Making the Hard Choice

workWhen I think back over my life, I’ve found that time and time again, the hard choices I’ve made were the ones that provided lasting positive change in my life. When I took the easy road, it didn’t have any impact – it was only the hard choices that really brought about change.

When I was young, I made the hard choice to reject the culture of most of the adult males in my life and instead devote my time to reading and self-education. That resulted in the opportunity to go to college, educate myself, and chase dreams that would have been far out of my reach otherwise.

When I was in college, I made a difficult decision to walk away from my entire social circle – people who were bending me down with negativity. Without that choice, I would have never cultivated the relationship with the wonderful woman who would become my wife.

When I was near my financial meltdown, I made the hard choice to reject a heavily consumerist lifestyle and start saving money. That resulted in me getting rid of debts, finding some financial freedom, and being able to sleep at night.

When my writing career began to launch, I made the hard choice to quit my real job and let that rocket lead me wherever it might go as well as free me to spend a lot more time with my family. This has given me a level of day to day freedom as an adult that I could have scarcely imagined a few years ago.

Recently, I made another very hard choice – one that I’ll talk about again in a few months once the ramifications of it start to become clear.

Every single one of these choices was hard. I didn’t want to make them – in fact, in each case, I avoided actually making the decision for far longer than I should have. In each case, though, once I finally made that hard choice and committed to sticking to it, my life made a big turn for the better.

On the other hand, when I look back at my life and think of the big choices where I made the easy choice, they didn’t turn out so well.

I made the easy choice when it came to my college major. Instead of seeking topics I was passionate about, I stayed in my early major choice for far too long – I found it interesting and sometimes exciting, but I never bothered to find my burning passion.

I made the easy choice (through most of my life) when it came to my spiritual beliefs. Early in life, I bobbed along to my parents’ mix of agnosticism and lapsed Catholicism. Later on, I followed people through various churches and religious groups. It took a lot of introspection to go beyond being a follower and figure out what I actually believed – and realizing what that meant in terms of organized religion.

I made the easy choice when it came to friends. For much of my life, I just settled for whatever people were convenient instead of trying to find people I genuinely connected with. The end result was only a few people I can genuinely call lifelong friends.

The easy choice is just that, easy. But you have to live with the consequences of it.

Some inspiration:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference

– Robert Frost, Road Less Traveled

Tactics for Making the Hard Choice
Here are some things that helped me make all of these hard choices in my life.

Imagine your future self if nothing changes. When I was a teenager, I often visualized my future if I didn’t make a concerted effort to focus on my education. I imagined a future where I stayed in my small town and worked at a factory job, probably coming home each night and drinking to excess, something I witnessed over and over again. It was a future I didn’t want – a future that really frightened me. I used that picture in my mind for motivation over and over again.

Imagine your future self if you do make the change in the best case. Before quitting, I imagined my life if my writing career took off like a rocket ship – and it was a good picture. The house in the country my wife and I had always dreamed of, the ability to usher my kids off to school each morning and be there for them when they get home, and lots of other little details. It made me feel genuinely happy inside.

Imagine your future self if you do make that choice in the worst case. In that same scenario, I imagined myself having to go back to a nine to five job in a couple of years. But, even then, I got to spend a lot of time with my children during their formative years and I have the good feeling that I got to chase my dream and I wouldn’t have to live with the regret of having not given it a shot.

Compare that worst case to not making the choice at all. Ask yourself genuinely if the worst case is really worse than not doing anything at all. If it’s not, then you should make the leap immediately. If it is, that’s the time to do some serious soul searching and evaluation, but don’t walk away from the choice – great reward does not come without some risk.

Use the “first thing in the morning” test. What are the first things you think about in the morning when you wake up? My first thought when I wake up is usually about my wife and children – often, my son is jumping around on the bed and my daughter is laying there yelling “DA DA DA DA!” (her favorite exclamation at the moment). Once I’ve wished them both a good morning, done a diaper check, and have some idea of their clothes for the day, my next thought usually revolves around writing. The same was true well before my career choice. In a nutshell, the first tasks you think about during the day that don’t fill you with dread are the tasks you should be focusing your life energy on – and if it requires making a difficult choice to get there, it’s a difficult choice you should be making.

Ask for help from your inner circle. The people around you can be incredibly helpful if you’re trying to make a difficult change in your life. Ask them for help and support when you make a challenging choice. My parents were extremely supportive with my educational choices. My wife was incredibly supportive and cooperative when I wanted us to make some financial changes and when I made a career change. The people around you are your support staff – let them support you when you need it.

Good luck in whatever you choose.

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  1. James says:

    I, too, am in the midst of one of life’s hard choices. I’m in my late 50’s, and I’m wondering how do I use the time left for me in a meaningful way? Not saying that life hasn’t been meaningful so far, but my life is definitely changing as my children leave the nest. I found some very thoughtful encouragement in a book, Hard Call, the Art of Great Decisions. It’s by John McCain, but it’s not about the presidential election.

    I really appreciate your list of tactics for making the hard choice. As a person of faith, I would add one more item: As you pray, seeking God’s direction, leave room to be surprised. God’s ways are not always the same as our ways.

  2. Andy says:

    I just made a hard choice about a month and a half ago, and I won’t know for a while if it was the right one. I studied classics in college and was accepted into a great PhD program, but while I was pretty sure I would be happy in that career, it didn’t feel like my passion. So I said no and enrolled in an MS accounting program. Odds are accounting isn’t my passion either, but at least it should leave opportunities open. But still, it’s a little bit strange thinking I might be completely miserable in this profession, when I turned down something that I’m pretty sure I would be happy doing.

  3. Jules says:

    I made the decision to leave a tough graduate school program (an MD/Phd program), because every time I tried to see myself as a future academic or physician (or combination), I simply could not. I chose to leave the program, not because it was too hard, but simply because I didn’t want to make the mistake of hating every single day for the rest of my life.

    Was that the right choice? Honestly, when it comes to big decisions like this, I don’t think you can ever know with 100% certainty that the decision was right or wrong. I’ve only just re-entered the work force, after a 9-month hiatus from not being able to find a job, doing…the exact same thing that I had been doing. The difference? That I know what I want to do in the future, and I know what I have to do to get it (it’s a long road, but at least I know where I’m going).

    I’m mostly sure that leaving the program was the right choice. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I know that for certain, since I’ve just cut my career options down by almost half, if not more, and if things don’t work out according to the plan I have in mind, I may be stuck working my current job for years. But on the other hand, I don’t feel like an imposter, I don’t feel swamped by inadequacy, and I actually have time to write every day. Right now, I’m still in that leap-of-faith stage, where all I can do is hope that it all works out in the end.

  4. Andre Kibbe says:

    Quitting my full time job to write was a hard choice that still fills me with anxiety occasionally. Prospecting for work is never easy. But every time I ask myself, “Could I imaging going back?”, the answer is a resounding no.

    One line you wrote in passing is worth being an entire post: In a nutshell, the first tasks you think about during the day that don’t fill you with dread are the tasks you should be focusing your life energy on – and if it requires making a difficult choice to get there, it’s a difficult choice you should be making..

  5. akb says:

    Jules:

    Me too. Exactly the same, walked away from a MD/PhD (how tough is it to walk away from free tuition?) and a PhD (free tuition at an ivy league school, in exchange for four years of misery.. tough choice) simply because while I enjoy some of the work and the topics, I know I would be miserable at a bench for the rest of my life, and acedemia would make me crazy.

    I now have a job which I don’t hate, but the next hard decision is to find and actually do what it takes to follow my passion..

  6. Phil says:

    @Andy I quit accounting (wasn’t passionate about it) but had I been I probably wouldn’t have. Accounting’s a great field (in fact it can actually be exciting). And even if it isn’t your passion, there’s only one way to find out (“way leads to way”). (I quit to become an RN.)

    @Trent
    A touching post. I”m in the same quandary with my career and your post is already a nice inspiration and reminder to follow the bliss. I think most of us take the easy path mostly out of fear. But the problem with that is: fear is not a strategy.

    I really enjoyed your post. A remarkable bookmark now. Thanks!

  7. Louise says:

    One of your best posts ever. Thanks.

  8. Nicholai says:

    Great post, but the poem doesn’t mean what many people think it means. Read it again and consider this. A guy saw two different but totally equal paths (in a wood, in life) and picked one on a whim. Then he says that when he’s old he’ll play it up (“with a sigh”) and tell everybody that the one he picked made all the difference in his life, when really he just got lucky and things could have gone either way.

  9. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Nicholai: I’m not sure I agree with that, because of the third line in the second verse: “Because it was grassy and wanted wear” is why he chose the other path, not on a whim. He also knew he’d probably never have a chance to take it again: “I doubted if I should ever come back.”

  10. Johanna says:

    But two lines later he says that the roads were worn “really about the same.” That sounds like a whim to me. Also, the title of the poem is “The Road Not Taken,” not “The Road Less Traveled,” so that also suggests that it’s about little choices that could go either way, not an encouragement to go off the beaten track.

    I must admit I always used to read the poem like everyone else reads it. Nicholai’s interpretation is new to me, but it makes a lot of sense, and it’s a lot more applicable to my life. I’ve never really had a moment in my own life where I’ve consciously thought “I’m making the hard choice right now.” All of the really course-changing moments of my life have been choices between two roads that looked “really about the same.” I picked the roads I did, and here I am. If I’d made different choices, I’d be somewhere else entirely. Somewhere better or worse, who knows?

  11. This was a highly inspiring read. Thank you. I tend to agree with a few of the other commentators, that part of the decision-making process is pure luck, because often you don’t know where your choices would lead you. But I also know that when you are true to yourself, and your passions, there is often an immediate price to pay, but that price is worth it in the long run.

  12. This is such a good piece. It was very helpful to me just to see someone else struggling with the same hard choices and sorting through a thought process on it. Thank you for sharing that. I cut back to half time in my ‘real’ job two months ago so I’d have more writing time, and already I have so much more paid writing work that I dread even spending 4 hours a day at my outside job. The pay is worse, the stress is worse, I hate it more every day. I know I need to let go of that job, but for now I’m hanging on. What keeps me there is the health insurance and the 115% 401K matching. It’s still getting harder and harder though. Thanks for the tips on how to think it through.

  13. k E n says:

    I totally understand your situation then because i’m going through it now. It is tough to make unconventional choices and what is the hardest part is people keep putting you down for it!

    I’m at my university years and unfortunately my social circle happens to love expensive outings such as road trips, ski holidays, overseas travelling, etc. While i would love to go for these sort of things, my financial situation dictates i can’t really afford to spare money for any of those activities. My parents are both retired but due to unforeseen circumstances, i am left with having to foot the bill of my own university tuition fees and cost of living which i am currently trying to pay off with 2 jobs.

    What i find toughest is that when i politely turn down an offer which i know i can’t afford, people will more or less put you down either directly or indirectly. Soon enough, word will go around saying how such a stingy or fun-less person i am which i am not. I wouldn’t give a second though if they invited me for lets say, a movie night or a paintball session as i have budgeted for “fun activities” but i can’t just throw $1000+ just on a single trip. Yet because of that, people will start generalising and the next thing you know, you are labelled as a tight wad and getting invites for anything would be tough. At least you found your wife and had someone to support you. Its tough when you have no one.

    Btw, Robert Frost’s poem is actually called “The Road Not Taken”. It is a common mistake that many people usually make.

  14. Andy says:

    Phil: I think you’re exactly right: I might hate it, but I am excited to try it and find out. And I am happy that if I do hate it, I should have options of where to go next.

  15. gr8whyte says:

    The company I worked for was privatized in mid-2006. Shortly after, I elected early retirement. The road not taken looks a bit rough today so I’m glad I took the road less travelled then. No worries, no sighs, no regrets.

  16. I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and this post and the previous post I think are exceptionally good. I also liked your post about making oatmeal – you live near where my Dad works (he actually commutes from Pella).

    Thanks for the good information that you share.

  17. Lance says:

    Great points, and right on the money! I have to agree that it’s been the hard choices I’ve made that are the most meaningful. I think it’s because they are the ones we really think through.

  18. Bill K says:

    “When I was in college, I made a difficult decision to walk away from my entire social circle – people who were bending me down with negativity. Without that choice, I would have never cultivated the relationship with the wonderful woman who would become my wife.”

    I went through the exact same thing, at two different times and for two different reasons. Thankfully, I made the harder choices which led me to my fiancee. :)

  19. Kate says:

    A very inspiring post, Trent! Sometimes it’s hard for people to give themselves permission to make a choice that’s really in their long-term best interest.

    I look forward to reading your blog every day, especially the reader comments; there are a lot of little nuggets to think about.

  20. colleen says:

    Thanks for this great post. I have been reading about the benefits of diet and exercise these past few days, seeking to re-motivate myself to the healthier path from which I have lately strayed. For me the “easy” path is eating on the run and forgetting to focus on my walking plan. I want to be healthy for my children and today’s words were very timely.

  21. Michael says:

    Yes, that poem betrays your article. I bet it haunts people who blithely quoted it decades ago.

  22. Thanks for the inspiration. You are right, the hard choices are very often the most rewarding.

    Jennifer

  23. Susan says:

    I love the Simple Dollar. Of all the articles you’ve written, this was an answer for my most important dilemma and I am thankful for that. I am contemplating a major career switch and I’m in my late 50’s. Haven’t saved much money, but I also haven’t much debt. I’ve always been self employed–but I want to switch careers AND relocate to be closer to family. This post really gave me a blueprint to make a decision. Thank you Trent

  24. Fred says:

    Nice post and beautiful poem. I recently faced a very difficult career decision and found this poem inspiring. Like others, I wanted to know what Frost meant by the “Road Not Taken”, so I searched the web for interpretations. I found many different scholarly opinions and eventually settled on my own. I think the traveler clearly took the “less traveled” road. The last three lines are very clear here:
    “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
    I took the one less traveled by
    And that has made all the difference”.
    Earlier in the poem, the traveler noticed that the two roads had equal wear:
    “Though as for that, the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same”.
    Could it be that some travelers started down the harder, less traveled road and turned back? This would have served to make the less traveled road appear more worn at the outset, near the divergence.
    To me this poem is about deciding to live a virtuous life. It’s about choosing to do what’s right over what’s easy. I read a quote once that said “What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular.” Unknown
    When the traveler retells the story some ages and ages hence, he recalls the decision with a sigh of relief. He knows in the present that he will eventually look back with gratitude at the decision. He pictures himself in the future as a happier, more thankful man, knowing that the virtuous decision was the right one, even if it was a lonelier journey.

  25. Kris says:

    Now that’s a really good post. Makes me think of a quote I have up on my office wall from Brett Favre, former GB Packer QB, something to the effect that he remembers the tough times because that’s when he learns what he’s all about, and what is really important to him.

    Thanks.

  26. mrsmonkey says:

    Trent, please credit and title the artwork you are using at the top of your articles. If they’re worthy of use, the artist is worthy of mention. This one looks like it might have been a WPA illustration ………….but who knows?

  27. michael says:

    The poem seems relatively clear:
    We make meaningless and seemingly random decisions all the time that may or may not affect us greatly in the future.

    Many (like Fred) let the last 3 lines dictate the meaning of the whole. But really, Frost puts those lines into a very different context (he will someday *tell* people — and maybe even believe himself — that he took the less traveled road, and that that road made all the difference, when in fact, it’s not necessarily so).

  28. Puissance says:

    I really like this post. The morning test doesn’t work for me though because the first thing I think about is eating breakfast. I know I have made many easy choices because the hard choices were challenging and discouraging. I had so many doubts in my choice of major, but now I’m finding that it’s getting better.

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