Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

The Prison of Indecision

You know the scenario. The waiter stands at your table, pencil poised over his pad of paper. Everyone else has ordered and he’s waiting on you. Your eyes dart over the menu—chicken or steak, chicken or steak—trying to decide. At last, giving in to the pressure you blurt out, “I’ll take the pasta.”

He walks away and you think, “Pasta? Why did I order that?”

When the food arrives you scan the other plates—garlic butter melted on filet mignon, roasted chicken with steamed vegetables, sweet potato and golden fried chicken. You look down at your plain old pasta and hope to find a hair.

Yet again, indecision has left you disappointed.

Photo by Mitchell Joyce (Creative Commons)

Photo by Mitchell Joyce (Creative Commons)

Indecision is a good way to ruin a night out. But the consequences are even worse when applied to the rest of life.

Donald Miller writes that every good story is the story of “a character who wants something and overcome obstacles to get it.” What happens if the character can’t decide what he wants? You fall asleep in the theater.

What happens when you—the protagonist in your own story—can’t decide what you want? Life meanders and wanders. Depression ensues. You fall asleep on the couch.

When we don’t know what we want in life, we don’t know where to place our energy.
When we don’t know what we want in life, we are easily distracted.
When we don’t know what we want in life, we don’t have a good reason to get up in the morning.

Indecision in a restaurant is frustrating. Indecision in life is devastating.

Where does indecision come from? Let me suggest two sources.

Indecision comes from Fear

When you are afraid to fail, you don’t make good decisions. Instead of processing the options with a clear mind, you only see the dangerous outcomes. You panic and order the pasta.

In sports, this is called “playing not to lose.” It’s when a team is no longer employing the strategy and the attitude that gained them the advantage in the first place, and is simply trying not lose. The players stiffen. The creativity disappears. And usually, if nothing changes, the team loses.

In life, when we “play not to lose” we avoid risks and maintain the status quo. We settle for average because at least it is a known reality. We suppress dreams because dreaming is dangerous.

But a fear-frozen life is not a good story. The plot line won’t get us out of bed in the morning or keep us up at night. We long to long for something. Without a deep desire and a clear focus, life feels neutered, like a movie with all the good parts edited out.

Fear leads to indecision. Indecision leads to despair.

We want to want something. We need to want something. But what?

Indecision comes from Self-Ignorance

It is impossible to know what you want if you don’t know yourself. My wife is very decisive when it comes to ordering fish. The answer is always “No thank you.” Why? Because she knows she hates the taste of fish.

The better we know ourselves, the more quickly and accurately we can make decisions in life. But this takes time. In order to conclude you don’t like fish, you have to try some fish. In order to discover your gifts, you must try things out.

Volunteer with an organization.
Take an international trip.
Publish an article.
Lead a team.
Try something new.

Each experience is a window to your character and desires. It’s like a class on yourself. Pay attention. Take notes. There will be a final exam.

If you asked me in college whether I like travel and foreign languages I would say “No.” By that point, I had already failed to learn Spanish and German. It wasn’t until my first travel experience after graduation—moving to the Balkans for two years—that I came to understand how much I love new experiences. In a two-year period I visited  12 countries. And I felt alive.

Now, travel is a regular part of my life. I live in a foreign culture, surrounded by other languages. I love something I didn’t even like 15 years ago.

If you are young, now is the time for a broad range of experiences. Try things you may not like. Learn yourself. Don’t order chicken every time. Try the fish tartare and the caviare. Maybe you will like them. And if you don’t, you will gain something even better than a good meal—knowledge of self.

What do you want?

Don’t allow indecision to derail you this year. Take some time alone to consider who you are and what you want. Then place your order.

If you want to write, write.
If you want to travel, travel.
If you want to teach, teach.
If you want to get in shape, then get out there and start running.

Whatever you do, don’t let indecision imprison you. Life is too valuable to spend behind bars.

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