Making Conscious Decisions

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on July 15, 2009. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

It’s been said that good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is the result of bad judgment. That’s very true. In order to build experience and develop your wisdom and intelligence, you have to make a lot of decisions and see how they turn out. If you avoid making decisions because you’re afraid of making a mistake, you can’t learn and grow.

I have made some egregious mistakes in my life. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to look back on them and recognize the sheer stupidity of those choices. But then I think about the person I was when I made those decisions, and I feel grateful that my past self at least had the courage to decide. If he avoided making tough decisions, I never would have learned those crucial lessons.

I think the most important growth aspect of making decisions is how the process reveals and hones your character over time. Tough call after tough call, you’re given the opportunity to look within and consider what kind of person you really are. Can you make a decision that may cost you a lot of money but which is more honest than the alternatives, or will you lie to preserve your finances? Can you decide to do something that scares you, knowing it will help you become stronger in the long run? Can you choose to help someone who may eventually surpass you?

In my late teens, I used to be a person who would lie, cheat, and steal every day. In a typical day when I was a freshman during my first attempt at college, I would shoplift something on the way to school. If I went to class at all, I’d sit in the back and not pay much attention. Then I’d hit the computer lab and stand next to the printer, so I could swipe someone’s completed computer science homework, retype it, and turn it in as my own. Next I would do a little more shoplifting. If it was a Friday, I might go buy some beer or wine coolers from the Korean grocer who would sell to anyone. Then I’d play ping pong, play video games, get drunk with friends, play poker, and maybe go out again to do something risky and stupid.

My friends knew I was headed for trouble, but when they tried to advise me to make some changes, I dismissed them with sarcasm and tuned them out. It took multiple arrests and getting expelled from school to get me to see where my own decisions were taking me.

What changed my life is that I started pushing myself to make better decisions. I did not transform everything overnight. I had no idea how to do that. I had too many bad habits and addictions. But little by little over a period of years, I started making better decisions.

Your Ideal Future Self

One thing that helped me a lot was to imagine the kind of man I wanted to become. I’d sit down and visualize what he was like, and I’d have imaginary conversations with him. “What would you do?” I’d ask. Then I’d listen for his answer. At first I felt that he was mostly amused by me. I was like a joke to him… so weak, pathetic, and driven by impulse. Compared to him I had no self-control at all. My life was all about temporary thrills. If I wasn’t taking stupid risks at least every few days, I felt empty inside.

As I held this vision of the man I wanted to be, it really made a difference. Two years later my life was looking much better. Five years later it was like night and day.

Think about the person you most want to be. What is s/he like? Focus on this person’s character qualities, not on possessions, partners, or goals achieved.

When I imagined my future self, he was everything that I was not. We seemed to have maybe 20% of our character traits in common, but the other 80% were very different. He seemed so in control of himself… so centered. He had no desire to lie, cheat, and steal. Such behaviors were totally beneath him. When I first started doing this, I thought that even if I could only become a little bit more like him, that would be a step in the right direction.

I didn’t use the term “conscious living” back then, but that was really the main difference. The future self I envisioned was living consciously, and I was just the opposite.

I still have the same vision of this man today, but now things are different. I have changed a lot, but he has remained essentially the same, so I was able to close the gap between us. I’d say that now we’re about 80% similar and 20% dissimilar. And it only took 18 years of conscious growing. 🙂

Permission to Fail

In order to make better decisions, we have to give ourselves permission to fail. We have to make failure okay to experience.

I know that I’ll make new mistakes in the future. But I don’t beat myself up when I make a bad decision. I forgive myself in advance. I know that I can’t predict every outcome, and I know that I’m not perfectly aligned with the character qualities of the man I wish to be. I accept that. It’s okay. It’s a good thing really because it means I can continue learning and growing.

Failure isn’t the end of the world. Every failure is a learning experience. Failure is simply the underbelly of success. If you don’t risk failure again and again, you’ll never enjoy true success. Fake success is when you seek validation in your titles, positions, and possessions. True success is when you can gaze into a mirror and feel totally loved and accepted by the conscious being looking back at you.


Accepting where you are is so important. If you don’t accept yourself, you can’t grow. Beating yourself up will only keep you stuck.

If you don’t like the situation you’re in, or if you don’t think much of your decisions sometimes, that’s okay. Focus on the fact that you always have the potential to grow. That’s what allowed me to accept myself when I first started on a path of conscious growth. My life was one big mess, but I focused my attention on the small areas where I could grow.

I began by giving myself permission to feel good about the things that other people would take for granted. I didn’t steal today — that’s awesome! I exercised once this week — what a breakthrough! I got up before noon today — hot damn! That seems a bit silly looking back on it, but those accomplishments were big deals to me at the time. Some days I couldn’t even get myself out of bed until the sun was already setting, so being on my feet when there were several hours of daylig ht left really did give me a sense of accomplishment. My past self would have a hard time believing that I happily got up at 4:45am this morning, wrote and posted a blog entry, and then went to play disc golf with some friends at 6am.

Even two years after I last stole anything, I’d still feel anxious walking into most stores, including stores I never stole from. I knew I wasn’t going to shoplift anything, but I still had all those old habits — taking note of the security cameras, scanning for the loss-prevention sensors, spotting the plain-clothed store security people roaming around. Those feelings eventually degraded over time, but it took years to finally feel that I was congruent with my new choices and not being ruled by unconscious patterns. Even five years later, I could still feel the residue of those experiences, like a disturbing echo in my consciousness.

Developing Wisdom

When you have a tough decision to make, stop for a moment and imagine your ideal future self. Ask what s/he would do.

When I do this, the correct decision is usually clear to me right away. The hard part is summoning the strength to follow through.

You don’t have to make the decision your ideal self would suggest. You may not be strong enough to handle it yet. In that case, it’s good to acknowledge to yourself that you’re going to make a different decision for now. Then as you act on it, keep a close eye on how it’s turning out. How do you feel about it as you move forward?

When I’ve made decisions that were different from what my ideal future self would do, I usually felt disappointed in myself. But I allow myself to experience that feeling anyway.

Recently I made a fairly minor personal decision that I knew was bad going into it, but I felt I need to go forward with it anyway. So I gave myself permission to experience and explore that divergence b etween the man that I am now and the man that I wish to be. After I acted on the decision, I feel okay about it at first, but then I began having doubts about whether it was such a good idea. A day later I felt pretty stupid for having made the decision. Even so, I’m glad I made the decision as I did. It was a very limited decision that I knew wouldn’t have any serious after-effects, so I felt okay giving myself permission to explore it. It had the positive effect of getting me to do more self-examination and to let go of a little more immaturity.

It’s okay to make a choice you feel is wrong — even intentionally — if you treat it as a learning experience. Bad decisions can sometimes help you see the consequences of your actions more clearly than good decisions. And this can help you learn and grow faster.

The point is to make important decisions consciously, especially those tricky character decisions. Consult with your ideal future self. Notice when you’re con verging with your ideal self and when you’re diverging. Pay attention to the consequences of your choices, especially during the first 24 hours when you begin to act a new decision. Notice how you feel about yourself. You’ll find that as you do this, little by little, you’ll begin to converge with your future self. After all, the main difference between you two is that you make different decisions. When you begin to align your decisions with your future self, you align your character as well, and your character shapes your destiny. Make your decisions more consciously, and you will consciously sculpt your character.

My life has changed tremendously in the 18 years since I started on this path. Some of the changes I’ve made would have been unfathomable to me back then. By far the biggest and most important steps were those that helped me improve my character. I’d gladly let go of all the external bells and whistles in order to hold onto the inner changes. No sum of money can purchase honor. No position can give you courage. No title can bestow you with compassion.

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