#39: Should you make a big change right now?
Read one of my five answers for Dear Baby this month
This week is my advice/Q&A column, Dear Baby, in which I answer five reader questions. Up this round:
1. What are your thoughts on making big life changes during this time in our lives?
2. I got fired from my dream job. How do I build my confidence back?
3. What does it mean to “like yourself”? Struggling with this concept and how to measure it.
4. You seem to read a lot. What have you read lately that’s left an impression on you?
5. You mention drugs pretty regularly in your newsletter, what’s your relationship with them?
Dear Baby is for paying subscribers only, but per my tradition, I’ll be sharing one of the five questions with my free subscribers here. Last week I asked my followers on Instagram which one I should pick (excepting #5 because it’s simply too juicy to give away for free…..) and there was a very loose consensus around #1, so that’s what I’ve included below.
1. On making big life changes right now
“What are your thoughts on making big life changes during this time in our lives? Though I can see my perspectives and my relationship with myself shift in a more positive direction, everything else in my life (career, relationship with my partner, etc.) seems frozen. Do you think that our expectations for our lives haven't caught up with the reality of living in a pandemic? Or could it be that slowing down has given us a more clear perspective of what we want?”
This is a great question. I’m sure both are happening: moments of clarity and skewed expectations. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference. For me this has been one of the present emotional burdens of the pandemic: hedging my emotions with the understanding that I’m experiencing them during a state of heightened stress. Does that make them more true or less true? It’s a question that reminds me a lot of a book I read years ago called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes. It’s kind of an airport read, but I never forgot what it taught me.
In the book, Holmes argues that “in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.” Drawing from philosophy, science, and social psychology, he posits that the human hunger for certainty and closure is one of our most powerful drivers of behavior, fueling everything from big life decisions to everyday prejudice. Oftentimes, we make decisions—or believe things, or feel certain ways—because ambiguity makes us very uncomfortable. This low tolerance for uncertainty can at times be useful and protective (like when we hear an unusual sound in the night), but more often it inhibits our ability to dwell in the unknown, which is important for creativity, open-mindedness, and making sound decisions.
This tolerance isn’t static. It increases and decreases depending on a variety of factors. Reading novels and having “multi-cultural experiences,” for example, have shown in studies to increase our comfort with ambiguity. Conversely, times of high stress or confusion do the opposite. When we’re anxious, we’re more likely to rush to decisions, draw false conclusions, or fall for the more comfortable or familiar answer. One of the studies Holmes cites to support this that I never forgot is that, in the aftermath of natural disasters, marriage and divorce rates go up, signaling couples’ increased desire for absolutes. This reminds me of how an old friend of mine married his girlfriend and had a kid the same year his parents died. They ended up getting divorced, weren’t right for each other at all, but later he explained to me this intense need he felt to draw closer to her when everything else seemed like it was falling away. It wasn’t fair, but it made complete sense.
Maybe these all sound like reasons to resist making decisions in times of stress, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the only conclusion. There have been many times in my life where my indecision was holding me back from more worthy pursuits, and I appreciated an outside jolt to push me in one direction or another (even if it was arbitrary). I also think that intense moments in our lives can be clarifying—that unusual sound in the night reduces our priorities to survival; sometimes that’s useful, or illuminating beyond a reasonable doubt. But I think it’s important to remember that our decision-making mechanisms, in times of stress, are geared toward the extremes. “In stressful situations, we trust people in our social groups more and trust outsiders less. Fatigue heightens our appetite for order. So does time pressure. When our need for closure is high, we tend to revert to stereotypes, jump to conclusions, and deny contradictions.” I’ve definitely felt that this year. Not only in my more acute emotions but in my nostalgia for the past, where nothing is unknown, no question unanswered.
In the end of the book, Holmes writes that, “We always think we’ve settled into ourselves and we’re always wrong.” It’s a conclusion without closure, one that’s useful to keep in mind whenever we deem ourselves “certain” of anything. This isn’t meant to cast doubt on every decision we make, but to remind us that a measure of open-mindedness makes us more in touch with reality, and also “kinder, more creative, and more alive.” Plus, a lack of movement doesn’t have to mean stasis (especially right now, when nothing is really moving anyway). Gestation can breed confidence.
My best guess at an answer to your question is fittingly annoying: I don’t think we’ll fully know until this time is in our hindsight. But I think analyzing how you respond to stress might help you better understand the decisions you’re currently weighing. Maybe ask yourself if this emotion came on suddenly, in response to wildly unusual life conditions, or if it’s always been there in the back of your mind, waiting for you to see it. Does the choice feel impulsive or freeing? What ambiguity are you running from? Whether it’s the productive kind or the prohibitive kind is for you to decide for yourself.
To read this month’s other Q&As, subscribe here or update your account type here. Then head to my Substack homepage to find this week’s Dear Baby, along with issue #1 on career changes, Man Repeller, and gender; issue #2 on privacy, cheating, and consumption; issue #3 on being a public figure, dating, and writing; and issue #4 on dream jobs, relationship doubt, and how to pitch.
Or don’t! Thanks so much for reading,
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Food Bank for NYC, the city’s largest organization focused on ending food poverty in the five boroughs.