Who Decides What to do with Your Life?
Imagine having a dream that starts out with you waking up in your bed,
but your bed is inside the bedroom of a private jet, and the jet is in flight.
You look out the window, and you see the clouds down below you.
In your dream, this seems perfectly normal.
So you get up, and you start to get ready for the day, as if you’re going to go to work or take the kids to school or whatever it is you do.
But something makes you walk up to the cockpit.
You look inside, and you freeze. The cockpit is empty.
“Oh, the pilot must be in the bathroom.”
You run back there, swing the door open—and it’s empty. You’re the only one there.
There’s no one flying your plane. You start to panic.
Your mind races. How is this possible?
Someone must have gotten this thing off the ground.
“But I don’t know how to fly a plane.... At least I think I don’t.”
You sit down in one of those big comfy chairs, and you think,
“We’re in the air, we’re flying towards a destination...”
And then you realize,
“Holy shit! I don’t know where this plane is taking me.”
You try to calm yourself down, but you’re traveling at 500 miles an hour.
Time is passing. Jet fuel is burning up.
If you don’t do something, this plane is gonna just keep flying wherever the autopilot takes it… until its tank is empty and it can’t go on.
And then it’s going to plunge into the ocean.
You have no idea how much time you’ve got left.
Are you ready to wake up?
I’ve got news.
You can’t wake up. It’s not a dream. This plane is your life.
And there’s nobody in the pilot’s seat.
You think you’re flying the plane.
You say to yourself,
“I make all my own decisions.
I decide what career to have.
I decide who to marry.
I decide what to eat for dinner.”
Well, the problem is the word “I”.
When you say “I decided to order the salmon” or “I decided to become a lawyer,” what you mean is that the rational, reasonable thinking part of you made those decisions.
If I tapped you on the shoulder and said,
“Do you even know why you made those decisions?”
You’d cross your arms, and you’d be like,
“Yeah, I’m cutting back on red meat. And the Omega 3s are good for my brain.”
“I’ve always been good at arguing, so I decided I might as well get paid for it. Plus, the partners at my firm take home 800K.”
Are these really the reasons you made those decisions?
Or are they the reasons that you’re conscious, rational mind invented after the decisions were already made by some other part of you for completely different reasons?
Okay, I see you shaking your head saying,
“No, Mike, this is bullshit. I just want my Omega 3s and my eight hundred thousand a year.”
Well, science says you don’t actually know why you make the decisions you make.
Hundreds of books on the science of human decision making all say the same thing:
We don’t make decisions rationally, and we don’t actually know why we decide one thing instead of another.
But we need to feel like we have good reasons for everything we do.
So we make them up after the fact, and then we believe those are the real reasons—because they’re the only ones we got.
Psychologists have known about this for almost two centuries.
In 1848, a 25-year-old guy named Phineas Gage took a job laying railroad tracks in Vermont.
He was tall and athletic, and his bosses described him as efficient, capable, shrewd and smart.
Within weeks, they promoted him to lead the whole crew of workers, including a bunch of guys older than him.
Sometimes they’d have to clear out big rocks that were in the way right where they wanted to lay their tracks.
He’d have his men drill a hole in the rock, fill it with gunpowder, and then stick a fuse in it.
Then he’d use a heavy steel rod called a tamping iron to pack it all in, so the explosion would go down into the rock rather than up.
One day, someone yelled his name right at the moment he was doing this, and the tamping iron slipped out of his hands and hit the rock, causing a spark that set off the gunpowder.
The explosion launched the steel rod like a rocket into his forehead.
It went through and through, and it landed on the ground 100 feet away—with chunks of his brain and skull all over it.
Somehow, without any antibiotics, without any surgery, he managed to make a full recovery, at least physically.
He could walk and talk. He wasn’t any less intelligent.
He could do pretty much everything he did before, except... he was incapable of making decisions or doing any kind of planning for the future.
If you asked him to choose between a glass of water and a beer, he’d just get stuck in an endless loop going back and forth, and he’d never decide.
Scientists still have his skull, and they know a whole lot more than the doctors did 170 years ago, including this:
The damage to his brain was in an area just behind his eyebrows—the orbitofrontal cortex.
This region of the brain serves a single purpose:
It connects the frontal lobe, which is the decision making & planning for the future part of the brain with the limbic brain, which is the brain’s emotion center.
In evolutionary terms, your limbic brain is basically at the same level as your dog’s brain.
No language, no rational thought.
Just a jumble of feelings and emotional baggage, most of which got loaded up before your fifth birthday.
What happened to Phineas Gage—plus a bunch of other people since then—proves that human decision-making happens in the limbic brain, where emotions rule and rational thought does not exist.
In other words, you are not actually the pilot of your plane.
Your autopilot was programed a long time ago, and you don’t know where it’s taking you, but you feel like you’re in control.
You might say,
“Hey, I’m good. I like my job. I like my family. I like my car....
I must be making the right decisions.”
But consider this:
You hear people say all the time,
“Life is about the journey, not the destination.”
And you know it’s true.
But when you get to the destination—years from now, lying on your deathbed—that is when you’ll fully understand what the journey is about.
And when they ask people on their deathbed what their biggest regrets are, the consistent, number one answer is:
“I wish I had pursued my dreams.”
Are you spending your days fully dedicated to the pursuit of your dreams?
If you are—great! You can move on to the next chapter.
For everyone else—I have this to say:
You can sit there in your jet, in the big comfy seat, enjoying the ride, until the tank runs dry and you get swallowed up by the blackness of the ocean.
Or you can climb into the pilot’s seat, and you can figure out how to fly this thing.
Now, I’m not saying it’s going to be a quick or easy process...
But—once you do it—only then will you know how much better the journey is when you’re the pilot.
This article is an excerpt of the forthcoming book, Your Best Life: Tactics, Tools and Insights to Create a Life of Fulfillment, Joy and Abundance, by Mike X — to be released on March 14, 2023.
Originally published on Change Your Mind, Change Your Life.