My biggest fear — and perhaps greatest weakness — is making decisions. In elementary school, I played the piano. I was no prodigy, but I could bang out a solid Minuet in C. Around third grade, however, I began to dread practicing my chords and rehearsing my pieces. Sometimes during the lesson, my eyes would even fill with tears of boredom or frustration. Most people would see these reactions as clear indications that they should end their piano career. But I couldn’t admit to myself, my teacher or my parents my dislike for the craft out of fear of having to make a decision about quitting. So I suffered for two more years, finally pulling the plug in fifth grade.
Going into my junior year of high school, I tortured myself again, but this time over the decision of whether to take Advanced Placement U.S. History. In my high school, “APUSH” was seen as the AP of all AP’s, and if you took it, you were the pinnacle of academic success. APUSH notoriously meant hours of homework, grueling assignments and ruthless grading. I knew taking APUSH would rob me of sleep and wreck the social life I already had little time for. Yet, I feared that the absence of the course from my transcript would keep me from getting into a college that reflected my intelligence or hard work. I grappled with the decision for the second half of my sophomore year and throughout that summer. I even read the summer book for the course just in case. A week before school began, I decided I’d take the regular history class.
Come junior and senior year, the process of deciding what college to attend stole precious time off of my life. My family watched me go through an early-life crisis as I soul searched for who I was, where I was meant to live, who I was supposed to spend my time around and what level of prestige I “measured up” to. Small school, big school, private school, public school. I analyzed and anguished. I didn’t commit to the University of Michigan until what felt like years after my friends.
My inability to make decisions in a collected, swift or steadfast manner due to fear of making the wrong one continues to date. Recently, decisions regarding clubs, courses, Fraternity & Sorority Life and summer plans have sent me spiraling.
I speak of my indecisiveness with humor now, but in the moment, each and every decision irrationally feels like a genuine life-or-death issue. Everything seems like a pivotal choice that could single-handedly alter my life course. In trying to help me with my turmoil, people often ask, “What does your gut say?” I never know the answer to that question; I can never hear my gut above the self-imposed pressure to choose the right one.
The idea that my future is up to me, lying in my hands, has always terrified me. Is there a wrong decision? A right one? Does one decision send me down a life path that is closer to the one I’m “supposed” to be living or that is truer to myself? By choosing regular history over APUSH, was I leaving something behind that was meant to be? I don’t like calling the shots because, well, what if I’m wrong?
I recently listened to Matthew McConaughey’s memoir, “Greenlights,” on audiobook. In it, he narrates his life thus far — his triumphs, travels, pitfalls, lessons learned and namely, the “greenlights” that led him to where he is now. According to McConaughey, greenlights are the “yeses” of life: events, ideas, approvals or choices that lead us successfully on our way. While discussing the greenlights, as well as the yellows and reds, of his life, McConaughey places emphasis making decisions while adhering to his truest self, conveniently advising me in the area of life I’ve struggled with so greatly.
As I listened to the book, I discovered that McConaughey and I are opposites. He’s optimistic, can trust his gut, frequently acts on whims and believes “that the world is conspiring to make (him) happy.” In high school, he decided to spend a year in Australia with a host family he’d never met, pledging to the program sponsor that he wouldn’t come home early. Halfway through college, he switched from a political science major, law school bound, to a film student. He had a dream of floating down the Amazon River. He woke up and booked a flight to South America the next morning.
While listening to his book, I was fascinated but also frustrated. His outlooks and experiences with decision-making were contradictory. Sometimes he emphasized the notion that our fate is in our own hands, that we have the power to choose the course by which we live. During the height of his romantic comedy career, McConaughey decided to deny a bunch of the multimillion rom-com parts that came his way because he no longer felt fulfilled by those types of roles. He chose to redirect his craft and rebuild his brand. “You are the author of the book of your life,” he said. His decision to pursue more complicated roles landed him an Oscar. He’d call this a greenlight.
Other times, however, he emphasized the notion that life is a game of chance — we shouldn’t place too much pressure on our decisions because sometimes we get lucky and sometimes we don’t and it’s all part of a larger plan. He got his breakout role as Jake Brigance in “A Time to Kill” because a last-minute, freak event involving a murder caused the actor intended to play Jake Brigance to drop out, and the role fell default to McConaughey. Another greenlight.
While listening, I wondered: Do I need to get better at finding and adhering to my gut because that gut will lead me to my most authentic life? Or should I stop worrying about decisions because luck is steering my ship?
I teetered and tottered between the two notions, but by the end of the book, I understood: It’s both and it’s neither. Some of McConaughey’s decisions were truly shots in the dark — places where he closed his eyes and threw a dart. He trusted in fate. Other times, he looked inward and analyzed. It’s possible to do both — sometimes a choice requires adhering to our instincts, and sometimes we should flip a coin and run with it. It’s not contradictory, it’s complimentary.
I also began to realize that I’ve been putting all my energy into the decision itself, when really what matters is how I act after the decision. Whether McConaughey threw it up to the gods above or drew a decision from deep within, he never wavered. He picked something and he ran with it. He fought the African tribe’s wrestling champion. He ran five miles barefoot across the desert daily to prepare for a role as a dragon slayer. Good or bad, right or wrong, he was all in.
“Sometimes which choice you make is not as important as making a choice and committing to it,” McConaughey said. Whether I’m supposed to trust luck or my gut is irrelevant. I’m just supposed to trust something and act. This realization is the essence of a greenlight.
If I had chosen to quit piano lessons at the first sign of utter disinterest and committed to that decision, I would have granted myself a greenlight to pursue other activities and develop my interests instead of wasting two years miserably hunching over the keyboard. I could’ve even had time to come back to the piano should I have realized that I missed playing. If I had committed to the University sooner than I did, I could’ve allocated the time I spent agonizing over choices to do even more research about the school, finding people and clubs that interested me, looking for opportunities to pursue once I got here and relishing in the excitement of going to college — committing 100%. I have to acknowledge, though, that while I grappled with these decisions, my choices ultimately led me to where I am today — a place I’m happy to be.
I don’t know if we’re writing our own individual stories or if luck or fate already have them etched in stone. Maybe fate, “meant to be” or “not meant to be” is real and we can trust our luck and not overanalyze any decision we make. Because we’ll never know, I don’t think it matters. What matters is that we stop fearing, dive in and don’t look back. “It’s a matter of how we see the challenge in front of us and how we engage with it. Persist, pivot, or concede,” McConnaughey said. “It’s up to us, our choice, every time.” If we’re committed to the life course we’re on, then the one we gave up is irrelevant. So far in life, what I regret most about any decision is not which choice I made, but the time and energy I wasted landing on one.
In so many ways, I’m never going to be Matthew McConaughey. I’ll never choose to fight an African tribe’s wrestling champion, and I’ll never float down the Amazon two days after conceiving the vision in a dream. But I can make the choice to live a little bit more like him. I’m pretty sure he’d call that a greenlight.
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