Ask Unstuck: I can’t decide between two options

When college student Elizabeth wrote Unstuck about feeling torn between pursuing a promotion at work or staying in school to finish her degree, we couldn’t help but think of Robert Frost’s poem about forks in the road, “The Road Less Traveled.” That poem, like Elizabeth’s stuck moment, is all about choices that seem equally good, but for different reasons. And that’s exactly what makes her nervous about making a choice.

Elizabeth, you’re having a classic Waffler stuck moment, overthinking your options until you’re frozen with indecision. You’re probably getting lots of feedback, too, from people with definite opinions about the “right” thing to do. Combine all those voices with a notion that this is a make-or-break decision, and no wonder you’ve lost sight of what you really want.

First, trust us when we say that there ain’t no out-of-the-box “right” answer. And rarely is a decision irrevocable. That’s our two cents. Now you need to find yours by looking at things from a couple different perspectives and then using your gut instinct to decide.

1. Free yourself from the noise. The world is always telling us how to be. People offer up a smorgasbord of opinions. TV and newspapers and the blogosphere continually yammer. It’s easy to internalize these voices and start to doubt our ability to make our own choices.

To silence the noise, determine if you’re measuring yourself against someone else’s standard in the form of thoughts like, “I should stay in school because this is the time of life when everybody goes to college,” or “I should take this job opportunity because unemployment is high and I’d be a fool not to grab this chance when I can get it.”

If you are, sweep aside those thoughts so you can start trusting yourself. It’s a tricky balance between following your dreams and attending to practical necessities, but you’re the best person to decide what’s right for you. When you blow up those fixed ideas of what’s right or wrong, you’ll be surprised at how freed up you’ll feel.

2. Find room for negotiation. In your email, you pose the question of graduating from college versus taking a full-time job as an all-or-nothing situation. Is there truly no room to negotiate? By being flexible, can you combine options in a way that works toward both your goals?

For example, many people work at full-time jobs while also working toward a degree. Have you considered going to school part-time? Are evening classes an option? Could you earn credits online and have them transferred toward your degree? While set hours and more responsibility at a fast-growing company is a big commitment of time and energy, it doesn’t have to mean calling it quits on college altogether. You can still graduate — whether in the two to three years you initially mentioned, or perhaps with a few additional years tacked on.

Similarly, you may have more flexibility than you think at the job. You’ve said that the company has been willing to accommodate your work schedule around your college classes. Clearly, they see value in you, so take them up on it. If you want to make a career with them, don’t be afraid to say it up front. Who knows? You may be rewarded with further flexibility around setting hours (either now or in the future), or perhaps with financial support to finish your degree. Or in other ways that you can’t anticipate.

3. Use your gut to decide. Once you’ve freed yourself from the noise and considered possible options, it’s time to test your values against the two choices.

What inspires you about school? What inspires you about the job? What outcomes are you expecting from each? It might be connection with others, money, career goal, status, well-being, safety. List out as many advantages you can think of for each choice. Then, without thinking, quickly assign each item on your list to one choice or the other. Do this as fast as you can, so your gut is guiding you. The choice with the most items is likely the direction you should go. Unstuck’s “Pros vs Pros” tool is an easy way to go through this exercise (you can download the free iPad app here), and it provides some gut-checking questions to help confirm your decision.

Good luck, Elizabeth! We’re so excited for the opportunities in front of you and confident that — no matter what path you choose — you’ll make the most out of it.

There will always be forks in the road. And it’s tempting to look back like Frost’s traveler and wonder, What if? What would my life look like if I had gone that way instead? It’s human nature to romanticize the road not taken. But chances are that, as long as you make your choices for reasons that are true to you, your life will be rich and purposeful and great.

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