How do you make life-changing decisions?
January 6, 2014 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How do you go about making huge decisions that will significantly impact every aspect of your life? Is there a system or method for doing this well?

I am considering leaving my current job (I expect to be laid off in the next year or two anyway) and going to law school with an eye to practicing in a field of law that relates to my work history. I have been accepted for this fall at excellent schools where I currently live and where most of my family lives, so in addition to deciding whether I really want to go to law school, I also have to decide where -- and where I go to law school is for various reasons also probably going to be where I live for the foreseeable future after law school.

I'm providing only high level data here because I'm not really looking for advice on whether or not to go to law school, I'm looking for advice on what kind of process to go through to make that decision. I feel like I have a fairly good grasp of the risks and possible rewards of some of the different outcomes, but how do you begin to compare the value of things like 'more diverse career opportunities' and 'more opportunity to see my beloved niece grow up'? I've been thinking about this in a haphazard way for months and not come to any firm conclusions, but now the deadlines on accepting the admissions offers are approaching, so I have a timeline, and I need to think about it more methodically.

I feel like I've made major life decisions fairly haphazardly in the past. I've only really made two "big decisions" like this in my life. I chose my university (and thus the city I live in) and course of study on little more than a whim when I was 16 and then just followed a fairly well-defined path from there without taking any major risks or making big changes until I left that path and moved to my current job. That was the second big decision and even it felt pretty whimsical -- I was offered the job out of the blue and I thought it would be interesting, so I took it. Those decisions have turned out well, but I don't think that's a point in favor of my decision making skills, I'm just lucky enough and flexible enough that those decisions worked out okay.

I can't even decide which category to put this in, because switching careers is work and money but being close to my family is human relations but going back to school is education, etc. So, 'grab bag' it is.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Make sure you have looked at the total cost of law school vs. employment rates for new lawyers. Unless you have a passion for the law (rather than for research, or writing, or argument), you may be gambling with your future rather than investing in it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:35 AM on January 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

I usually consult my values and life goals. Does [decision item] lead in a direction consistent with what I value and where I hope/plan for my life to go? Or does it lead away? Where two good things are in conflict (being close to family for daily/weekly visits, or advancing my career which might mean quarterly/annual visits instead?), look at what is your primary value right now - not forever, but now. That can shift over a lifetime - for instance, it's been fine to be far away while my parents were young and I needed to establish myself in a career with whatever opportunities were on offer. Now that they're older and I am much more established, I want to be closer to family and that may change my career path a little. The relative priority of "family" vs "establishing career" in the values list has risen.

Also, it is reasonable to take risks in life. You can't control for every eventuality, and part of being able to make decisions is also being able to trust yourself in making them, then let go and not bedevil yourself with second thoughts and what-ifs.

Finally, many decisions are reversible. You can go to law school, drop out, and find another job in your field. You can go to law school and immediately move away afterward, or work abroad. We often find ourselves thinking we're trapped by our past decisions, when really, it's not hard to step out of most decisions related to career. It's just something we are generally reluctant to do if we are on a trajectory we want to stay on.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on January 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

showbizliz makes a great point. My understanding is that the field of law has been undergoing an employment crash.
posted by Miko at 9:41 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

but how do you begin to compare the value of things like 'more diverse career opportunities' and 'more opportunity to see my beloved niece grow up'?

Money is, honestly, the easiest way, at least for me. First, just get a rough number for what you'd be getting paid and spending every month: how much the sort of jobs you may want pay, average rent/mortgage for the type of place you'd like to live in, gas or public transportation fees in that place, law school debt payments, etc. etc. You'll have a different number for each place, of course. This will give you an idea of what career opportunities will provide/cost you.

Then you'll want to try your best to quantify the stuff you're having a hard time with. For your niece, for instance, you'd be comparing how much it would cost per year to fly out (or drive or whatever) to visit her as often as you'd like, vs. not having to do that. Make sure you factor in how much of your time you'd have to use to make up for having to fly out to visit, as well.
posted by griphus at 9:42 AM on January 6, 2014

The classic answer to this question, especially if you can narrow it down to two equal-on-paper choices, is this:

Flip a coin.

Heads, I go to Harvard.
Tails: I go to Yale.

While the coin is in the air: what are you hoping for? Are you rooting for a particular outcome?

The coin lands. It's tails. You're going to Yale! Are you thrilled? Awesome. Are you miserable? Luckily, this coin toss is not binding. You wanted to go to Harvard. Now you know.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 9:43 AM on January 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

You should really only be going to law school if your grades and LSAT score are good enough to get you in to a top-15, maybe even only top-10 school.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:45 AM on January 6, 2014

I'm in a similar situation and a friend highly recommended this book: Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. I haven't read the whole thing but it does provide a framework for evaluating major decisions like these from multiple perspectives (instead of only the perspectives that we tend to lean on due to individual personality/instinct/experience).
posted by telegraph at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

In education there's this idea of "backwards planning" or "beginning with the end in mind"; you sit down and list all the outcomes you want and then go backwards to see where you need to be at each step to achieve them.

This can be really helpful in life planning as well. Figure out where you want to be when you're, like, eighty. Do you want a certain amount of money? Is there a way you picture having and/or supporting your family? Accomplishments? Travel? Figure out what your goals actually are, then go back. Where do you need to be at the age of, say, sixty or seventy to achieve those things? If family is important to you, what do you need to have at that point to reach your end goals? Do you want to live near your parents? Do you want to live in a foreign country? Do you want to have retired already? Made a certain amount of money? Own your own house?

Go back and do that for every ten years or whatever until you have an actual plan. This can help you figure out what you need to be doing NOW to get where you want to be.

Obviously things will not work exactly the way you want them to and the way you plan them! Nothing ever does! This is just a series of goals so you can step back and figure out if you're actually headed where you want to be. It gives you a basis for making these decisions and provides a clear goal so that you're not just sort of blindly making choices at each step.

Also, for law school, it can help you contextualize whether or not it will help get you where you want. Again, nothing is certain (ever! Nothing!) but it might help you look at numbers and locations and figure out if it's actually an investment that would work for you.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:48 AM on January 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

Most big life decisions are made haphazardly with incomplete information.

Let's take a different problem. Imagine that instead of grappling with this dilemma, you or your partner discovered you were accidentally pregnant. What framework do you apply to decide what to do about the baby? For most people the decision is emotional / intuition with a dash of influence from a moral framework.

Or take another problem. You are in hospital and sick. Would you like to consent to have a major organ removed? In my experience, formal decision making frameworks need not apply when standing in or beside a hospital bed.

Your decision isn't life or death. As long as you've thought things through do whatever you think is best. Life is haphazard. That's what keeps it exciting.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:52 AM on January 6, 2014

I've made all of my big decisions, including law school, which law firm to work for, and quitting said law firm without a backup job, on a whim. It's worked out pretty well so far. Your gut often knows the best thing to do, even if it isn't the most responsible choice or the choice other people would make.

While law school is a big undertaking and shouldn't be done lightly (because it's a lot of work and a lot of money), if we assume you're going no matter what, and if all of your choices are roughly the same tier, then go with whichever one just seems right. (maybe have a friend do the rapid-fire questioning thing like "what's your name? anon. where do you live? address. how many brothers do you have? one. what school do you want to go to? columbia."

If the schools are not in the same tier, then go for (a) the highest ranked school overall, or (b) the highest ranked school in your desired geographical area, or (c) the school giving you the most money, unless it's a T3 school, in which case, don't go to law school. On the geographical area point, any school outside of the top 10, and maybe 20, is not going to give you national employability.

Here's a good overview of how to decide whether law school (in general or a specific one) is for you.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:58 AM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Go with your gut. Make an initial choice and see how it feels. And if it feels wrong or weird, make the other choice.

Cultivate a resistance to feeling regret. It's OK to make bad choices. It's OK to be flexible. It's OK to realize you've done the wrong thing -- fix it, but don't regret it.
posted by mochapickle at 9:59 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Or what pretentious illiterate said.)
posted by mochapickle at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2014

You'll never have 100% of the information required. I have found it very useful to talk to various advisers and get their input. I'm lucky that my parents are level headed people that have my best interests in mind, so I often go to them before a major decision because they have an excellent perspective on my temperament.

In your case, I would speak to personal life advisers as well as new lawyers and mid career lawyers. I would especially ask the new lawyers if they feel like they have more options (ie they might have access to higher paying jobs, but less flexibility due to oppressive loans).
posted by fermezporte at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2014

Before I decide anything, I let my mind wander over the entirety of my decision. The BEST case scenarios first. (I win a Nobel Prize! In Physics!) Then, I explore the downside of my decision. (I buy a house on an Earthquake fault in California.) I consider both.

I tend towards enthusiasms, so I talk to Husbunny, who is a good voice of reason. Who is YOUR voice of reason. We then talk through our hopes and fears about the decision.

Then we research. A family saying is: "You're not really serious until you go to the Library." You can replace Library with Internet. But you get the idea.

If it's a move, we compare costs of living, if it's a large purchase, we consider what we like about the thingy we currently have, what we hate about it and then we start shopping.

The most important thing is to Do The Math. The real math. For example:

1. Cost of Decision. So for you that's Law School Tuition plus Opportunity Cost, in your case, whatever salary you'll forego while in Law School. How long will it take you to earn back these costs? What about money you won't be putting aside for retirement while you're repaying these costs. The whole, ugly math.

2. I weigh the intangibles too. What is it worth to me personally to do this thing. We recently paid $30,000 or so to get out of our house. We did some pretty unorthodox stuff to get the dough, but we did. And I can't TELL you how much happier I am to be a renter right now. I don't miss my house, I don't miss the unused space, I don't miss the worry about things that might break. So...yes, $30,000 is a LOT of money, but ultimately, this was the right decision for us. Our cost of recovery on this will be about three years. (The savings on renting vs. owning) I can live with that.

3. Pay close attention to the research, don't discount what you read. Based on your research, does this decision seem like it would result in what you are hoping for?

At the end of the day, really understand why you want to do what you want to do. I found that a lot of my large ticket purchases were to impress other people. While owning a Mercedes can be kind of a kick, what I've discovered is that owning a Honda Civic is much more my speed and I don't miss driving a German Tank at all! So I'd ask the question, "if no one ever knew what kind of car I drive, would I be driving this one?" If the answer is no, then I pass it up.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:02 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

consider your values, goals and intuition. also consider the potential financial or logistical outcomes of various choices. seek the advice of people whom you consider role models and successful examples in your professional or personal life, as applicable.

IMHO the opportunity cost of law school is not worth it. the market for new lawyers, with a handful of exceptions, is dismal right now. don't do it unless you have a current employer ready to promote or retain you when you graduate, a family member ready to welcome you into a firm, a free ride/cash on hand to pay for the degree, or such incredible test scores and qualifications that you can get into a top top tier school. law school is not worth it and has financially destroyed a lot of young people in the last several years because a lot of them borrowed so much to pay for it. there is a lot of media coverage about this.
posted by zdravo at 10:03 AM on January 6, 2014

The most important thing you can do is be honest with yourself about what you want. General example (not necessarily applicable to you): lots of people seem to end up in law school because they've always excelled academically and then feel pressure from family/friends to get a professional degree, rather than that they specifically want the job a lawyer has. That way lies regret.

Personally, I'm a list maker, and I've often surprised myself when I force myself to list out what I really want in life. I recommend doing this with brutal honesty, including things that others might think petty. For example, having a short commute is always a big factor for me when making big decisions about work/life. That might not be rational to many folks, but I know it makes me happy, which is really what matters in the end.

Also, I find it comforting in this sort of "two paths" situation to remember that if it is a tough decision then they are clearly BOTH good options - so you can't really go wrong.
posted by susanvance at 10:04 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The law school framing is a bit misleading here, since you don't want advice about going to law school (though in general, I advise against it). You may find it helpful to have a follow up AskMe on that to ensure your preconceptions about law, lawyering, and the ability to make a living in your specialty are in line with what is actually going on these days.

But, again, since you're not asking for law school advice, just play lawyer for a second and write out all of the "what ifs" for each alternative. This is, essentially, what I do all day.

What if you don't like law school? (I personally hated it more than anything in the universe.) What if you don't do well? What if you don't get a job that allows you to cover your loans and also eat? What if that job is across the country? What if you skip law school to be with your niece and the niece and her parents move across country? Etc., etc.

As noted above, you'll never have 100% accurate information--what's your plan B in the event things don't work the way you expected?

Full disclosure: I went to law school on a whim. It turned out OK, but it was a lot easier to get a good job when I graduated.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:05 AM on January 6, 2014

Also, I would venture to advise you -- with absolutely zero offense meant -- that if your gut is what is guiding you to go to law school in the current climate, "go with your gut" may not be the best option. Like, if the top law schools are fighting over you and throwing money your way, okay. If Podunk Law School says "sure, now let's see that $100K," and you genuinely believe that is a good decision, you may want to start considering that your gut is leading your nowhere good.
posted by griphus at 10:06 AM on January 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Lifehacker published an article "Four Ways to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do with Your Life" which might interest you. Some of the recommendations have already been mentioned and one - that you create a Personal Manifesto - seems to have originated in the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people - which is is a classic for those who want to take an active part in steering their life rather than simply being borne along by the current.

Besides all this I have two recommendations that I would try:
1. Find somebody who is good at our paid to listen - a counsellor or a careers advisor. Talk to them. Voicing your opinion about your plans to somebody who is good at picking holes in your logic can be very helpful.
2. Go for a long walk. Somehow this seems to help me to sort out complex decisions.
posted by rongorongo at 10:22 AM on January 6, 2014

I spend a lot of time thinking about best and worst case scenarios. Not in an anxiety kind of way, generally, just stepping back and dispassionately saying "OK, if this all goes south, what's worst thing that is reasonably likely to happen?"

Ultimately, though, I approach major decisions with the idea that there are a lot of different ways to be happy, and a lot of choices that will lead me to happiness by one route or another. And so sometimes, after a reasonable amount of diligence, I just decide to go with something and see how it turns out. (Not getting too invested in the decision also makes it easier to back out of the choice I make if it turns out to not work out the way I wanted.)
posted by mskyle at 10:30 AM on January 6, 2014

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Thanks for the advice so far. Just a note about the law school specific info: I'm not in the US, so information about your schools and job market aren't really relevant to me. As an example, there are only about 15 law schools in my country so Top 10/Top 15 doesn't mean anything here. I don't expect to go into debt to pay for law school -- whether I stay in my current city or not, part of the plan is to sell my house and go back to renting, and the equity will cover tuition as well as living expenses for 3 years.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I try to identify what factors are most important to me and then focus on those. For example, if I was planning a trip and wanted it to be a super relaxing trip, I would worry less about cost and more about making sure I would be in a position to really relax. But if I was planning a trip and my biggest concern was cost, I would do what I could to get the best deals and figure out how I could spend the least money during the trip.

I also frequently consider worst-case scenarios because I think that can actually reduce my anxiety. For example, suppose I hated my job and had a job offer with a different company. The worst thing that could happen if I took the job with the new company is that I hate that job so if I was coming from a place where I already hated my job, that doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world.

I understand your concern about how you have made decisions in the past but I wouldn't worry about it too much. I chose my major and university basically by the process of elimination and I don't regret it. Sure, it's possible that I could have studied something else somewhere else and been happier but those decisions were right for me at the time and I made those decisions to the best of my ability.

Watch out for analysis paralysis. When you are choosing between two good things, you end up with a good thing either way so there's no reason to stress out about it too much. And perhaps I'm being really naive here but in general, there aren't many decisions that we make that can't be reversed. Bought a house? You can sell it. Moved someplace that you don't like? You can move again. Decided after two and a half years that you don't want to become a lawyer? Don't become a lawyer.
posted by kat518 at 10:34 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

First I look at the money. As someone who will be deciding on graduate school in a couple of months too, money is a big one. I think about what I make now, what I'll make by the time I would have graduated, and what I would make by career end. I also think about what other positions does my current job give me the skills for.

In my case, financially the future is pretty depressing where I now am and even considering other factors, and loans grad school would be a step up. Though in my case graduate school is a professional program with good prospects, law school is a bit more...complicated.

Quality of life is my next big consideration. I make 2-3x less money than all my friends, which means I can't afford to do fun things much. On the other hand, I don't have any work to bring home or overtime so I have a lot more time to pursue my hobbies.

I'm in direct contact with people who have the job I want so I have an idea of how things will change.

And bridging off of that, I consider my current job duties with my prospective one. I love what I do, but I don't have any authority, there's zero opportunity for advancement, and there's a lack of stability. In my prospective job, I'll lose some positives, but I will also have a different set of positives. Again, working with people who already have that job means I have a more realistic view of the job, I know it has it's issues too.

And finally, I consider my support system. As someone with some disabilities, I have to consider whether I'll have the support to thrive somewhere else.

I take all these things together and then I try to go with my gut - but I also try to evaluate whether it's me just wanting to do what I want even if it doesn't make sense.
posted by Aranquis at 10:42 AM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way a friend and I did it (when trying to decide whether he should go to law school or grad school, among other questions), was to make a big list of positives and negatives for each option.

Then! This is key! Put a weight on each positive or negative ranking. So, for example, some of the schools are near family, and some not. Weight how important that is to you, like maybe times 2 or more for that, because it's very important.

If you're like me, you won't even have to tally up the +s and -s before you realize that some decisions are better for you than others.

Oh! Decision Matrix. That's a link to wikipedia with much more information (and much more detail) on this method.
posted by ldthomps at 11:33 AM on January 6, 2014

Sometimes it helps to think of Buridan's ass.
posted by Nomyte at 12:00 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks, please don't get any deeper into the law school stuff, asker was pretty clear that they're asking about the higher-level decision-making strategy stuff and not law school advice per se.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:00 PM on January 6, 2014

Parts of the US government started using this book - Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions - to help make important and/or tough decisions. It provides a structured, defensible decision-making method and includes the decision matrices/tables ldthomps mentions above. It also includes information on how to weigh uncertainties and risk in your decision. It's a short and easy read but helpful. I've used it for work, to pick an apartment, and to pick where to have a drink.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:04 PM on January 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

how do you begin to compare the value of things like 'more diverse career opportunities' and 'more opportunity to see my beloved niece grow up'?

Sort out all of your considerations with one or more of the methods suggested above. If after that, your decision boils down to two reasonably mutually exclusive factors, then think about how you might feel at the end of your life. What you would most regret not having done?

If you'll be kicking yourself that you didn't give law a shot, then go to law school. Even if it doesn't go as well as you hoped, know that you would have regretted not doing it and you owed it to yourself to try. If you'll regret not seeing your niece grow up, well then, make sure whatever else you do, you can get to see her regularly. If that means no law school, then that might have to be the decision you make (though I'm sure there would be a way to have both, if you really wanted it.)

Nthing that most decisions are at least somewhat reversible - that frees you from the horrors of thinking your life will be over if you make the "wrong" decision.

I would encourage you to think *hard* about the pros and cons of law school and life as a lawyer. Even outside of the US, the relative prestige of the law school is a factor in employability, even without debt there will always be opportunity costs for any kind of study etc
posted by pianissimo at 6:08 PM on January 6, 2014

Mindmapping has helped me with decisions like this. It's a more free-form way to look at information and relationships, and I find (at least) it helps me get everything out in one visual space without requiring me to make any judgements at that moment about the implications of that information.

Put another way, it's sort of like making a pluses and minuses table except you suspend judgement on the information itself until later but still get to see the relationships. You can always re-arrange a mind map later to suss out the implications of the information itself.

I've used several, and mindmeister is (for beginners who only need one or two maps) free and online.
posted by digitalprimate at 7:26 AM on January 7, 2014

In addition to some of the excellent advice offered upthread, I have one other important suggestion:

Keep in mind who you want to be, not just what you want to be, and try to arrange your life so that you cultivate the skills and values that will let you be that person.

When making lists of pros and cons and calculating how much money you'll need when you're 80, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that your true goals are probably mostly about what kind of person you want to be and what kind of life you want to live. Keeping this idea in mind has meant that I've more often forsaken things that looked better on paper -- in terms of money or prestige -- in favour of options that left me with more time for family (because I want to be a person that loves deeply and is loved deeply by at least a few people) and more time/freedom to pursue my interests (because I want to be a person has interests and ideas, and does spend time on them).

Now, if who you want to be involves money or prestige, you might choose differently than I did, and that's fine. The point is that framing it as "who do you want to be" can help lend the kind of moral clarity you need to know how to weight different factors and thus make hard decisions well. So in deciding between 'more diverse career opportunities' and 'more opportunity to see my beloved niece grow up', who would you rather be? Someone with an exciting and diverse career, or someone with a deep(er) bond with your niece? [Always assume that you won't be able to have both -- the point is to help yourself choose between options. Obviously if you can do both, then do so!]
posted by forza at 9:12 AM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I came in to recommend the book telegraph mentioned: Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath. Chip's at Stanford, Dan's at Duke, and they cite mountains of data about how we make decisions and how we can make better ones.

The four big points are:
* widen your options
* reality-test your assumptions
* attain distance before deciding
* prepare to be wrong

I think it's worth reading the book to get the bigger picture on each of those points. For example, in "widen your options", one of the points they make is that many decisions are just "should I or shouldn't I" - should I quit my job or not? Should I move to Chicago or not? You're already ahead on that point, since you're weighing at least a few options (City A or City B), but it might help to add in at least a third option:

* stay at the current job
* quit the job and go to law school
* quit the job and do something else that would give me some of the benefits I expect from a law degree without the uncertainty of the law job market

Since you're looking for processes to help make big decisions, I think you'll find Decisive really helpful.

Also, you said:

Those decisions have turned out well, but I don't think that's a point in favor of my decision making skills, I'm just lucky enough and flexible enough that those decisions worked out okay.

I understand and applaud your desire to develop skills for making better decisions; I also want to point out that being flexible and having a perspective that helps you do well wherever you land is a great thing, and will serve you well no matter how your decisions turn out.

Good luck!
posted by kristi at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2014

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