Make Your Choice Right, or Waste Time Wondering If You Made The Right Choice

Alex Yang
9 min readDec 7, 2023
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

You just made what you thought was the biggest decision of your life so far. Your friends and family are happy for you. That’s great, but what’s next?

About 3 months ago I published a piece on my decision-making process for starting my career or continuing to play college tennis. I’ve decided that right about now is the time to check back in and reflect on something completely new that I’ve realized since making my decision. I still stand by my process and the strategies I used, but let’s just say if I could do it all over again, I’d like to approach the decision with a different mindset.

I recently I came across an amazing podcast episode of Work Life with Adam Grant, with podcast guests Coco Krumme (author of Optimal Illusions: The False Promise of Optimization) and Barry Schwartz, well known for his research on the Paradox of Choice.

In the episode, the topic of maximizers and satisficers comes up. Maximizers like to spend a lot of time and effort making the best decision or picking the best option, while satisficers are ok with ‘good enough’ and will not expend as many resources to make their choice. In the decision I made this past spring, I saw myself as a maximizer. I spent hours upon hours deliberating over what I cared about and what factors mattered in my decision. I think I was able to recognize this maximizer-like behavior and even acknowledged in my last blog that I may have spent too much time on my decision.

However, it’s clear to me now that this labeling of ‘maximizer’ vs ‘satisficer’ isn’t the crucial part of decision making and misses the point.

What Happens When You Arrive at Your Dream Destination

I spent all this time deciding whether or not to go back to school and play college tennis. While that careful thinking put me in the position to try and execute on the plan that I had set for myself by making that decision, it certainly didn’t do anything to guarantee that the choice I made would work out. If I had gotten to my new school and took the opportunity for granted, became lazy and started to coast, the outcome would be bad but that wouldn’t mean that I had made the wrong decision, it would mean that I had done the wrong things post-decision.

In my previous piece, I finished writing right around the time we had just started official team practice, so I was just getting started in my new environment. You can probably detect in that piece a feeling of contentment. “Woohoo, I spent all this time making this decision and I came out of it smarter and made the right choice for myself. Go me!” Truth is I was really happy about the decision. Maybe too happy.

One of the critical things I missed out on 3 months ago was that making the decision itself is just a very small piece of the puzzle. Now you’re at the school committed to playing tennis there, now what? What are you going to make of your time there and what are your goals? How hard do you really want to work and what sacrifices are you willing to make? What aspects of your training do you have to do differently in order to get better? These were important things that I had to struggle with in the beginning — I was so elated to have gotten to this place and for the first few weeks I was clueless about what I should do. I struggled more than I thought I would. I had to adapt to a new schedule and become more proactive about my own training. I had to ask myself several weeks after moving in about whether I still felt committed to my decision. Perhaps I even distracted myself a little at the beginning by choosing to write a three-thousand-word article applauding my own decision-making learnings. I kind of got in my own head thinking about how I had made the right choice. And so it made me realize the danger of putting too much emphasis on the decision itself. You forget that the real work, the things that will actually help you achieve something, begin the second the decision is made, and the theories of maximizer and satisficer don’t account for this.

Coco Krumme talks about this thoroughly in the episode with Adam Grant.

“When we act as maximizers, that’s part of the driving desire is to not miss out, to not regret things. One kind of folk wisdom answer I’ve found is instead of trying to minimize regret, you just sort of rewrite the story after the fact, right? When you cohere or adhere to a choice that you’ve made by retrospectively writing the story that it was in fact the best, you’re more satisfied with that decision than if you continue to question it.”

This is a beautiful idea. Adam Grant refers to it as “don’t make the right decision, make the decision right.” If you can go into decision-making knowing that regardless of what you choose, you’ll make it work after the fact, that must give you incredible confidence and the mindset to put in the work post-decision. Contrast that with someone who is scared to make a choice for fear of the consequences…even if they were to make a choice, they come out on the other end of the decision so fixated on whether they made the right choice or not that they’re in no mental position to tackle the inevitable challenges that will come soon. This person is vulnerable to regret. (To be clear, in talking about ‘making the decision right’ I’m not referring to decisions like purchasing items. Sometimes that decision to buy that cheap couch you found online that you thought was larger but actually is way too small and not comfy isn’t something you can make right. It still sucks and is too small.)

But a good example of ‘making the decision right’ is deciding where to go to college. I remember meeting someone in the first week of freshman year in college who was talking about how the spring before fall semester they were deciding between two schools and it was a really difficult decision. They then mentioned how they still think about that decision every day. Keep in mind they had already started their freshman year yet for some reason they were still worried by their choice from several months ago. What I’ve found is that regardless of what school you go to you have the chance to make the story right. There are enough resources and great people at all kinds of schools around the country that will help ambitious, determined students. But if you choose to be bitter about schools that rejected you or how you should’ve chosen a different school, you’ll miss out on what’s right in front of you. You can’t put your full effort into making your decision right. As Barry Schwartz explains,

“It forces you to try to cultivate that one shot that you’ve taken. To turn it into the best version of itself that you can…the question you ask is, “How can I make the best of the life situation that I’m currently in?” What kind of work can I do to make this a good state of affairs rather than a disappointing state of affairs? And with a lot of things like the work we do and the romantic partnerships we make, it really is in the work that you put in rather than in the selection that you make.”

I think when saying this Schwartz is probably even referring to a different situation than the one I was in. Schwartz is talking about a situation where you were immediately inclined to be disappointed with your choice, you can’t get out of it, and you have to work to make the most out of it. Most people understand concept of pulling yourself up and persevering under difficult circumstances. But for my situation, I was actually quite happy coming into my new school playing tennis and I didn’t feel like I needed to make lemonades out of lemons. This situation, however, is where it’s easy to then miss that you still need to put in the work and make the most out of it. It’s the lesser told narrative of being too content with the place you’ve arrived at, to the point where it distracts you from starting to put in the work that’s required.

This attitude is reflected in how we celebrate achievements and accomplishments. You celebrate with your friends after they get into a great med school, or they get their dream job at their dream company. What happens now? We kind of assume that things will be smooth sailing for then on. After all, they’ve arrived at their dream destination. The reality is that the real work begins. Maybe we should also properly celebrate with our friends 6 months or a year after starting their dream job or starting at a new school. At that point, they’ve shown their commitment to putting in the work and that they’re trying to make the most of the opportunity that they’ve earned.

What’s also great about this framework of ‘making the decision right’ is that it reduces the need for regret minimization. In the decision I made, I used the regret minimization framework of imagining myself at 80 years old and thinking about what choice I would regret not doing more. While this was effective and it certainly led me to making my decision, the attitude of accepting the situation you find yourself in and putting in the work takes your attention away from regret altogether. You are where you are, and you’ll make the most of it.

So What Really Matters in Making Your Decision

Given my new perspective on the importance of making your decision right, what then really matters in decision making is that you put yourself in a position where you feel motivated to execute and move forward with whatever you choose. That you can envision yourself putting your best effort towards whatever scenario you’ve put yourself in. Obviously if you end up choosing a path where you don’t feel motivated then you’ve sabotaged the plan from the start.

I still do believe that there’s immense value in going through the exercises I did in my own decision-making process. It prevented me from rushing into things and I learnt a ton about myself and what I valued. And once I went through the process and realized how much I loved tennis, this gave me the motivation to start working immediately post-deicision. I had much better clarity on why I wanted to pursue this path and that informed how I was going to make the most of it.

The information you gather while researching your options and understanding what they entail can help you assess whether you have the right motivation to pursue the path. I see now that the real point of me talking to former D1 tennis players for example wasn’t just to have them convince me about how great D1 tennis was — it was also for me to understand what I was getting myself into…the training schedule, the matches, the commitments to school. If I couldn’t execute on those things, I wouldn’t be able to make the decision right.

If Only It Were So Easy to Lower the Stakes

There is, however, a practical impediment to adopting this mindset. For me personally, it will be very difficult to loosen my grip on trying to make the right decision. Social media has rotted me to the point where it’s impossible to live life without comparing myself to others and seeing the different lives that people my age are living. With this many data points out there, there’s this fairy-dust belief that there is a right thing to do. A right decision to make. How to detach from that fully I really have no idea.

Maybe all it takes is one decision where you found a way to make the decision right.

Thanks for reading. If you have any cool articles or ideas about decision making please do share with me!

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Alex Yang

How I Decided Podcast | Articles about Culture and Decision Making