Decision making and the power of choice – why loss shouldn’t hold us back

Do you find decision making easy, or is your power to decide crippled by the knowledge of the loss of the alternatives once you’ve committed to one option?
A friend of mine told me the story recently of a student of hers, who had had the misfortune to lose all her university coursework in a house fire (she was lucky to have survived herself). With a supreme effort, the student was able to do extremely well in her final assignments, but narrowly missed getting a First.
The student asked my friend if she should appeal. My friend replied that she’d have a strong chance of having her degree lifted to a First, but that it would take time and mean her not graduating at the same time as her friends. Which was more important to her?
The student decided to graduate with her friends, and to give the higher grading a miss. When my friend saw the student at the graduation ceremony, the student was having a wonderful time with her friends. She was at peace with her decision.

Decision making as loss

I love this story because it gets to the essence of something I’ve been thinking about recently (thanks to a lovely post by my friend Susan T Blake). Decision making can be so very difficult sometimes, because every decision we make has with it an element of loss.
Sometimes that loss is small (flat white or latte?). But sometimes the choice is far more difficult, as each option has a significant joy, and its loss a significant cost. The student gave up a First – that is a loss. But to choose the First over graduating with friends would have entailed a different loss – the loss of fellowship and shared experience.

The fork in the road

One of the most important concepts in Alexander Technique is that of ‘the fork in the road’, where we find ourselves having a choice between two alternatives.* The most usual one in an Alexander Technique lesson is the choice between the old, familiar way of thinking/moving, and the new and unfamiliar way of thinking/moving. My job as a teacher is to stand at the fork in the road between these two alternatives, and point to the path of the new and unfamiliar, suggesting that it might be worth trying out!
There are, however, other kinds of choices, and other forks in the road. Sometimes someone will present you with a choice (a First or a peer group experience), and ask you to make up your mind which option you want to take. Sometimes you may even present yourself with the choice.
But these choices are sneakier than the one Mr Alexander paints for us. Unlike Alexander’s fork in the road, where the man knows the destination he wishes to reach, in the First/friends choice the destination is not defined. We are being asked (or asking ourselves) to make a choice when we don’t immediately know which one gets us closer to where we want to go.

Decision making and core values

These choices are difficult because the outcomes are not clear. We don’t know what will suit our needs best. And we may be placed (or place ourselves) under pressure to make a decision quickly, before we have had sufficient opportunity to decide which option aligns best with our core values.** And sometimes the difficulty of the choice stems from the fact that it highlights an area where we haven’t really considered what values are most important to us!
So what should we do?
  1. Stop and breathe. No one should expect an instant answer!
  2. Consider the options given. What core values or principles do they represent? For example, a First = academic excellence. Friends = value on social ties and affections.
  3. Check these against your own core values. Which option fits best with your own value structure? Or is this a chance to decide what our core values are?
  4. Decide if there might be any other, better, courses of action. Just because you are presented with two options doesn’t mean there aren’t more options possible…
  5. Choose something and commit to the consequences.
And take note of that last step. Yes, whatever you choose will entail losing the benefits of the choice not taken. My friend’s student didn’t get quite the degree they merited, and that is a real and genuine loss. But what would have been far worse, and far more damaging, would have been to choose an option and then spend time regretting the loss of the other.
And there is one thing that is even worse. Yes, even worse than regret.
Just standing at the crossroads and not ever deciding. That is the most deadening option of all.
*Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.299.
** ‘Core values’ is a term I borrow from life coach and all-round fab guy Tim Brownson. He writes a superb blog at
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