“It is only in our decisions that we are important…”

You and I have already made many decisions today. I have decided to write this blog, and you have decided to read it. And in a few minutes you will decide how it has made you feel, and you will decide whether to act upon it.

As you read this, you are the result of millions of decisions that have already been made. You will have made some of those decisions, and some will have been determined by other people; just as decisions from the past have shaped who you are now, the decisions you make today will help form who you are in the future.

A range of factors influences the decisions we make, including personal preferences, memories and experiences, and information from family, friends and the media. Our decisions are also influenced by how we feel about ourselves and how we think other people will react to our choices. Many people make bad decisions, for example, because they are worried about failure, or about what other people will say.

jpsWhen Jean-Paul Sartre (the famous philosopher whose quote opened this blog) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, he refused it, saying: “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution”. I believe he was emphasising the importance of individuality, and observing that we should be driven by our personal values, and not be overly influenced by outside pressures.

EREleanor Roosevelte (one of the most esteemed women of all time) takes this further, and argues that our personal values are “not best expressed in words; [they are] expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility”.  She teaches us that we can talk as much as we like about honesty, about hard work, and about friendship, but if these principles are not reflected in the decisions we make, we cannot claim to value them. What are your values, and do your decisions reflect them?

OWThere is also much to suggest that bad decisions are not always negative. Oscar Wilde famously noted that “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”, suggesting that we all make bad decisions, but smart people learn from them. It is often the case that a decision is difficult to make because we do not have enough information (we do not, or cannot, fully understand the consequences), or we have too much information to make sense of the consequences.

In considering our decisions, what does the research have to say about how we can improve the chances of making good decisions? There are many strategies outlined in academic and business literature, and I will be talking about some of these at the ISSP event on the 5th December.

During your time at school, or at college, you have many decisions to make that will help to shape who you are, and the options that are available to you in the future – not least subject choices (and whether you decide to work hard at these subjects…).

When you are making decisions, especially important ones like subject choices, university courses and job aspirations, there are some ingredients that can help improve your decisions.

It is important when we make decisions that we have to access to timely information from reliable sources, so that we can understand as much as possible about the outcomes of each option.  Fortunately, you will have access to advice and guidance from your teachers and it is important to approach information from the media (and possibly from your friends) with an ‘enquiring mind’ – that is, to question the reliability and motivation behind information before you act on it. It is also important to understand yourself and to appreciate what you are good at, and what you enjoy – because decisions are personal.

JKRWhen JK Rowling delivered a speech to graduates at Harvard University in the US, she spoke eloquently about how we can turn failure into success, and about the power of imagination. And that is a powerful combination. Firstly, if failure is something we can benefit from, then what is to lose? Secondly, we must be imaginative in the way we live our lives and the way we think about our futures – and that means thinking beyond what might be comfortable, and not being restricted by lack of ambition.

Finally, it is always helpful to give yourself time when you have an important decision to make. Take some time to think about how the decisions you’ve made in the past have shaped who you are now, and think about the decisions you’ll face in the future – and give yourself time to prepare for them.

And, when life feels overwhelming, it’s good to focus on decisions, and the fact that we have the power to determine our own journeys. Open your mind, explore your options, make the most of it – and remember that you decide!

Nik Miller, University of York November2013