Life’s Most Uncomfortable Question and Two Ways to Answer it


I thought it was a gift from heaven.

About two years ago, some uni was crazy enough to offer me a position as PhD-candidate in philosophy.

Ever since I was small I imagined grown-up me as a wise university professor with a grey beard. And landing a spot at a top-50 uni is hard. I was thrilled with the opportunity, even if it meant I would have to move to Budapest.

I wanted to play with the big guys and now I have a supervisor with a doctorate from Harvard.

The decision was a no-brainer.

Then life happened.

If I knew everything I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.

It turns out academic philosophy isn’t for me. And it turns out stuff like this is.

I was wrong about what I wanted.

The 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau was onto something deep when he proposed that

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Since I no longer have the ambition to ‘make it’ in academia and the PhD research mainly covers arcane material, yet eats buckets of time and Budapest life is so-so, I have officially concluded that the price of the PhD is out of proportion with its importance to me.

That was rough.

Now what?

Since I’m already 50% done, I’m going to finish what I started, but how can I learn from this and improve my decision making skills for when I will encounter another life-changing fork in the road?

There’s no outcome to “discover”, because what you do can change the outcome

Good decisions don’t always have a good outcome, just as bad decisions don’t always have bad outcomes.

Therefore, a choice should not be judged solely on its outcome.

The problem is that it is impossible to have full information for all the variables involved beforehand.

Especially when you yourself are one of them.

A lot of things require you to actually do them before you can gauge your own response to them.

You can’t look up how some way of living will make you feel on Wikipedia.

I needed this time as a PhD-candidate to recognize my true feelings about academia. You can’t bring those convictions to light merely by sitting down and thinking through them. You must get your hands dirty and study yourself in the field to acquire the pricier pieces of self-knowledge.

I was wrong about what I wanted, but I honestly can’t hold that against myself.

Another reason why you can’t have complete information beforehand is that happens after you’ve started, and happened because you went down this path, might change all kinds of outcomes in unforeseeable ways. The things you do change your personality and skillset. This, in turn, can have many consequences down the road.

For example, without these two challenging years (so far) as a PhD candidate I probably wouldn’t have the confidence I have now in my own ideas. Perhaps Medium wouldn’t have happened.

Who knows?

The point I want to make is that given the information I had at the time, about myself and about reality, I made the ‘rational’ decision.

This led me to another realization.

Even reflecting for ten seconds on how contingent all these events are, and how incredibly far-reaching downstream consequences they have, reveals an uncomfortable truth about life:

Everything in my life (and yours) could have been different.

If your decisions are powerless to begin with, you can’t screw up (what a relief)

Everything is intertwined and entangled. And whatever rolled out of that process — your current life — is highly contingent. Where you live, who your friends are, your spouse, it could all have been different if you didn’t go to that cute state uni for your undergrad or if your dad didn’t get that promotion which forced you to move to the other side of the continent when you were a kid.

According to me, when we say that some forks in the road are life-changing, we’re not being hyperbolical.

This may sound odd, but many people I know deny that your decisions can impact whether or not you would have had these kids, had this partner, ended up doing this with your life, and so forth. They believe that, when it comes to these profound, fundamental matters, life has a plan for us.

There are whole swaths of people who believe that evaluating the big choices in life is futile because they could not have been different.

According to them, when we say some forks in the road are life-changing, we’re mistaken.

These choices don’t have the power to change where your life is headed. If it’s in The Big Plan, it would have happened anyway. And if it isn’t, it wouldn’t.

They say things like:

“Nothing is a coincidence, because everything happens for a reason.”


“Things went the way they had to. The way they were always going to.”

Newsflash: It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no have to here.

Yet, we often imbue our friendships, romantic relationships, and their turning points with greater meaning — concluding that these were fated or “meant to be”.

In one study, psychologists call this reasoning “from what might have been to what must have been”.

When we do that, we feel that “something so improbable could not have possibly happened by chance alone” and deduce that “therefore, it must have been fated.”

For many people, it seems, this way of thinking strikes a deep intuitive chord.

How to purchase insurance against bad decisions (and why it’s too expensive to buy)

Think back to the case study at the beginning of the article, my mistake (or not) to do the PhD.

Why bother with evaluating your choices in the first place?

Because how you decide influences what kind of life you will have, and therefore you want to increase your decision-making skills.

When we mentally undo and scrutinize a terrible decision, we learn something significant about ourselves, which prepares us to make wiser decisions in the future.

At least, that’s what the whole idea of evaluating yourself presupposes.

If things couldn’t have been different, because they are “meant to be” or whatever, why would your choices be special to have the power to intervene in this Grand Cosmic Scheme?

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine any way.’ Either way, nothing happens.” — Yvon Chouinard

And rethinking our choices is something everybody does — right? That such a widespread practice would be misguided if this shaky metaphysical theory were true should makes us think extra hard about accepting the shaky metaphysical theory.

Perhaps more importantly, since this is more about feelings and intuitions than rationality and logic, am I the only one who feels that when something was “meant to be” regardless, this makes it less, not more, special? If there was 0% risk or uncertainty — if only we were fully informed about The Big Plan — doesn’t that make it super un-magical, instead of the opposite?

Lack of information is only *apparent* uncertainty

If the outcome will be the same anyway, and destiny exists, and it went the way it “had to”, you, a mere pawn, had nothing to do with whether things would happen or not.

Consequentially, nothing you have ever done and ever will do will be something of merit. After all, it was just the way it “had to go”.

You didn’t get that exclusive position because of anything you did. It’s simply what was written in the starts.

She didn’t fall in love with you because you were such a good lover, but simply because it was destined to happen.

You didn’t have these beautiful children because you’ve worked hard to be an amazing parent. It was simply the way it had to go.

These things are fated and, ever since The Planmaker decided, the chances of them happening are (i) 100% and (ii) independent of anything you decide.

Do you really believe that?

If what you do makes no difference, if it’s gonna be the same anyway, then why bother?

It’s up to you of course, but I think that believing that everything is already settled would make this whole living thing a rather boring affair.

This no-influence paradigm strikes me as a terribly disempowering and nihilistic narrative to live your life by.

I just can’t grasp what’s so magical about being a bare spectator.

If a magic show can only go the way it had to, that doesn’t mean the magician is really good.It means the show was rigged.

Everything could have been different — and that’s really scary

I think many people convince themselves that there is some grand cosmic meaning behind everything because they’re afraid.

It might be painful to wonder how our lives would have turned out differently
“if only” we had taken our education more seriously or gotten on that plane to Europe or not said yes on that fateful night.

Many people find it super uncomfortable that they could have had a different life. Another spouse. Brown-eyed instead of blue-eyed kids. Another “calling”.

To deal with this uncertainty, we fantasize entire metaphysical theories about some non-God God-like thingy ordaining a plan for the universe in which it all has a reason and cosmic significance and it was destined and it went the way it was always going to.

“[Fear has] driven many to the assumption that a secret and inexplicable power guides all the turns and changes of our lives.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

There’s a perverse sort of comfort that comes from these illusions of destiny.That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I didn’t get that job or that spouse because it wasn’t “meant to be”, that “meant-to-be-ness” precludes my ability to affect that outcome at any point in the future too — therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it?

Conversely, here’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our faith in our own powerlessness. We actually resist accepting our freedom from some grandiose scheme, because the responsibility and the idea that what we do actually affects the outcome because destiny doesn’t exist, is scary.

It’s uncanny to realize that many of the things in our life we take for granted are actually entirely contingent.

Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past, and fucked up a lot of stuff that could have been good.

Realizing how accidental many things are, and that our decisions have changed the course of our lives, scares the shit out of me too.

At this point of despair, we face what the existentialist philosophers called a “radical choice” about where we’ll make our stand.

Do you believe in magic?

The cost of a [belief] is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. — Henry David Thoreau

Option one to give in to the fear.

We relieve ourselves of all possible uncertainty. It’s comfortable, but it means we’re unfree and powerless creatures, unable to make efficacious decisions with regards to the things that matter most.

The outcomes are already predetermined. Since there was no uncertainty, only lack information about The Plan, all the magic is only apparent magic.

But what if you don’t protect yourself like that? “Life,” as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “begins on the other side of despair.”

What if you accept that everything would have been different if you said yes five years ago, and that you are in the driver’s seat of your life and not just a passenger watching some pre-written script unfold?

To me, what strikes a deep intuitive chord isn’t reasoning “from what might have been to what must have been”. I find myself resonating intuitively with the exact opposite: wow, this could all easily have been so really different,isn’t it beautiful that it ended up like this, even though the chances were so small?

The alternative, then, is to accept our responsibility.

Yes — perhaps I have utterly screwed up, and no, that didn’t happen “for a reason”. I just fucked up, and it could have been different, and that hurts.

That’s the price.

But what we get in return, here at the other side of despair, is freedom. The ability to make a difference in how our lives unfold — for better or worse.

And, if we’re lucky, a touch of real magic.

I’ll take that anytime.

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