The Best Decision I Ever Made

I read a lot, and most of the books I read slide through my consciousness without leaving a clear mark on my mind. Every now and then, though, I read something that makes me stop and say, Whoa. I’ve never thought of it that way before. One of those books was Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. In this book, Duke draws on her successful career as a professional poker player to explain different decision-making tools. She devotes an entire chapter to “mental time travel,” and this is the example that blew my mind:

Imagine you are standing on a narrow strip of concrete on the shoulder of the highway. Behind you is your car, hazard lights flashing. The rear tire on the driver’s side is shredded. It is fully dark and the drizzle has turned into a cold, heavy downpour. You’ve called roadside assistance, twice, and both times (after long hold times) spoken with operators who’ve told you someone will arrive “as soon as they get there after responding to your call.” You decide to change the tire yourself, only to discover you have no jack. You’re soaked to the skin and cold. How does it feel? It likely feels like the worst moment of your life… You are miserable and you can’t imagine feeling any other way.

Yeah, I’d say that would be a pretty miserable. But then she continues:

That’s how it feels in the moment. But if the flat tire had happened a year ago, do you think it would have an effect on your happiness today, or your overall happiness over the past year? Not likely. It likely wouldn’t cause your overall happiness to tick up or down. It would probably have faded to a funny story (or a story you try to make sound funny) told at cocktail parties.

That’s the power of mental time travel: Projecting your brain forward in time can help you keep perspective and realize that many of the things that seem urgent today will probably fade to insignificance in ten months or ten years. Duke recommends practicing mental time travel in both directions: Not just imagining the consequences of things on different future time horizons, but also looking back into the past. After reading this passage, I looked into my own past and asked myself, What things did I do ten months ago that have a major effect on my life today? What about ten years ago?

About ten months ago, I obsessed reading online reviews of different espresso machines, comparison shopping to try to get the “right” one. Did the espresso machine brand I wound up picking have a major effect on my life today? Not really. Maybe I should remember the next time I start thinking a kitchen gadget will change my life.

About twelve years ago, I rebooted my career. I switched from being a program manager at Microsoft to being an iOS developer at a small company. Does that decision have a major effect on my life today? Absolutely — it’s clearly the best decision I made in that era, and I’m still reaping the rewards today.

But it’s not the best decision I’ve ever made, not by a long shot. For that, I have to go back 23 years. I can draw a line from every good thing in my life today back to my wife Molly and our marriage. We met as grad students in the Computer Science department at the University of Washington. Our relationship wasn’t love at first sight. I was kind of obnoxious to her at our first meeting. Molly politely but clearly turned down my romantic overtures after our disastrous first date. I’m still not sure what caused her to change her mind about me. She told me once that one thing she liked about me back then is that I didn’t care about sports, so maybe that was it?

Molly rescued me from my… questionable fashion choices. I’ve always been a bit of an absent-minded professor type with poor impulse control; our household finances would be in shambles if Molly hadn’t taken over the bank account. Everything in my life is easier because I have a partner I completely trust to share burdens with. Everything in my life is more rewarding because Molly and my kids are by my side to share the good times with.

Here’s the crazy thing. It’s when I do mental time travel from today, reflecting back on my life, that it’s so obvious that marrying Molly is the single best decision I’ve made. But then? When I started dating Molly, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married. Only old people were married, and I wasn’t ready to be old.

A limit of my mental time travel is I can’t remember what changed. After I started writing this essay, I re-read my journals from those years, and they’re frustratingly short of insight. In late 1998 I made a note that an ex-girlfriend thought it would be funny if I got married because it would mean I’d gotten over my “phobia” (her words). Around a year later, I was writing about how Molly and I were shopping for a ring. I have no recollection and no record of what changed in me during the intervening time. Maybe I just grew up? Maybe I was smart enough to realize I’d found someone special and it would be crazy to let her drift away? Because my memory is terrible I don’t trust that I’ll ever know exactly.

However, marriage is a lot more than the first “hey, let’s get hitched!” decision. Every day since our wedding, Molly and I have faced a new choice: Do we stay married? Or put another way: Do we keep living our lives so we’re worth being married to? Do we continue to make changes in our lives so we can be better partners to each other? Of course it hasn’t always been easy; our lives have changed so much since those days in grad school, and we could not predict the stresses that careers and parenting would have on our lives. Because marriage is an ongoing effort, though, it doesn’t matter that I can’t clearly remember what finally changed in my young brain to convince me to say I do in October 2000. What matters is that I’ve remembered, in each of the 8,487 days since our wedding day, that I was lucky to find my life partner when I was young and that I better not screw things up. (And I’m lucky that she has forgotten in each of those 8,487 days that she can do so much better than me!)

PS, it’s Molly’s birthday today. If you see her, tell her Happy Birthday and remind her she’s the best thing that’s happened to me.