Stay or Go Decisions

What if you’re currently tolerating a situation you don’t want, but you’re unclear about where to go next? What if your current job, relationship, or lifestyle is a mismatch for you, but you feel hesitant to leave it behind?

Imagine being stuck on an island, but you don’t like it there. It’s too small. The weather is often bad. And it smells like rotting fish. And suppose that when you climb to the tallest point on this island and look around, all you can see is the vastness of the sea in every direction.

What do you do?

Well, you have two options. You can stay or you can leave.

If you stay you’ll survive, but you’ll be grudgingly tolerating an undesirable situation for the rest of your life. You’ll never be very happy there. You’ll always wonder what it would have been like to leave and if you could have found something better. And you’ll die on that island still wondering what could have been.

If you build a raft and try to sail away from the island, you may encounter different problems. How will you survive the journey? How will you navigate? What if you get lost at sea? What if you die of thirst or starvation or exposure? What if you run into a storm or get attacked by sharks? There’s no guarantee that you’ll survive. It may have been safer to stay.

This framing is similar to how many people approach tricky stay-or-go decisions. They frame it as something that requires a leap of faith into the risky unknown – an unknown filled with potential storms, sharks, scarce resources, and more. So of course when they use such framing, they stay on their original island. This framing keeps them stuck where they are.

But this framing is only a story. It may seem like a reasonable analogy because it matches up with how people sometimes feel about major life decisions. But it doesn’t match up with the actual risks in play. This type of framing packages up a bunch of limiting beliefs and makes them seem like genuine dangers.

If you quit your job, you’re unlikely to be eaten by sharks. Same goes for leaving an unfulfilling relationship. Same goes for moving to a new city. Yes, there are risks, but they’re manageable risks you can cope with. And in most of these transitions, the realistic worst case scenario really isn’t so bad. You’re probably looking at risks that certain professionals, such as divorce lawyers, deal with as a part of their daily routine without breaking a sweat. Your extraordinary transition is equivalent to a minor line item in someone else’s ordinary day.

While going through some transitions that seemed like a big deal to me at the time, such as a bankruptcy and a divorce, I was struck by just how ordinary these experiences were to those who had to process the paperwork. My life-altering experience was no more special than a cup of coffee to someone else. Even when I was arrested multiple times as a teenager, for the police officers and court officials who had to be involved, my situation wasn’t even close to memorable. I was just a few minutes of their time in a routine day.

Let’s consider a different analogy here. Let’s drop the extraordinary Castaway-style framing from our island scenario. And let’s replace it with something a bit more manageable.

You’re on the same starting island, and it’s still just as bad. But now when you go to the tallest point and look around, you can see a few other islands out there. If you built a raft, you could surely make it to some of them. But you can only carry so much on the raft, so you’ll have to leave most of your familiar possessions behind. You’ll have to abandon your precious hut that you worked so hard to build and repaired after so many storms. If you go to a new island, you’ll basically be starting over.

But so what? People start over all the time. It’s not such a big deal. You can make a big deal out of it, but it’s really just a normal part of life. We all experience it now and then. And we’re going to keep experiencing this sort of thing throughout our lives. Reboots happen.

You can still carry the skills you’ve learned from your old island to the new one. You’ve built a hut once, so you can do it again. Because of your experiences gained on the first island, it will be faster to create a new life somewhere else. And for anything new you encounter, you’ll adapt.

You might not like the journey though. It will be tiring. You’ll probably get sunburned. But it’s reasonable to expect that at least one of the new islands will be better than this stinky island. You know that you don’t like your current situation. You might as well go explore and look for something better.

One aspect that keeps you stuck on your current island is resisting the unpleasantness of the journey. You may dislike that the journey will be difficult, but you could surrender to the fatigue, surrender to the sunburn, and surrender to the challenge of rebuilding your life on the other side. Accept that this is the price you must pay.

If you’re facing a challenging transition, what’s the price to be paid? Will you need to pack up and move? Will you need to downgrade your lifestyle for a while? Will you need to deal with lots of extra paperwork? Could you navigate the transition if you accepted the price you must pay?

Sometimes we retreat from clarity because we don’t like the price of the transition before us. We don’t like the lifestyle downgrade. We don’t like the criticism or the embarrassment. We don’t like the paperwork. We don’t want to go through another reboot. But when a transition has a price tag, the clarity we need is already there. Pay the price and make the transition. Or don’t pay the price and stay where you are.

Don’t make the price any bigger than it is. If the price includes sleeping in your car, don’t turn it into a deadly storm. If the price includes having to apologize, don’t turn it into a shark. If the price includes lots of paperwork… well, that one really sucks. But still… you’ll survive. 😉

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Read Stay or Go Decisions by Steve Pavlina