In the end it's not the knowledge you have accumulated that you'll think about but rather the decisions you've made.
I've taught graduate school for two decades. I'm always amazed at how one of the hardest things to teach is decision making, especially when it involves scenarios that are filled with uncertainty. Yet, all tough decisions are made in the absence of certainty. However, there is one way to frame nearly every hard decision so that it makes the right answer abundantly clear.
But before I get to the framework I want you to think of a tough decision you are struggling with right now. It may be professional or personal, or it may involve a bit of both. The harder and tougher and the longer you've dealt with the decision the better. Dig deep because I want you to take on something that is life altering in its implications.
Got it? Good, let's continue.
"The world doesn't always pay attention to our desires, but it does regularly remind us of our choices."
I now want you to fast forward your life clock to age 80. Put yourself in a retrospective mood looking back on your life and contemplating all of the decisions you made, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Now, in the mindset of the eighty-year-old ask yourself which course of action with the current decision you're struggling with you would have regretted most. That is the path you do not want to take, because that is the path the will lead to the greatest regret.
I've talked about this sort of approach in earlier Inc.com columns but I love the way Jeff Bezos frames it in what he calls his Regret Minimization Framework.
But I want to take it one step further to really drive the point home.
Let that eighty-year-old talk to your present day self and tell him or her what decision you should have made to avoid the high price of regretting not making it. Simply put, make every decision as thought you were nearing the end of your life and looking back wishing what you had decided.
Here's the thing though, none of this is going to guarantee that you make the right decision, because there is rarely an absolute right or wrong except in hindsight. The world doesn't always pay attention to our desires, but it does regularly remind us of our choices. What this simple mind game will guarantee is that you do not find yourself wishing you had done something you really wanted to do and won't forgive yourself for not doing. Because you're the one who has to live with your decisions for life.
Simple stuff, right? Sure it is, you know that. But then again, knowing is not deciding.