Everything you do in life is a trade-off. Anything you say, do, or pursue has a cost and a benefit. Those costs and benefits may not always be immediately apparent — sometimes the costs and benefits are dislocated in time, the benefit being immediate and the cost in the distant future. Sometimes the costs or benefits are subtle and psychological. But nonetheless, there is always a trade-off.
We like to believe that we can find a life of only pleasure and no pain, of only success and no failure, of only acceptance and no rejection. But this is impossible. Gain and loss are simultaneous. For everything you say or do, there is an infinite number of alternative choices you must forgo in order to say or do them.
As your Economics 101 class taught you, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” If you’re eating an awesome cheesesteak, you’re giving up the chance to eat a hamburger. If you’re eating a hamburger you’re giving up the chance to eat a double-stacked burrito. And if you’re eating a double-stacked burrito, then you’re giving up the ability to ever respect yourself again.
This is decision-making in a nutshell. What are you willing to give up in each moment for something else? What is worth giving up in each moment for something else? What is the “something else” worth pursuing? I know I’m speaking in broad strokes here, but these are at the core of what we all struggle with.
If everything is a trade-off, then a good life means making good trades. It means getting a lot of benefits for whatever costs we give up.
The problem is… we tend to be awful at assessing what we’re giving up and what we’re gaining from our decisions. In fact, I don’t know about you, but in my life, I’ve had my fair share of face-plants where I clearly did not understand the costs of my decisions. To properly see what we’re giving up and what we’re gaining is a constant struggle. And that’s what I’d like to spend some time talking about today: why we make bad decisions and what we can do to make better ones.
What is a Good Decision?
Imagine I offered to play a game with you. You give me $1 and I flip a two-sided coin. If the coin lands heads, I give you $50. If it lands tails, you lose. You get nothing. What should you do?
Obviously, you should be feeding me dollars like I’m a goddamn vending machine selling free money. The downside risk ($1) is minimal and the potential upside ($50) is huge. There is no situation where you should NOT take me up on my offer.
A good decision is risking little for the opportunity to gain a lot.
Good decisions include: striking up a conversation with someone you find interesting or attractive, asking a potentially embarrassing question, spending 10 minutes meditating every day, filling out job applications for positions that you’re unlikely to get, starting a difficult conversation, etc.
Similarly, a bad decision is risking a lot for the opportunity to gain little.
Bad decisions include: driving unsafely, lying and pretending to be someone you’re not to make people like you, getting drunk or stoned the night before an important meeting or exam, stalking your ex and sending angry text messages through the night to try to get him/her back, etc.
Values and Tradeoffs
You may ask, “What is a little and a lot, though?” Well, it depends on what you value. In fact, this is why, if you’ve read my work for a long time, I’m constantly harping on personal values.
Most propositions in life are not as simple as my coin-flipping game. Most are confusing and subjective.
Is giving up your social life for a year worth continuing your education? Is buying a house worth living on a tight budget for the next ten years? You have to know what is important to you to make those decisions well. An obviously good decision for me might be a terrible decision for you, and vice versa.
Our values determine how we measure the options in our lives. They are the yardsticks that determine the size of our costs and the size of our benefits when making our trade-offs. And if we don’t know what yardsticks we’re using, then we can’t accurately determine what is good for us and what’s not.
This is the true problem of people who suffer from indecision: they don’t know what they care about. They don’t know what matters to them. They haven’t found something larger than themselves to commit themselves to. Find your cause, find your values, discover the costs and benefits of your actions, and taking action becomes infinitely more simple.
Now, you’ll probably notice a pattern with the examples above. Good decisions tend to be difficult to make for some reason. Even when they’re obvious and we know they are good decisions (which is not always the case), we still struggle to make them.
And conversely, bad decisions seem incredibly easy to fall into. Why is that? Why do we knowingly do things that are risky and bad for ourselves and struggle to get off our asses to do one good thing? Why do we seem to suck at this whole thing called “life?”
If you said it’s because we’re all a bunch of blithering idiots… well, you’re not totally wrong.
Why We Make Bad Decisions
Humans make bad decisions because we are inherently terrible at objectively assessing risks and rewards. And as much as I’d love to tell you that we can overcome these psychological flaws with a really cute gimmick or three-step technique, the fact is that these flaws seem to be permanent features of how our minds work. We can’t escape them. The best we can do is gain an awareness of them and manage them appropriately.
I could write dozens of articles about all of the heuristics and biases that cause us to view our decisions inaccurately, but for the sake of brevity (and my sanity), I’ll lump our psychological failures into three categories and then summarize them.1
Those categories are:
- The influence of our emotions
- Our poor perception of time
- The seduction of social status
Let’s take them one by one.
1. How Our Emotions Derail our Decision-Making
Think back to some of the stupidest decisions you’ve ever made. Chances are, most of those decisions were motivated by you being an emotional wreck. Maybe you were angry and in a fit of rage, smashed your keyboard against your desk, causing you to get fired. Maybe you were so sad from your break up that you drank yourself into a stupor, blacked out, drove home and woke up in a jail cell. Maybe you were so anxious that you passed up on a huge career opportunity that you’ve always wanted.
Whatever it is, we’ve all been there. Our emotions hijack our sense of reality and suddenly something that is clearly a good decision, feels like a horribly scary, icky bad decision. Or, what is obviously a terrible idea, draws us in with an irresistible force, until we wake up in a pool of our own vomit wondering what happened.
The problem is that our emotions operate separately from our thoughts. One way to think about it is that we all possess two brains, a Thinking Brain and a Feeling Brain. Our Thinking Brain is our higher-level human brain — it’s the intelligent, thoughtful, patient part of ourselves. But our Feeling Brain is our animalistic side — it’s our cravings, our urges, and our desires.
Sadly, the Feeling Brain is much stronger than the Thinking Brain. In fact, our Feeling Brains tend to bully our Thinking Brains around in our heads. Our Thinking Brains are like, “Oh hey, there’s that person we’re attracted to, it’s a great opportunity, we should go talk to them.”
And our Feeling Brain starts screaming things like, “FEAR! SHAME! LOSER! YOU’RE A PIECE OF SHIT! THEY WILL NEVER LOVE YOU! NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE YOU!” until our Thinking Brain is cowering in a corner, shaking, and capitulates, “Okay, okay, okay, you’re right, they probably wouldn’t like us anyway.”
What is, on paper, a proposition to risk $1 to make $50 — talking to them takes all of 10 seconds and you literally lose nothing by trying — starts to feel like an incredibly risky and terrifying proposition. So, we sit there, sipping our warm beer, watching the love of our lives quietly walk out of the room, wondering for the next week what could have been.
But how do we overcome this? How do we develop an ability to manage our emotions? How do we gain a little bit of separation between what we feel and how we act?
Well, it’s hard. And I don’t know if you ever completely master it. The first step is to develop greater self-awareness — to see your emotions as they happen. Many people don’t even realize they’re sad or mad until long after the fact, thus causing them to make poor decisions without knowing.
Once you’ve developed a bit of self-awareness, the next step is to develop a habit of reasoning by working through important decisions, either out loud or on paper, before saying or doing something drastic. I’ll talk a bit more about these ideas in a section below, but this can mean journaling, talking to someone you trust, or even running your decisions by a coach or therapist before committing to them.
2. How Our Poor Perception of Time Derails Our Decision-Making
There’s an interesting economics experiment where if you offer people $100 today or $150 a year from now, most people will take the $100 today.2
In economics, this is known as “temporal discounting” — we “discount” the value of having something far off in the future compared to having something now.
In psychology, it’s often referred to as the “present bias” and you see it crop up in all sorts of other areas in life.3 We’d rather eat that double pepperoni pizza every Saturday night than think about the weight we’ll gain a year from now. We’d rather be right in an argument than think about how we might be affecting a friendship a week, a month, or a year into the future. We’d rather have fun tonight than think about how we’re going to feel at work tomorrow.
We tend to overestimate the value of something now and underestimate the value of something later. This is why people are terrible at saving money. This is why we procrastinate important tasks. This is why we put off having necessary but difficult conversations.
Time messes us up in other ways too. Think about this: take a penny and put it on the first square of a chess board. Now put two pennies on the next. Now put four on the next. Continue doubling the pennies for all 64 squares on the board. How much money is on the last square?
If you said $1.844 QUINTILLION dollars, you were right.
But let’s be honest, you didn’t say that. You probably said some generic, large number, like $5 million or something, thinking you were being clever and guessing really high. Meanwhile, you were only off by about nine zeroes.
Our minds are poor at compounding things over time. We overestimate the pain of doing something for 30 minutes today, without realizing the compounding effects it can have if we fail to do it every day for months and months on end.
For example, let’s pretend there’s some imaginary skill that if you practiced for 30 minutes a day, that you’d get 1% better each day for the next year. Now, let’s say you actually did practice for 30 minutes per day — how much better would you be at the end of the year?
Instinctively, you probably think, “Well, 365 days in a year, so I don’t know, like 400%?” If you’re somewhat familiar with compounding functions, you might know to guess extra high, so you say something like 1,000% better.
But the real answer? You’d be 3,778% — or almost 38 times — better than you were at the start of the year.
Again, our mind doesn’t think like that. Instead, we think, “Oh, what’s the big deal if I miss one workout? Not going to kill me.” Then we proceed to say that once or twice a week for years and years and years on end. And because we don’t think exponentially — our intuition thinks linearly — we vastly underestimate how much we’re actually giving up.
Because here’s how much you improve if you only practice that skill every other day, for a year: 611%.
3,778% improvement vs 611% improvement. That’s 6x the difference in results, for only 2x the effort. That’s the difference between being an expert at something and being merely “good” at it. Run that out over a few years and that’s the difference between being a professional and an amateur. Not a sprint of 12-hour days, but a slow, steady marathon of 30-minutes per day, year after year.
None of us think about this shit when we’re going about our lives. That’s because it’s really, really hard. Our brains don’t think exponentially. It strikes us as counterintuitive.
We tend to vastly overestimate the short-term benefits of taking a day off, or skipping practice or bailing on one of our commitments. Missing one workout isn’t a big deal!
And you’re right, it really isn’t that big of a deal. But we don’t consider the fact that, “just one workout isn’t a big deal,” when repeated every week or even every other week for a couple years, can have a drastic effect on our results.
3. How Our Perceptions are Easily Influenced by Status
You may be wondering why our brains function like this. It’s almost as though we’re handicapped in some way — being at the mercy of our emotions; struggling to properly value things in the future. But the truth is that for most of human evolution, these were not the handicaps but the benefits of our minds.
Fifty thousand years ago, out on the savannah, you couldn’t consider whether something would be more valuable a year from now or not. No, you had to kill a big fucking animal or be killed by that big fucking animal. That’s all that mattered. You needed to be overly concerned with the present.
Similarly, we inherit a retinue of biases and prejudices around social status as well. Why? Because we’re a bunch of fucking monkeys with fancy colorful screens in front of us. That’s why.
Despite thousands of years of our best efforts, humans self-organize into status hierarchies with the few reaping the most resources and opportunities at the top… and everyone else scrounging for the leftovers.
Now, I know what you’re saying, “I don’t give a fuck about no status hierarchies. I am my own man/woman. I do what I want. I will not be swayed by silly social markers of prestige and class.”
Well, that’s nice… but you’re wrong.
The fact is that we are all subconsciously affected by what we perceive as valuable and socially desirable in others. It’s automatic. It colors our perceptions. It skews our emotions. When in the presence of extreme beauty, wealth or power, we all become a little bit dumber, a little bit more passive, and a lot more insecure.
I noticed this the first couple times I met Will Smith. I realized that, without even meaning to, I laughed harder at his jokes, paid more attention to his stories, watched if he got up and moved around the room. It was totally involuntary. And I wasn’t the only one. When he’s in a room, it’s like a vacuum sucking up all of the attention in it. Knowing that I was going to work with him on a book, I had to start consciously checking myself to make sure I wasn’t agreeing to something stupid just because he was famous. I had to question myself around him.
We tend to give way too much credit to people we perceive to have social status. In psychology, this is known as “The Halo Effect.”4 It’s our tendency to assume that physically attractive people are smarter or nicer than they actually are. That successful people are more interesting than they actually are. That powerful people are funnier or more charismatic than they actually are.
As with most of our cognitive biases, marketers take advantage of this to make money. Think about all of the celebrities doing car commercials and shilling worthless supplements and beauty products. Think about how former presidents and heads of state can get paid half a million dollars to simply be in a room. Think about how you’ve convinced yourself that you like different clothes, different food, different music, because somebody you really respect or admire likes them. We all do it. It’s impossible not to.
Like I said, we’re fucking monkeys with screens.
The best we can do is simply be aware of how we are influenced by our perceptions of status and modify our reasoning accordingly.5 Notice how you react around people you deem as particularly successful and admirable. Notice how much more agreeable you become. Notice how you tend to make positive assumptions about them, even though you don’t necessarily know whether they are true or not.
Then, question these things. Ask yourself, “If some random person I know said this, would I react the same way?” And if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that sometimes the answer is “no.”
It sucks to admit it. But welcome to being human.
Our biases around people of status and prestige are important because we’re likely to overvalue things related to them and undervalue things not related to them. As someone who spent much of high school and college getting drunk and high in desperate hopes of impressing the people around me, I can tell you: poor decisions were made.
How to Make Better Decisions
So, what can we do to help ourselves navigate these biases and faulty perceptions? How can we make sure we’re making the right decisions and avoiding the wrong ones?
Like I said earlier, there’s no permanent way to solve your mind’s flaws — they are baked in by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. But there are definitely some steps we can take to improve our chances.
1. Write it out
I know everyone and their dog tells you to keep a journal, write out your thoughts, question your ideas. But there’s a reason for that.
When you write out your ideas, it forces you to look at them a little bit more objectively — in fact, it’s almost like it’s not you having them. You start explaining why you sold all your shit and moved to Tahiti and as you’re cresting the third paragraph, it starts to dawn on you, “This is fucking insane… who does this?”
You do, bucko.
That is, assuming your decisions are run on auto-pilot. Writing out major life decisions cuts off that auto-pilot and forces you to evaluate your assumptions.
One thing I like to do when I’m mulling over a major decision is to simply draw a line down the middle of a page and write out all the risks and costs on one side, and all the potential benefits on the other. This simple exercise alone can often clarify where your biases lie and what you’re missing.
2. Learn to override your anxiety
Most of our bad decisions occur because they feel comfortable and automatic. Our emotions steer us incorrectly. Our perception of time is inaccurate and skewed towards the present. Our internal sense of status colors how we view other people and ourselves.
All of these things mean that often the best decision will strike us as some combination of counterintuitive, difficult, and scary. We will have to go against our intuition. We will have to trust numbers rather than our gut feelings. We will have to risk disappointing others.
None of this is particularly pleasant or easy. In fact, it’s a kind of internal skill that you have to develop through practice. Some people call it “stepping outside your comfort zone.” Others call it “leaning in.” I sometimes think of it as “eating a shit sandwich.”
Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s important that you get good at it. Test your limits. Question your assumptions. Act despite the anxiety. And make better decisions for it.
3. Understand where your weak spots are
We each have our individual weaknesses when it comes to our decision-making. Some of us get more emotional than others. Some of us are fame whores and can’t turn down a fancy cocktail party if our life depended on it. Some of us really struggle to think much about the future.
It’s useful to understand what you’re better and worse at adapting to, and keeping that in mind when considering future decisions. I’m generally pretty good at not getting swayed by the people around me — after all, I’m the “not give a fuck” guy, remember? But I do tend to be impulsive in a lot of areas of my life, particularly when it comes to health-related habits. It’s a battle I’ve had to constantly fight.
4. Set up your environment to prevent those weak spots
Finally, the best way to overcome these weaknesses isn’t through brute willpower or obsessive discipline. It’s actually much simpler than that — simply organize your life to compensate for your bad decision-making.
For instance, I suck at not eating junk food. Therefore, I make a point to not have it in my house. I’ve found it’s way easier to simply not buy it than it is to buy it and not eat it. So I just don’t buy it.
Another example: while working from home, I’ve got accountabilibuddies who I check in with on Zoom and Slack each week. It’s just a simple agreement among friends to make sure we’re all sitting in our chairs and working at 9AM each morning. It’s not complicated or genius in any way. But it works. The fear of being the dickhead who slept in while everyone else was working gets me out of bed in the morning. And it keeps me productive.
Find ways to alter your environment and your information consumption to counteract your weak points in decision-making. This may mean blocking certain websites, unfriending certain people, not reading certain types of news stories. Whatever it is, once you’re aware of it, find lifestyle-driven ways to attack it.
Indecision is the Worst Decision
Finally, I want to take a moment to say that while there are many bad decisions you can make in your life, perhaps none is worse than making no decision.
We all must make decisions — every day, big and small, we have to choose what to eat, what to wear, who to talk to, how to spend our time, and so on. If you’re not choosing what happens in your life, then you are simply not living, period.
The problem, as we discussed, is that every decision is accompanied by costs, risks, and sacrifices. Often, if we’re good at structuring our lives, we will find risks and costs that we’re happy with, and perhaps we even enjoy taking on.
But a lot of the time, we’re not going to be thrilled with the risks and costs of our decisions. And often we will try to ignore those risks and costs. We will try to pretend that they didn’t happen or that they weren’t our fault.
If we do this enough, then we may even reach a point where we decide we want to experience no downside in life — that we don’t think we should have to deal with any risks or costs, no matter what we do. On the one hand, this makes us an entitled and self-absorbed twat. On the other, while it is annoying to others, it only harms ourselves.
Refusing to be accountable for your decisions is a decision. Refusing responsibility for the costs of your choices is a choice. It is possibly the worst choice.
Because when you give up the desire to make a decision — when you choose indecision — then you are no longer the cause within your own life, but the effect. You no longer determine your own fate, instead you hand it off to others around you.
And while this may make you feel comfortable in the short-term — to be able to say, “See, it’s not my fault things didn’t work out, and X, Y, and Z happened!” — it will utterly destroy you in the long-term.
Make decisions. Choose your own life. Live with the risks because the risks are what make it meaningful.
And never forget, you’re still just a fucking monkey with a screen.
- If you do want to read nearly 1,000 pages going into depth on all of these biases and heuristics, I recommend, Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.↵
- The numbers in the example are made up by me. Learn more about temporal discounting here: Doyle, John R. (2013). “Survey of time preference, delay discounting models” Judgment and Decision Making. 8 (2): 116–135.↵
- One example: health. See: Wang Y, Sloan FA (October 2018). “Present bias and health“. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 57 (2): 177–198. ↵
- See: Richard E. Nisbett; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). “The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments” (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 35 (4): 250–256.↵
- A useful book for this is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini↵
“So, when are you having kids?” my aunt asked me straight in the face, soon after I got married. At that point, I had been married for a few months. I didn’t even know if I wanted kids, much less when I was having them.
Caught off guard, I said, “I have not decided if I want kids.” I would spend the next hour listening to stories of women who had difficulty conceiving for a variety of reasons, with the implicit message being that I was going to be like them and regret it if I didn’t hurry and work on churning out babies.
This would be my life for the next few years, where I received varying forms of “When are you having kids?”, followed by a routine, almost ritualistic pressurization to have kids.
Lest you think that it ends after having a child, it doesn’t — the people who previously tried to persuade you to have “just one kid” when you were indifferent to the idea, now tell you to have “just one more.” It seems like you just can’t win. 😒
The problem with asking, “When are you having kids?”
I can understand why people like to ask this question. Find a partner, settle down, get married, and have kids. This is the life path that we’ve been taught to follow since young. This is the path that we’ve been told is the way of life, which would bring us ultimate joy and happiness.
This is especially so in the Chinese culture, where having kids is seen as the ultimate goal in life. There are even sayings built around this notion, such as 生儿育女 (shēng ér yù nǚ), which means to birth sons and raise daughters, and 子孙满堂 (zǐ sūn mǎn táng), which means to be in a room filled with children and grandchildren.
So after you get married, people automatically assume that you should have kids. “When are you having kids?” they ask, somehow expecting you to give them a straight answer.
The problem with this question is that it’s rude. It’s presumptuous. It’s also insensitive.
1) Happiness can come in different forms
Firstly, everyone has their path in life. Some people want kids, while some don’t want kids. Some people think that having kids is the greatest joy in life, while some see having kids as a burden to their carefree life. To presume that everyone should have kids, especially when the person has never said anything about wanting kids, is rude and disregards the person’s preferences and choice in life.
Take for example, Oprah Winfrey. She chose not to have children and has dedicated herself to her personal purpose of serving the world. Oprah hosted her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show which ran for 25 years, founded a leadership academy for girls and became a mother figure to the girls in attendance, and started her own television network. Through the years, she has inspired millions and become a champion for humans worldwide. As she says,
“When people were pressuring me to get married and have children, I knew I was not going to be a person that ever regretted not having them, because I feel like I am a mother to the world’s children. Love knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if a child came from your womb or if you found that person at age two, 10, or 20. If the love is real, the caring is pure and it comes from a good space, it works.” — Oprah
There are other people who chose not to have kids as well.
- Betty White, actress and comedian, chose not to have kids as she’s passionate about her career and focused on it.
- Chelsea Handler, talkshow host, doesn’t have kids as she doesn’t have the time to raise a child herself, and she doesn’t want her kids to be raised by a nanny.
- Ashley Judd, actress and politican activist, chose not to have kids as there are already so many orphaned kids in this world, and she feels that her resources can be better used to help those already here.
And then there are others who chose not to have kids, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Cameron Diaz, Chow Yun Fat, Marisa Tomei, Renée Zellweger, and Rachael Ray. These people choose not to have kids for different reasons, such as because they’re pursuing paths deeply meaningful to them, they do not wish to be tied down with a child, or they just don’t feel a deep desire to have kids. Not having kids has not prevented them from being happy in life, and there’s no reason to assume why people must have kids in order to be happy.
2) You may well cause hurt and pain
Secondly, you never know what others are going through.
Some people may want kids, but maybe they are facing fertility struggles.
- Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan went through three miscarriages before having their firstborn.
- The Obamas had a miscarriage before they had their daughters via IVF.
- Friends star Courteney Cox had a total of seven miscarriages before having her daughter, as she has a MTHFR gene mutation which raises the risk of miscarriage-causing blood clots.
For some people, the journey to conceive is fraught with deep pain, struggle, and losses as they experience miscarriages, undergo round after round of invasive fertility treatments, and wait in hope of the double blue lines on their pregnancy kit each month.
And then there are people who cannot have their own biological children due to issues with their reproductive system, which could have been there since birth.
While you may be think that you’re being helpful or funny by asking people when they’re having kids, your question may well trigger hurt and pain. As Zuckerberg said,
“You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience.”
3) Not everyone is in a position to have kids
Thirdly, having kids is simply not a reality for some people due to their circumstances in life.
Some people may lack the financial resources to have kids, a reality in a place like Singapore.
Some people may be facing problems with their marriage, in which case their priority should be to work on their marriage, not to have kids.
Some people may be so burdened with caring for their dependents that they are unable to consider kids, at least not at the moment.
And then there are people facing chronic health issues, issues that you don’t know and can’t see, which make pregnancy difficult due to the toll it would take on their body.
4) Some couples could still be thinking
And then there are people who are neutral to the idea of having kids, like myself when I just got married. These people need time to think it through, because having kids is a permanent, lifelong decision with serious consequences. There’s no reason to assume that having a kid should be an automatic decision, because you’re bringing a whole new life into this world. This is a decision that will change your life forever, as well as the life of the child you’re bringing into the world.
For those yet to have kids, they need the space to figure out what they want, not have people breathe down their neck day in and out about having kids.
For the initial years after I got married, I just wasn’t thinking about kids. Firstly, having a child is a lifelong decision, and I wanted to enjoy married life with just my husband first, before diving into a decision as serious as that. Secondly, both my husband and I were genuinely happy spending the rest of our lives with just each other — we didn’t feel the need to have kids at all, not in the way my culture obssesses about it. Thirdly, my husband was dealing with some personal problems, and I was fully focused on supporting him through these. These were issues that we needed to sort through before considering kids, if we were to want kids.
Yet I kept getting nudges to have kids, even though I never said anything about wanting them.
“So, when are you having kids?”
“[This relative’s] baby is so cute, isn’t it? Why don’t you hurry up and birth a baby?”
It was as if I was some vehicle, some production machine to have kids, where my own views in the matter didn’t matter. The most frustrating thing was that I kept getting this question, while my husband would never get it (as a man), not even when we were in the same room together.
It was as if my sole reason for existence as a woman was to have kids, and until I had them, I was regarded as unworthy or incomplete.
The decision to have kids
Yet the decision to have children is a personal one. It is also a complex one. It is a decision that will permanently change the lives of the couple in question.
It is not a decision that one should be pressurized into making because their mom wants to carry grandchildren or their aunt wants to play with kids. It’s a decision that a couple should make because they genuinely want to nurture another life.
Because when a child is born, the people bugging others to have kids aren’t the ones who will be caring for the baby 24/7, whose lives will be set back by years (even decades) as they care for a new life, or who will be responsible for every decision concerning the child for the next 18-21 years.
It will be the couple.
And the people who aren’t ready, who were pressured into having kids because they were told that it was the best thing to do, may have to deal with regret as they are stuck with a decision they cannot undo. Because there are people who regret having kids, and we need to be honest about that. These people regret, not because of the child’s fault, but because they were simply not ready to have kids, be it financially, emotionally, or mentally. Unfortunately, the children are the ones who eventually suffer, from living in dysfunctional households to dealing with issues of violence, abuse, and anger.
We need to recognize these realities, and not make parenthood seem like it’s some magical band-aid that solves a lack of purpose or life’s pressures. Things don’t magically get better because people have kids; existing problems usually worsen as having a child puts a big strain on a couple’s lives. Digging into people’s plans to have kids, and pressurizing them into one of the biggest life decisions they can ever make, will only stress them out and perhaps push some into depression. As this redditor shared,
“I have a friend who went through 6 years of miscarriages and fertility treatments before the doctors figured out the problem and she had her son. The nosy ladies at her work and her in-laws questioned her constantly. The depression from that made it harder for her to conceive.”
Stop asking couples when they’re having kids
So, if you tend to ask others when they’re having kids, it’s time to stop that. It’s rude, insensitive, and it disregards people’s privacy. It’s also none of your business.
The reality is that if people want kids, they will work on having kids. They don’t need you to prod them about it.
If they don’t have kids, it’s either because
- they really don’t want kids,
- they are not in a position to consider kids right now, or
- they want kids but they are facing some struggles.
For people in group (c), they aren’t going to share such deeply personal experience over some afternoon coffee chat, and certainly not by you asking, “When are you having kids?”
The best thing you can do is to give people their personal space. Understand that having kids is a personal decision, and people don’t have to share or explain anything. Respect that others have their right to privacy. Respect that people are individuals on their own path, and this path may not involve having kids. And this doesn’t make them incomplete or lesser in any way.
Instead of asking women or couples, “When are you having kids?”, talk to them like how you would a normal person. There’s no reason why conversations should suddenly revolve around childbearing after marriage; it’s not like a person’s identity changes to revolve around having kids. A person still has their own passion, goals, and dreams. Talk to them about what they’ve been doing. Understand their interests. Know them as a real person, not some random being here to fulfill society’s checklist.
If you’re really interested in someone’s plan to have children, you can simply ask, “Are you and your partner planning to have kids?” If they wish to share more, they will do so. If they give a generic answer, then take the hint and move on.
Ultimately, having kids or not doesn’t change a person’s self-worth. A woman is complete with or without kids. A marriage doesn’t need kids to be deemed complete. Having kids should be a conscious choice, not a result of external pressure. Don’t judge people by whether they have kids or not. Some people will have kids, and some people will not have kids. Some will have kids early, while some will have them later in life. All of these are different paths, and there’s nothing wrong about any of them.
For my husband and I, we eventually had a few discussions and decided to have a baby, and had our baby girl this year (2020). 😊 Yet other people’s comments and nudges to have children didn’t make me want to have children; it only annoyed me and made me want to avoid these people, because having a child is a personal decision between me and my husband, that has nothing to do with them. It was after we had the space to settle down and enjoy married life without kids, and took some time to actively pursue our goals and interests, that we finally felt ready to try for a kid last year.
In the meantime, I hope all of you are doing well. There are other things that I’m working on, other things that are happening that I look forward to sharing in time to come. Sending lots of love to you, and remember that whatever life challenge you’re facing, you have it in you to overcome it. I’ll talk to you guys soon! 🙂
Here’s a helpful filter to know when to worry: does something sound too good to be true, or does it sound so bad that people give up and stop thinking for themselves?
Either way, when everyone around you agrees, it’s worth asking some questions. Questions like: “What’s really going on here—and who is threatened by disagreement?”
Consider it an opportunity! When it comes to Coronavirus life, an astounding amount of groupthink is currently taking place. It’s as though everyone is taking the collective temperature (no pun intended…) before deciding what they believe and how they should act.
To be clear, I’ve said several times that the most important thing we can do is keep people safe. And as an introvert who frequently spends twenty-four hours a day by myself, I’ve also been social distancing for most of my life. (“Social distancing is the new silent retreat.”)
But whether it’s COVID-thinking or something else, if you can’t find someone who disagrees with you, someone who has another perspective—it’s time to worry. Or at the very least it’s time to widen your circle, read different media, and consider opposing viewpoints.
Otherwise, you’ll never have the chance to experience the courage of changing your mind.
Speaking up as the only dissenter in the group requires bravery, but so does acknowledging that you might not be right about everything. Are you courageous enough to do so? Most people aren’t.
Fortunately, you aren’t most people … right? You are an original—so think for yourself, and don’t accept what you’re told without closely examining it.
One more thing: have you ever heard “You must learn the rules before you break them”? This is a classic gatekeeping strategy.
Just imagine: If you’re trying to break out of prison, you don’t need to spend forty years becoming a model prisoner before you hide in a laundry cart. You’ll be much better served by studying up on successful prison breaks.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you’re taking care of yourself and working on something you believe in. The rest of us need you to keep going.
By Leo Babauta
OK, calling this a “lost art” is a bit of hyperbole, because there are some people who actually rest these days. But I don’t believe most people do it anymore.
I could rail about the age of distraction (I’ve done that before), and social media and devices. Yada yada, you’ve heard it from me and many others. But whatever the reason is, we rarely rest anymore.
Think about it: when you get a break, what do you normally do? Go on your phone or computer? Check messages or social media or your favorite websites? Watch video online? That’s how most people spend their breaks — myself included. I’m part of this.
What happens when you’re done with work for the day? That’s if you’re ever done — many of us will work practically until we are falling asleep, if we’re allowed to. But if you’re done, do you read and watch and message online? Most people I know do that.
When do we ever truly rest, not only our bodies but our minds?
We need it. We really need it.
The lack of true rest creates a drainedness, where we’re never really fully energized, fully present, fully alive. It means that our relationships start to lack energy and connection. It means we sap the joy out of our lives. That might not be true for you, but you might relate to it somewhat.
I have caught myself taking breaks or finishing for the day, only to get on my phone or laptop for mindless stuff. It feels like the thing I want to do when I have rest time … but it’s not really rest. I don’t feel refreshed afterward, only more drained. It feels like I’m going to comfort, but not getting the rest I really need.
So let’s talk about the Lost Art of True Rest, and how to rediscover it.
Four Kinds of True Rest
For me, there are a handful of ways to rest that feel very nourishing and replenishing:
- Closing my eyes, lying down, and doing nothing. This might or might not result in a nap. It might be more meditation. But I’m not reading, doing, watching. More on this below.
- Going outside without using a device. Connecting to nature. Most likely in solitude. Letting my mind have some mental and physical space.
- Relaxing with someone else. Feeling connection with them. This can’t be a very active conversation — if we’re talking, it has to be something that makes us feel connected, relaxed. We might just be cuddling without conversation.
- Being fully present with a simple non-work activity, like having tea. This isn’t a time to think about work, though those thoughts might arise. It’s about nothing other than having the tea. Relaxing with the experience. Savoring it. Soaking in a bath or having a spa day is another example.
There are probably other ways to truly rest. Playing music, creating art, dancing, perhaps. But these four are my favorite.
You’ll notice that you don’t need much for these kinds of true rest — no equipment or devices (maybe tea if you have it), no special spaces (other than nature, if it’s available). It’s simple stuff.
We just forget to do it!
How to Truly Relax
When I’m feeling tired and I have a meeting coming up, I’ll drop everything else, and go lie down on a bed or couch. Set aside my devices. Close my eyes and get comfortable. Then I really relax.
When I say “really relax,” I mean more than we usually relax. I scan my body for any tension, and relax it. Then I scan some more, and relax that. I will usually notice small micro-muscles tensed in my chest area, in my abdomen, in my head. Sometimes its in the center of my body, right in front of my spine. I let those muscles completely relax.
The more I relax, the more I find other micro-muscles that aren’t relaxed, and I relax those. Sometimes it’s like my face is falling off my head, because everything starts sinking towards the earth.
I find that muscles will tense up as I start having thoughts. So I notice that, and relax them again. Over and over — thought and tense, notice and relax. It’s like savasana, if you’re a yogi.
I usually fall asleep. I have to set a timer a few minutes before my meeting so I don’t sleep through it! But sometimes I don’t sleep — it’s still incredibly restful to do this.
How to Relax While Doing Something Simple
Having a cup of tea, going for a walk, taking a bath … you can relax while doing something. You don’t have to be lying down, closing your eyes.
The key is to make this the one thing that you’re doing. Single-task. Be all in with this task, instead of jumping around.
Give the activity your full focus. Really be with the cup of tea, or with your walk. Do it slowly, with relaxation, savoring the activity.
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
That quote sums up the approach. You can do it with anything, not just drinking tea. Be fully immersed.
A Powerfully Simple Practice
With those relaxation approaches in mind … I’ll leave you with a simple but really powerful practice:
When you’re done with something, pause and notice if you need rest. Are you tired? Are you craving true rest?
If so, give yourself a few moments of true rest. Not checking your phone, not reading or watching online, not taking care of small tasks. True rest. One of the things discussed above, or your version of true rest.
Ask yourself this throughout the day. You might find that you need true rest more than you realize.