The Price We Pay
No regrets. No guilt.
Another movie star pays for his life of parties. A football team loses the game in stoppage time because they stopped pushing after 90 minutes. Getting a sun tan gives skin cancer. Smoking kills. Any of these sentences shocked you? No, I did not think so. We are culturally programmed to understand that choices and decisions come at a price. Our choices have a cost. There always exists a cause and effect relationship.
“You will pay for your choices!” We tend to see the price to pay almost exclusively as a negative. It is a raw cost, but it does not have to be a negative? This is however how we understand choice and decision by default. We are under the impression that choices are, at best, a kind of optimisation between the alternative consequences.
Simply put, there is a right and a wrong choice.
We tend to look at our decisions and the price we pay for it in the rear-view mirror. This is how what-ifs and regrets become so often a part of our human lives. At worst, we can see life as a series of sanctions of our former decisions. It can paralyse us into inaction and indecision. This can become choking, crippling. Not a viable way of living, as making decisions is what takes us forward.
The big stuff
The question of choice has been at the heart of many religions. One of the early answers to the question of price has been some form of eternal tribunal, pre-existing or revealed morality rules, religious or natural laws. Philosophy has taken the relay or complemented it through the centuries, and no self-respecting philosopher could avoid talking about why and what choices we should make. This historical corpus will be the topic of a near future article. Essentially, there is a wealth of ideas on values and morality, rewards and punishments. The same culture of price we are hammered with through myths, legends, stories or dogmas.
If we assume a philosophical or religious rulebook, then there is a price list of what happens when we go in a certain direction. In this case, the only decision we face is the best stock price on the best menu. Yet, none of these offer us all answer to all questions. There is very little, if anything, on choice not referring to moral, religious dilemmas.
Actually, for daily choices and decisions, there is a price too. This price is not the damnation of our soul, but it is impacting our life — often in a big way. And there are no clear rulebooks.
Does understanding choices matter and how does it work? How to avoid regrets and guilt?
The price to pay, a cause and effect logic to day-to-day life
We know that there is a price to everything we do. That much is clear.
It can be a direct cost, but it can also be as simple as closing down alternative options. For example, at a crossroad, I can turn left or right. But once I turned left, I did not turn right. The minimum cost of this decision could be as little as the time it would take me to turn around. Pure logics.
However, we often disregard this logical price. When something negative happens, we say it was bad luck — not simply poor statistical odds. What says that after turning left, the road turned into a bend you did not foresee, before ending into a cul-de-sac. It is not fate, nor a punishment for not having consulted your map. Annoying, very annoying, and possibly extremely frustrating if you are running from the police, but neither bad luck nor punishment. It is simply a statistical possibility that materialised.
We should not expect rewards for the right decisions, nor punishments for the wrong ones. There are very practical, mechanical and logical consequences to our actions.
The climate debate and how we disregard the logical price
As individuals, we seem to have too often difficulties matching cause and consequences in our decisions.
Take the climate debate. As societies, we collectively accept the price of the environment mistreatment. It is not a moral or religious judgement. We may argue the scientific severity of it, but facts are facts. And so around the world, we see collective initiatives flourish. Yet how do we behave when there is no one watching over our shoulder? An example is the staggering year on year increase of illegal dump waste in the UK.
So, as individuals, it seems like we are both extremely indignant at the immoral effect of pollution, yet often indifferent at its practical cost on our lives.
How to bring in our daily life the same cause and effect logic?
Let’s start with looking at the dynamics of choices, i.e. at what point do we actually take a decision.
DYNAMICS OF CHOICE
So, when do we take a decision? When do we make a choice?
Well, when we look for a result.
It can be a very specific result, or rather generic. Yet, there is always an underlying reason. It is the satisfaction of a need that can be identified. We can frame this into as small a need as food and drink, or as generic as happiness, balance, purpose, etc…
We make a decision when we look for a result; and when we look for a result, it is to satisfy a need. So, who else to start with then Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
The Maslow pyramid tells us one thing: we are but the combination of layered needs.
There are many different needs, from the most basic, such as food and drink, to the most advanced, such as creative or intellectual development. These needs do exist simultaneously. It is their combined impact that informs our decision. Our decisions are a combination of the satisfaction of each individual need.
3 elements are classically reproached to Maslow’s theory. One, that it does not really cater to cultural, educational differences in needs. Two, that the individual may have different threshold of satisfaction within each need. Three, that there is an explicit hierarchy which puts on top of the pyramid self-actualisation, a rather intellectual, if not pedantic goal.
Talking a step back though, it is a very useful mental picture, and, with only a few adjustments, we have at least a workable framework for our motivations.
Each of these needs exist at the same time, simultaneously.
Each need generates its own aspirations: in food, it can be basic food, or Nouvelle Cuisine.
Within each need, the intensity of the aspiration is extremely personal: we can crave basic food, as much as aspire to eat gourmet, or simply be OK with any type of food.
Neat and clear. The intellectual construct of the pyramid goes. And broken up into its individual elements, the picture makes more sense.
So, let’s take this to the next level now.
Needs, aspirations and priorities. It’s personal
What you need and what you wish for (your aspirations) is profoundly personal. How you prioritise your needs, as well as your aspirations, is another personal choice.
These 3 relations (need, aspiration and priority) evolve over time, depending on experience, life stage, personal situation, and the success or failure you may have enjoyed before. There is no absolute template nor cookie-cutter solution.
As a shortcut: you need this, you aspire to that, but at this point in time X is more important to you.
We make our decisions and choices to try and satisfy our needs, aspirations and priorities. And they are personal.
There are many dimensions in our lives
These personal dimensions roughly map out to the basic needs of Maslow. However, Maslow’s classification is too broad to be actionable in day-to-day life. To make the classification of Maslow real to you, you will have to massively refine them.
As individuals, we try to balance, focus on, or prioritise our needs according to the way we look at life. It is important to accept that all these needs always exist at the same time, simultaneously. They may vary in intensity or priority over time though. Needs can be financial, professional, educational, cultural, philosophical, emotional, or any system that matters to you. Yet, you can never fully isolate any of them.
As an example, regardless someone is 40 or 70, both work and health will be a significant element of life. At 40, you may feel fulfilled because you got the dream job, and because work is the most important element of satisfaction to you. At 70, the same job would give less a sense of achievement, as your priority may be your health. In this example, the basic needs are health and income. The aspirations are good health and a successful career. The priorities will change over time though.
We each have our own system. Like an orrery
In my previous article Balancing the Chaos, I explain how life can be compared to an orrery, a system of galaxies. Basically, each of us has its own “system”. This system has many layers, many dimensions. And they exist at the same time. However, our priorities will vary over time.
Different dimensions influence each other too (e.g. your health may not allow you to work anymore or your work may destroy your health). This means that the satisfaction of each dimension influences the satisfaction in another dimension (you may have to choose between work and health).
These dimensions go far beyond basics, such as health and work. They include love life, family, work, career, wealth, geography, weather, etc. We feel success when we reach satisfaction in the aspirations we have in each specific dimension of need. Therefore, it is also a question of priorities we give to each of them. Put differently, to feel success we need to feel satisfied with what we want in life, with what we aspire to have and how important this is to us, at that point in time.
So at what point does regret, guilt or “paying the price” enter this picture?
As laid out in the introduction, any choice has a price. Your needs are not your choice. It’s who you are. Your needs are part of your DNA. The satisfaction of your needs are your choice, as well as the priority you give to each of them. These are your decisions.
Any decision you make, regardless how small, will have a price. Making a choice is accepting the price. I.e. accepting all consequences, good and bad. And if you choose to go ahead and make the choice, it is never binary. It is never a yes or no equation.
The ripple effect
Take any decision. Make any choice. You will pay a price. Small or large. Call it the ripple effect, or the complex impact across the satisfaction dimensions.
Making a choice changes the outlook of all further decisions.
Indeed, our decisions create new circumstances. We know that. However, we are driven to think in simplistic terms. We think that the price is purely the direct outcome of individual satisfaction within each dimension, or due to prioritising dimensions of satisfaction, for example health over career.
Actually, the price is mostly the result of new conditions. By making “small” decisions, the new environment and balance between dimensions changes. Small decisions may have a big impact.
Bob turned 40 today. At this point in his life, his career is everything and he reaches the position he always dreamt of. Then, one of his colleagues makes a remark on his old suit. To continue to be successful, he decides to adjust his wardrobe. The new suit cost 3 times the price of his former one, and needs changing every 2 years to keep up. Bob’s priority of needs has changed, as well as how to satisfy them.
While work is Bob’s first priority, there are more dimensions in his life. Bob has a family and loves dearly his wife. His wife is as well on a career path. Like Bob, she spends more on clothing, which never used to be her priority. Both notice that the other starts to look better. Because they have reached power positions, their professional struggles takes priority and there is less time to spend together. All of this is logical. All of this are mechanical, neutral facts. Cause and consequences. So, if they do not talk about these small, logical, neutral decisions, how long before the couple implodes?
Accepting the price by anticipating the ripple effect
In my experience, we tend to think about the big decisions, and their “negatives”. We often forget the small choices we make, and the price we pay for them. We forget the ripple effect. I pay this for that. We tend to see decisions and the price attached as a simple picture.
Yet, the price is seldom a straight exchange. The price is seldom binary. The price is the recognition that with every decision, we change our internal system of satisfaction. Accepting the price is anticipating and managing the best possible impacts on all the dimensions of our life. Solving the very puzzle we set ourselves to achieve in needs, aspirations and priorities.
The better we anticipate the ripple effect, the faster we can adjust.
Of course, we will never be able to anticipate every effect in every dimension. The best would be to already know where we will be blind and incapable of anticipating, and why. Even then, we know the origin of our decision.
Not being able to anticipate the ripple effect has nothing to do with high or low morality. It has everything to do with intent and intention.
Anticipating the ripple effect allows us to precisely set individual levels of satisfaction within each dimension. It allows us to give priorities to each of them. And to assess what its satisfaction will cost. E.g. Bob and his wife may agree to put priority on their jobs for a period of time, in order to get the necessary career satisfaction, and as a result, accept a less intense and satisfied family life during that time.
At the root of it, we live Newtonian lives: for every action, there is a reaction.
It is therefore necessary to, not only accept and understand what will be the price of your choices, but also pay them willingly to succeed in your aspirations. The worst case would be to continuously hover, balk at the consequences, or worse, to deny them.
THE IMPORTANCE OF “THE PRICE”
Since you started reading, you may wonder: why should I spend so much time on this question? Why analyse and anticipate the price of my decisions?
3 main reasons: regrets, control and actionability. You want to avoid any regrets, you want control back in your life, and you want an actionable plan.
Understanding what the price of your decision will be, does that for you. By first assessing the price of your decision, however small it may be, you reduce the possibility of regrets, or even guilt. Within that, the impact of your decision on others around you has an extremely high price. It allows to anticipate the ripple effect and how to deal with this. This gives you back control over your life.
Removing regrets from your life
The process of analysing the price, before taking a decision, cancels out the worst mind worm in your life: regrets, or guilt.
Religions have always thrived on regret and guilt. That is the core reason why we see in parallel an explosion of religious groups, as well as an exponential growth in importance of the private sphere. Just browse through social media. We seem to spend an incredible amount of time thinking and talking about past choices. What if I had not broken my knees? What if I would have done this differently? I could have been born in a different family? And so on…
Indeed, all this speculation seems legitimate.
But actually, the reality is that these facts are casual musings.
I broke both my knees at 21 in a military exercise. I had just succeeded in my dream of becoming a career officer. The army means dangerous exercises. Going to war. Killing and dying. It is unlikely that I would have broken my knees if I had started my career in market research. In turn, it is unclear where I would have ended in market research without my past in the army. On the other hand, as one of the few true callings, I still would love to have stayed in the army. Yet, I don’t regret what happened to me.
What would have happened if I would not have broken my knees? A parachuting accident? A landmine in Croatia? An adventurous international role? A brilliant top-tier career? Or would I have been bored with garrison life after 5 years and leave the army anyway? All of these are real examples taken from what happened to friends.
Thinking back is great for souvenirs and memories. But, none of it is actionable. Just idle thoughts. Who can say how you have set your entire satisfaction mapping? Who can say if or how you would have set your priorities then?
Every day, then as much as now, I simply look forward. I analyse, balance and prioritise my aspirations today, to prepare for those of tomorrow. At least the ones that I can be conscious of.
Taking back control. Avoiding the what-ifs
Whenever you talk about logics and mechanistic understanding, there is always an underlying presumption of inevitability, even fatality. Understanding and anticipating the price to pay has nothing to do with inevitability.
Something will have to be paid, fine. But what, when and how? That is your decision.
And because you regain control on the process, it cancels out most of the regrets you could have. It negates most of the what-ifs that plague us all.
If you cannot stop yourself thinking about the what-ifs, you reframe them. How to do that? Personally, I retrace my thoughts, the ramifications of my choices, and the individual satisfactions they brought. Experience allows you to narrow down better cause and effect. You concentrate on those needs, aspirations and how they brought satisfaction if successful, or unsuccessful. Or how these aspirations brought nothing. You may discover that you underestimated or even disregarded some needs, or new aspirations within the needs. It can be as simple as new circumstances. Age for example is great for that… You can’t ignore these, and include these into your latest calculations.
We will always regret not to have the skills or the knowledge to anticipate everything in every choice. That is both the limitation and excitement of being human.
So, no, understanding the price of your decision does not prevent failure to succeed in one or the other dimension. It frames it. And that, for me, is important enough. As it allows you to overcome any type of regrets.
How to set up an actionable plan for the price to pay
Once broken up into its constituent pieces, weaving an action plan seems rather straightforward.
First, identify your underlying needs. Detail them. Then name them.
Set for each the level of satisfaction you expect; either from experience or as what you think it might be. You already do that for most of your new experiences, don’t you?
Finally — and it is the most difficult — as honestly as you can, clear and prioritise your own order of needs.
Mind you, this can be done of the fly, in a diary or through conversation. But having a frank assessment of what you want, why and how much you want it often comes as a premium. This is not light work but neither impossible, just methodical.
We are told too often that doing all of this is either a given, unnecessary, or unrealistic. We are even given cookie-cutter templates for needs, satisfaction as well as priorities.
Using cookie-cutter templates instead
Truth be told, our societies have always tried to sugar coat the price to pay, for everything.
Cosmic judgement, in religion or life philosophies, set systems of reward and punishment for many choices. It is often with a view to curb excesses, yet often resorts to middle of the road recommendations. Whether you are religious or a philosopher, if you do this or that, it will be your damnation, or at the very least, you will feel very bad about it.
Of course, there is a more recent school of thought which basically is trying to find the core reasons behind our behaviour. Indeed, there are pathologies which scramble this order of needs, satisfaction and priorities. There are pathologies, and there are circumstances, such our upbringing, our education, etc… Does these exonerate us?
Outside of confirmed pathologies, thinking of these as an excuse actually says that we do not think the individual is conscious enough to understand, even without thinking about intelligence.
We also have the natural tendency to wrap ourselves into artificial universes. This is demonstrated by the commercial success of alternative worlds, such as Disney or the WWE. Constructed dreamscapes with a message. All of these come with a cookie-cutter moral system of rewards and punishments. All the more set in our cultural backgrounds of myths and legends, all the better. They offer us pre-set menus of needs, aspirations and promises of satisfaction. The price of the choices is never mentioned. It is as if we have to make no effort thinking if this is the right path for me, and even less if I am ready to pay the price. They are often self-styled benevolent universes, Far Far Away Kingdoms.
The perverse notion here is to wallpaper the price under the false premise and promise that we just want to dream. To a certain extent, yes. But when it becomes all pernicious and an educational model, then it is an issue. In Celebration, FA, Disney created a model village. It was not only buildings, lawns and parades. It was also education experiments, enforced good neighbourly virtues and moral code.
Without going that far, what else are feel-good movies except suspension in disbelief in the price of life? How much are Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood responsible for divorce rates with the unrealistic picture they paint of romance, finding your “one true love”, eternal love … and lust?
Even in a partnership, it is a matter of decrypting your needs, assessing your satisfaction levels, prioritising what you expect from it. Bridget Jones is a mess because she just shovels into one big pile of all of it. Then the magical moment happens. And she lives happily ever after, that is until the next novel. Hmm, not so in real life as we cannot wait for the next chapter, and even less for the next book.
When we say “we pay the price for”, we associate it primarily — consciously or not — to some negative outcome.
That shows we are taught to think about the price only when it comes to moral, religious and big life choices. The idea being: we got this, and in exchange, we have to give up that.
Yet, on a daily basis, we do take continuous decisions. We are all the time adjusting our aspirations and rebalancing the different dimensions of our lives, to ensure a satisfactory outcome.
So how to avoid regret and guilt?
We can start to look for long term or immediate effects of our daily decisions and choices. We can start to assess the direct or indirect consequences. Try to understand the ripple-effect that will follow. Try to understand the price of our decisions and accept it; i.e., accepting all consequences, good and bad. True, we cannot always calculate or anticipate the outcome. We cannot assess the full price of each decision. But, we can take these decisions consciously. This cancels out regrets.
Conscious decision-making allows us to take control back of our lives as well as gives us an actionable game plan. For this, we just need to have a good mapping of our personal aspirations and needs; understand how to satisfy them; recognize the level of priority for each of them; and finally, appreciate how each will be impacted by a change in our overall system balance.
In making these choices, we not only get our system to work, we optimise our different satisfaction levels at the level they are needed today, while leaving potential future choices open. Adjusting the different priorities of satisfaction to our latest aspirations allows us to create the weave we want out of life.