Navigating uncertainty

Welcome to another edition of Letters from Ximena. In this month’s newsletter we talk about how to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty.

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

In many areas of my life, I am quick to make decisions. I know with a ten second glance at a menu whether I want to dine there or not. A thirty second visual scan of a clothing store is enough for me to determine whether anything is worth trying on. I have long abandoned the idea that one should read through every book till the end (too many books, so little time); a single chapter is more than enough for me to commit, or put a book down. In general, I have strong tastes and know what I like, so I prefer not to waste time pretending otherwise.

But lately, I’ve found I’m surprisingly slow to make a different kind of decision — the ones with ripple effects far beyond a meal or two. It took me two and half years to quit a job I no longer loved. (It took me almost as long to dip a toe back into the tech world after that.) Moving was a similarly fraught and drawn out process; I spent many years ready to leave the Bay Area without actually leaving.

Part of this, I think, has to do with growing older. Part of it has to do with fear. Part of it is simply that making decisions is a lot more complicated now.

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It was easy for me to pick up and move abroad without a job at 22 because I didn’t have much to give up — no savings accrued from decades of working, no spouse, no child, no dog or others’ concerns to account for. I had only myself to worry about, and in many ways, a lot less at stake. There were few drawbacks, if any, to starting over in a new land. Adventure and experiencing the unknown was the payoff.

But now, every major life decision requires careful triangulation of the needs and happiness of myself and others. This time, there’s a lot more on the line. There’s a lot of pressure to make the “right” choice.

When I’m stuck on a decision (which happens more and more these days), I try to remind myself that nothing is entirely knowable. I can’t know for sure if my son will like his new school, if I will love my next project, or if my husband will enjoy living in a bigger city. All I can do is make a decision with what information I have, and gather more as I go. It’s a little bit like building a product — you can do research up front (and you should), but eventually you need to ship the damn thing to get real-world feedback and see how things land. You have to leave the nest of your ideas, the cocoon (or torture chamber) of what-ifs, and see what happens.

I also rely a lot on my intuition. Intuition gets a bad rap these days. Detractors find it too squishy, too soft, too woo woo — too unknowable and unreliable. But intuition is just another form of data, one acquired over time, incrementally, even sometimes subconsciously, through experience. It may not come in a spreadsheet or listicle, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.

Intuition is knowing to stop a job interview loop because it feels too close to your last work environment, a place you are trying to move on from. It’s knowing not to judge a school by its fancy equipment, because you know from experience that shiny doesn’t mean loving or nurturing, which is what your toddler really needs. It’s passing on a rental that would be “fine” because your last three rentals were “fine” and though you didn’t realize it till now, you’re ready for something better and more stable.

Intuition is not always eloquent or articulate, but we know it when we feel it. It is the pit in your stomach, the flutter of delight, the “I just know” impression you can’t describe or shake.

When I find myself uncharacteristically indecisive, it’s almost always because my intuition is on shaky ground — either because I haven’t build any intuition yet in an area, or because my gut instinct is in conflict (or at least in tension with) what I know others (family, friends) want or need.

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Recently, my husband and I, not known for our collective decision-making prowess, moved to a new city and bought a home. We visited a handful of places and scoured many more online, but only one stood out. I could say we liked it because the place was light and airy and had a good floor plan. I could say we chose it because of the neighborhood and the schools. And we did. But truthfully, we made the most significant financial decision we’ll probably ever make in our lives based on a single five minute walk through and a gut feeling that this was “the one.” Buying a home is a matter of the head (financial calculations and all), but also a matter of the heart. This is going to be your home. You have to use your intuition and listen to what feels right.

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Navigating uncertainty can feel agonizing, especially if we anchor on finding the “right” answer. But often, the answer is there all along. We just have to slow down and listen for it.

💌 As always, if you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others who may enjoy it, too. Thanks for being here and for sharing the love. 💌

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Ximena Vengoechea

Ximena Vengoechea

Author, Listen Like You Mean It. UX researcher, TWTR, PINS, etc. I write about the intersection of technology + society + personal growth. ximenavengoechea.com