unless someone will get hurt), it’s usually the right thing to do.
Appreciate the criticism and opinions of your friends and family, and be grateful that they care enough about you to have an opinion. But consider the limitations of their advice. Experience trumps argument; family don’t always know what they want for you; and mistakes are the realm of middle-aged people only. Consider everyone’s advice, take it in, do a cost-benefit analysis, and make your own decision.