Life,  Work

Paralysis By Analysis

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Sometimes making decisions about my life is crippling. I think it stems from an idea instilled in me from early in my upbringing — but that I’ve since rejected, at least intellectually — that God has a perfect plan for our lives. 

There’s God’s “perfect will” and there’s God’s “permissive will”, I was taught growing up. And all we have to do is discern God’s perfect will and plan so we can live happily ever after. No pressure.

I don’t believe that anymore and I’m pretty sure that’s not how life works. 

Nevertheless, it’s funny how things deeply ingrained throughout the formative years of our lives stay with us, even after we’ve long since rejected them. 

I remember the stress and paralysis I felt over choosing a college. How could I know I was choosing the right one? What if I chose the wrong one? I’d perhaps miss meeting the woman I was supposed to marry. I’d never receive the education I was supposed to have. Which meant I’d never land the perfect job, live in the perfect place, and have the perfect life that God had planned for me. 

That’s a lot of pressure riding on one decision. And it’s a lot for anyone to contemplate. Let alone a 17 or 18-year-old.

Thankfully I rejected that way of thinking a long time ago. 

While I’ve long since determined that whatever God’s “perfect” plan for my life might mean — if there even is such a thing — it has nothing to do with making all the correct, strategic choices to arrive at the perfect life.

No one has a “perfect” life. What does that even mean? And how could we possibly know we had one?

Having a “perfect” life also seems to imply getting everything we desire. And is that really the point of life? I don’t think so.

Rather, I think it’s about loving and serving well, and treating others the way I’d want to be treated, regardless of where I find myself and whatever I happen to be doing.

Nevertheless, remnants of this idea of making all the right choices and strategic moves have reared its ugly head and paralyzed me at different points even in adulthood. 

Earning Advanced Degrees

Here’s an example. I used to be an ordained minister and lead pastor, and I had plans of eventually doing a PhD or a DMin. I saw my vocation and calling as a pastor-theologian, and I wanted to do some adjunct teaching while also being a full-time pastor.

But first I needed to pile up the requisite master’s degrees. At a minimum, this meant an MA in theology or earning an MDiv seminary degree. 

I’ve always been an overachiever and also suffer from massive inferiority complex. So I did an MMin and a MATS, with plans on finishing up an MDiv after that, and then doing a doctorate. 

Crazy, right? 

Wait. It gets better. 

When I finished my first two masters in 2012, it occurred to me that I could probably get into a doctorate program with what I had. No need to do that seminary degree.  

True, an MDiv is typically a prerequisite for DMin programs. But, I wondered, couldn’t I probably just take a few extra classes and get “MDiv equivalency” along the way to getting my doctorate? That would save a lot of time and money. 

Turns out, all of that was true. I could totally do that.

I checked into programs. I even found one I really liked that would have been a great fit. I talked to advisors. I knew I would need to take four or five additional courses to get MDiv equivalency, but I could do that while also working towards my doctorate. 

Perfect solution.

Except I didn’t start. I just kept deliberating. 

What if this program wasn’t the right one? What if this program didn’t get me where I was hoping to go? What if other programs would be more strategic for helping me obtain my career goals and position me for future opportunities?

My neurotic brain was also fixated on how inferior I’d feel not having earned a seminary degree. I obsessed about potential job opportunities lost because I didn’t take the traditional route of getting the seminary degree. I wondered if I’d regret taking the “easy” way out and not getting those extra letters behind my name. 

And on and on it went for weeks and months, and quite literally, years. 

It’s now 2019 — seven years later. And not only do I not have a doctorate, but I also have an unfinished third master’s degree. I eventually did start that MDiv. But then my life and career changed and it all seemed sort of pointless. 

I really wish I’d just done the damn doctorate. 

Make a Decision

I read the above paragraphs to my wife and asked her what she thought. Of course, she’s lived this with me. As of this writing, we’ve been married for 16 years. She knows all too well my indecisiveness at times. 

“When you put it that way, it sounds so depressing,” she said.  

I agree. Not only depressing but also embarrassing. I can’t believe I’m putting this out there for the world.

Hello, my name is Sam and I struggle with indecisiveness.

Maybe I shouldn’t put this out there. What will potential future employers that read this think? Wait. Maybe I should re-think this. Just kidding!

Okay, seriously though. As depressing, frustrating, and embarrassing as that example from my life is — as well as others I could give — I think it’s important to call it out.

Paralysis by analysis is a real thing. It’s plagued too much of my life. And I’m sick of it. I’m sure my wife is too. More than once she’s said some version of, “Just. MAKE. A. DECISION!” 

And I think that’s really the key thing. Make a decision. Start small with all the little daily decisions you make. Like what time to get up in the morning. 

For example, it’s important to me to cultivate a life of the mind. So for many years now, I’ve made the decision to be up at 5 a.m spending time reading, meditating, and sometimes writing before I go to work. It’s just part of my daily rhythm and routine. It’s a small but very significant decision that’s profoundly formed and shaped me. 

Another important decision is choosing to stay positive despite whatever circumstances I may be facing. Life is hard. In our work and in our lives there are often times things thrust upon us that we would not have chosen for ourselves. How will we respond? Our response is the one thing we can control. 

I’ve made a conscious and intentional decision to try and be a glass-is-half-full kind of guy — striving to see the positive and the good in people and situations. I want to be someone who helps, not hurts. I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. I want to be an encourager, not a discourager. 

Deciding to have that mindset and posture has also profoundly formed and shaped me and it also provides opportunities for me to influence others in positive ways. 

Other decisions are weightier and form and shape our lives in different ways. 

For example, making the decision to leave my career in ministry after investing 10 years as a lead pastor and earning multiple graduate degrees in theology was at once both excruciating and also liberating.

It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I spent considerable time in prayer and meditation on Scripture. I sought the advice of trusted wisdom people in my life. And I played out different scenarios of what might come next. 

Ultimately it was the right decision. In fact, as difficult as it was to arrive at the decision, it was one of the most decisive decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve never looked back. 

Here’s what I’m trying to say. All the little daily decisions we make add up to, inform and influence the bigger decisions. Those little decisions make us who we are in important ways. They form and shape us to be the people we’re becoming. 

So a good question to reflect on is, “Who am I becoming?” If we’re not becoming the people we want to be, change begins by making different decisions and then following through and acting on our choices.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” says the well-known quote from Annie Dillard. “What we are doing with this hour, and that one is what we are doing.”

Take a Chance  

Our decisions have consequences, for both good and not so good. And our decisions also affect others around us, especially our loved ones and those closest to us. So it’s wise to weigh important decisions carefully. 

But getting stuck in a perpetual holding pattern is neither helpful nor productive. If we stay stuck, life, relationships, and opportunities will simply pass us by. 

I’ve discovered that fear lies at the root of most of my paralysis. 

Fear of failure. 

Fear of the unknown. 

Fear of not being good enough. 

Fear of making the wrong decision. 

Fear of disappointing others or myself. 

Sure, we can let our fears prevent us from taking chances, making decisions, and moving outside our comfort zone. We’ll minimize risk, failure, and the possibility of feeling hurt. 

But what kind of life is that? We’ll also miss out on so much that life has to offer if we live that way. We may miss out on our greatest contribution to our family and friends, work, community, or even the world. 

What if instead we acknowledged our fears, calculated our risks, and then moved on courageously and boldly into the unknown anyway? What if we took leaps of faith, stepped outside of our comfort zones, expanded our horizons, and tried new things? 

Sometimes we might fail, experience disappointment, or get hurt.

But we’d also sometimes soar to new heights. We’d discover things about ourselves and others we never knew. We’d experience things we never thought we’d experience. We’d do things we thought we’d never do and never realized we could. We just might actually flourish. 

And that’s what I want. For myself and also for others. To truly flourish.

We have this one, short, amazing, beautiful, messy, and sometimes painful life. Let’s make the most of it.

So What About You?

Do you sometimes find making decisions crippling? Why? Are there practices or patterns of thinking that have helped you overcome paralysis by analysis? 

Please leave your comments below to continue the conversation. I’d love to learn from you! 

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