In just one night, your life can change forever. You can, for instance, decide to party with your friends right after graduation. Celebrate with alcohol and illegal substances only to wake up in prison because your delusional and stoned brain decided that “renting” a car from the gas station and trying to avoid the police is a good idea.
Most decisions in life are not immediately bad. You don’t see the vile consequences right away.
There is commonly a gap between what you do and what you get.
Surely deciding to get wasted with your high school buddies is a bad idea.
But do you know what’s also a bad idea?
Deciding to never study again after graduation.
Buying things all the time and presenting yourself as this incredibly powerful and successful person in front of others to soften the pain of loneliness.
Spending hours a day posting stories trying to convince your 1673 followers that your life is awesome while it’s actually an artificially created virtual identity from a confused and clueless person who is on a mission to hit 2000 followers wrongly thinking that this count will magically correct his life.
It’s hard to label these activities as disastrous.
After all, when isolated and observed as individual events, they don’t look that bad.
Not reading a book today surely won’t lead to anything destructive. Buying an expensive watch today won’t necessarily result in your bank account going to zero. Pretending you’re someone else online today doesn’t mean that it’s not fun.
The problem emerges when we keep doing and doing these things for a long period of time. When they become habits. Systematically troubling behavior doctors label as addiction.
If we take some time to find the root cause behind the worst decision of our life. We’ll find that the real problem is always the same. It’s how we think, or we don’t think, that leads to bad outcomes.
What Happens If You Make a Wrong Decision?
The perfect way to describe making a wrong decision in your life is by using a frog story.
Yes, a frog.
It’s actually called the boiling frog syndrome. I first came across this cute explanation of how we are slowly corrupting our future in the book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.
It goes something like this:
“A frog put suddenly in hot water will jump right out to save itself. But if it is put into cold water that is gradually heated up, the frog will stay there happily until it boils to death.”
In the first case, the frog immediately senses the problem and escapes while thinking something along the lines of: “This water is deadly hot! I need to escape!”
In the second scenario – the cold water slowly getting hotter. The frog is probably thinking: “Seems to be getting a little warm in here. Well, but then it’s not so much warmer than it was a while ago.”
Feeling slightly uncomfortable right now is not so much of a big deal. We easily adapt to slightly “warmer” water.
Consider this: Spending an hour every day watching funny videos doesn’t feel that bad. We easily convince our minds that what we’re doing is fine by saying things like: “Seems like I just wasted an hour of my working day watching celebrity gossip. Well, I still have plenty of time to finish my job for today. Besides, I deserve the break. I work quite hard!”
The real problem, as you can imagine, is that we don’t spot that the “water” is getting warmer and warmer. Thus, we fail to see the rope tightening around our neck.
Or in the example above, we fail to see that we are procrastinating daily. Instead of learning something new that can help us in the future. We waste time consuming content that makes us feel good now, but only deteriorates our future.
There are many areas of our life where we are slowly boiling. In a lot of these fields, we simply strategically avoid talking and thinking about them.
But there are also times when we are not aware of the problem. We’re blind. We lack awareness.
Or if we can categorize the two, we can say that making wrong decisions is caused because we are often 1) avoiding our problems and/or 2) unaware of our problems.
A couple of years ago, I used to smoke. I knew that smoking was bad for my health, but I kept doing it because it made me feel good. I was aware of the problem, and I occasionally tried to quit.
I did not, however, felt that pressured at the time to stop this activity. Though I wanted to quit someday, every time I hold a cigarette I removed the thoughts about how smoking is bad, and I replaced them with other thoughts – how smoking is good.
At the same time, I also spent a lot of money on clothes and on going out. While doing so, I wasn’t that involved in reading and learning new things. I didn’t think I needed to learn more. I thought I already knew a lot.
I was unaware that these activities – or lack of learning activities – were harmful at the time. I was unaware of the dystopian future I was creating for myself with both my actions and inactions.
Can One Decision Change Your Life?
The short answer is, yes. Absolutely!
But it’s not the decision itself that leads to misery. It’s something else. It’s your mindset.
Let’s unpack this further.
Personally, I categorize bad decisions in the following two spectrums:
- Immediately bad.
- Gradually getting worse.
Let’s observe them one by one for a moment:
Crashing your car because you had a drink is surely a type 1 problem. There are immediate consequences.
The core issue is easy to trace here. When you look back, you can say with certainty what you did that led to jail time.
The second scenario is strangely more interesting and (probably) more important to observe.
In these situations, your life’s conditions are becoming slowly worse. As if there is an evil spirit that is tripping you and hindering your progress everywhere you go. There is usually an eye-opening moment, but when it happens it’s usually too late to react adequately.
For instance, you can go to a new school and join a group of people who prefer partying instead of learning. Eventually, this unhealthy relationship can shape you into a chronic procrastinator with a tendency to wait for things to happen to you instead of creating opportunities for yourself. However, you won’t realize this at a time. Only years later.
The interesting thing in both cases is that the decisions themselves are not the real cause that eventually leads to an unbearable way of living. It is always the way of thinking that’s problematic.
You don’t think that a drink will interfere with your driving skills? So… you drive drunk.
You don’t think that you have to push hard, show up daily to perfect your craft, and learn more? So… you don’t do those things and they eventually end up hurting you in any way.
What Is The Biggest Mistake In Your Life?
Think about what is the biggest mistake of your life.
What wrong you did – or keep doing – in the past that is still corrupting your life?
I’m not trying to make you feel bad.
Rather, help you avoid making the same mistakes. And, more importantly, help you mold the way you think so you can prevent yourself from doing the same, often stupid, things.
For instance, I had many big mistakes disguised as little mistakes.
I was careless with money. I had a lot of unhealthy habits (smoking and drinking). I was mentally perplexed. Constantly seeking approval.
When I think about these problems that are now in the past. The thing that groups them together was my point of view. My thinking.
I thought that just because graduated I should get a job. Just because I work out daily I should have a nice body (totally neglecting what I eat and what I drink). Just because I read smart books I should produce smart ideas. Just because I post pictures online about how I’m having a good time I will actually have a good time.
Finally, I come to the realization that only I can fix my life. There is no job or no person that will fix me. There isn’t a course, a book, a single item, or a bunch of crap, that when obtained, will help me solve all of my problems.
If I don’t manage my finances, I won’t have any savings.
If I’m not aware of how I spend my time, I won’t produce anything meaningful.
If I’m not mindful about what I do online, I will simply consume what’s right in front of me (which is never a good idea).
If I don’t keep an open mind and keep learning on my own, I will never learn anything new.
But the important realization wasn’t that I should do things differently. Of course, this was part of the process. The important thing was that I should think about these things differently. Change the way I think.
How Do I Fix My Biggest Mistake In Life?
The reason we do stupid stuff is rooted in the way we think. Or commonly, a lack of thinking.
The way we think boils the water. And in the metaphor of the frog, the water is the surrounding environment.
If you don’t think about what you do when you’re online you will check every post that appears in front of your eyes.
If you don’t think that you should learn new things to keep progressing you will watch every Netflix documentary because it’s easier.
If you don’t think that you should take care of your body you will avoid exercising and mock people who run outdoors.
The “water” around you will become hotter, but not in terms of cool and sexy. Rather, devastating and damaging.
The solution is always the same. Yet, surprisingly unobvious and unsexy.
It’s: Change the way you think about the things that can later lead to complications.
I know what you’re thinking.
Changing the way you think sounds quite metaphorical and uneventful.
Changing your thoughts seems like not something tangible – something you can purchase. And secondly, not something that happens overnight.
That’s why we avoid this concept.
We are avoiding taking a different perspective and waiting for positive solutions to magically happen by themselves to the point of being dangerous. Not only for ourselves. But for others as well.
We can’t fix our prior mistakes. But we can ensure that we won’t repeat the same mistakes in the future.
How Do I Stop Making Bad Life Decisions?
Bad decisions happen because there is bad thinking involved – or no thinking whatsoever.
You smoke not because you don’t know that smoking kills. But because you don’t actually think that smoking will kill you.
You are convinced that it’s fine because there is always this old figure in the family who used to smoke and lived to be 98 years old.
You impulsively visit social media sites and consume stupid stuff because you are not 100% convinced that this is bad for you.
You frame it like “socializing” or “taking a short break from my hard work” to feel good about yourself.
Sure, some people will say that most of our bad decisions occur because we simply have bad habits. But our habits are a representation of our thoughts.
Thinking always happens first.
To change your habits and to stop whatever it is that is ruining your life, you first need to instill new thoughts in your brain.
From there, to make accurate changes in your life.
No one is saying that is going to be easy – nothing worthwhile in life is. But is it going to make a difference?
Is there something you can do?
Yes, it’s called second-order thinking.
Using Second-Order Thinking To Stop Making Bad Life Decisions
You don’t need an app to practice this. You don’t even need to purchase something.
You just need to pause.
Before doing something, take a brief moment to consider the consequences of your actions.
Also, if you’re in a social dynamic, try to block the arguments from the people around you for a moment to prevent them from influencing your thinking.
So what’s second-order thinking?
It’s considering the consequences beforehand. Anticipating what might happen and taking into account the 2nd and the 3rd order effects.
Namely, realizing that everything we do has consequences. The reason we fail to see them, it’s because we don’t think about them. But there is more to that. They also don’t occur immediately. They are stretched over (usually) a long period of time and happen in different settings.
We can even say that second-order thinking is like fortune-telling. You try to guess what might happen when you do something. And while what you guess is probably not going to actually happen, the process of thinking about the future helps you prevent doing stupid things.
Let’s apply second-order thinking in the scenario of not learning new things to understand the concept better:
- First-order consequences: More time to have fun (feels good).
- Second-order consequences: Not improving in my work (feels bad).
- Third-order consequences: My position in my job – or business- is slowly replaced by people who have more skills and I eventually lose my job and it’s harder for me to get a new one (feels worse).
Let’s do this again. This time, however, we’ll add other people.
Let say that your friends who are influenced by alcohol tell you to go with the car so you can have a good time.
- First-order consequences: Have fun with my friends. Agree with them and don’t be the one to ruin the party (feels good).
- Second-order consequences: Potentially hurt someone by reckless behavior (feels bad).
- Third-order consequences: Go to jail (feels worse).
The main problem, as we can see, is that bad things are always disguised as good things initially. Furthermore, it becomes harder to take a sober look at the situation when there are people around us.
Finally, let’s consider for a brief moment something else. For example, learning something new daily in a particular field:
- First-order consequences: It takes a lot of work to study daily and I’m not going out as much as I used to do (feels bad).
- Second-order consequences: I’m improving in my work (feels good).
- Third-order consequences: I slowly get better and find new opportunities that lead to a more comfortable way of living (feels awesome).
Some Closing Thoughts
The main reason I continuously promote reading is not only because I’m trying to convince more people that reading books is a far better alternative than reading bite-sized tweets.
It’s because reading big, old, and scary books can change the way you think.
This type of paradigm shift can hardly happen by pouring a pile of Twitter threads on top of your head.
Books, good books, hit harder and harder. Every page slowly but surely removes your old beliefs and puts new ways of thinking that can cure your anxiety and give you the mental power to confront your fears. Even confront your friends who are trying to convince you to do things that are not aligned with your goals in general.
Or if we return to the beginning of the post. Yes, one decision can ruin your life. But as we saw, it’s not the decision itself. It’s always how we think – or don’t think – that leads to bad outcomes.
The one decision you can do to prevent all bad decisions is keeping an open mind and trying to change the way you think for the better.
Yes. It’s not going to be easy. Your current thoughts will do all possible to resist the newcomers. But it’s surely going to be helpful.
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