Crossing the Threshold

I applied to grad school today.

I started last night. It took all of six hours.

For 8 years, I have been exploring graduate programs in Psychology.

Wednesday, I had dinner with a friend, and she beamed when she talked about her graduate plans in Counseling. That could be me, I thought, any day now. I just need to choose the right program.

Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Masters in Clinical Social Work, Masters’ in Psychology. Psy.D, PHD in Psychology. Masters in Neuroscience. PHD in Neuroscience. Masters in Organizational Psychology. Or a PHD! Which School? Which specialty? Do I really feel certain about this enough to commit to a 6 year PHD program?

“You’ve been thinking about this stuff, right? You should apply. The deadline is Thursday.”

The next day, I looked at all of the programs in the city one more time. This was the most affordable, one of the better respected and, one of the only programs whose application deadline had not yet passed.

I decided that another year of indecision would surely send me over the edge of sanity.

So I leapt.

Today I was thinking — what got me over the threshold? Did the spreadsheets and the math and the research make a difference? Was it the fear? Or my friend’s encouragement?

Was it the right decision? Maybe not.

Sometimes the best decision is just the one that  you make.

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Dreaming in Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are a go-to mechanism for coping with indecision. I feel safety in the grey walls of those tiny cells. I can sow variables in the endless fields of cells, rich with possibilities for manipulation. Whether I’m exploring infinite budget options, assigning criteria to ranking wedding venues, or collecting data to refute my partner’s claim that I “never get home before 6,” I’m living life in a spreadsheet. I often dream spreadsheets.

In this post, I’m excited to introduce a spreadsheet that’s really important to me, and will be the focus of a good deal of this blog moving forward. Please give a warm welcome to the…


All credit for this model goes to the brilliant Simon Rilling.

What’s Math Got to Do With It?


Oh, you beautiful, misguided golden finch.

I read about decision making and risk evaluation in Robert Harris’s Introduction to Decision Making, I was surprised by my own delight. The idea of letting math take the wheel appealed to my faith in science, and the idea that you could write a formulas to predict joy was at once comforting and horrifying. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this topic and hope to devote several more posts to risk management.

The Simon Rilling method is loosely inspired by this risk evaluation formula:

EV = sumn (pn x rn)

The expected value (satisfaction in a career choice) is found by adding the values of each possible outcome, diminished by its own probability.

Robert Harris’s Example: Should I go scuba diving this weekend? If I do, there is a ninety percent probability that I will have a lot of fun. I quantify this great fun as 10 fun points. There is also a ten percent probability that I will get hurt, which I quantify as minus 20 fun points. If I make the other decision, to stay home, there is a ninety-nine percent probability that I will be bored, represented by a minus 2 fun points, and a one percent probability that something exciting will happen, which I represent as five fun points (half as exciting as going scuba diving). Our expected value worksheet looks like this:

Probability Reward
_____ .9 x +10 = +9
|_____ .1 x -20 = -2
_Scuba?_| Total = 7
|_____ .99 x -2 = -1.98
|_____ .01 x +5 = + .05
Total = -1.93

Here we see that the expected value of going diving is 7, which is much higher than the expected value of staying home, which is a negative 1.93.

My Process

First, I set the criteria for happiness, based on my limited self-knowledge. Is it a good fit, does it fuel me, will it pay me, and can I sustain it as a career? I broke these down further into measurable qualities.

Then, I set a timer and wrote down as many desirable paths as I could think of. Some are variations on a theme (therapy with college students v.s. adults) and some are total wildcards (touring punk cover band.)

Next, I took a stab at guessing the probability of success for each career against each criteria.

The Results

This whole thing reminded me of the studies where researchers run your own voice through a modulator, and find that we generally can’t identify our own voices even when they’re only lightly disguised.

I went through my process with the last column hidden so I couldn’t see what my assigned values were adding up to. The result was a statistical analysis that largely mirrored my emotional one for the last 10 years.

When I was 20, I took a career test. It told me I should be a researcher or a dentist. I should have learned that I like people and also structure. Instead, I laughed about the idea of being a dentist and threw the paper away.

The top choices, according to my math are:

  • Organizational psychology focused on workplace culture
  • Writing about trying out different jobs (pure wish fulfillment)
  • Counseling (relationship or individual)
  • Writing about research (ala Mary Roach)

The Meaning of the Dream is In the Interpretation

Dreams are the likely the result of our mind trying to process the mess in our brains. The value of symbols in dreams is primarily in our interpretation. If you think the dream of a monkey was about your boss, that’s a more valuable piece of data than to learn that most people dream about monkeys during warm weather.

The way I interacted with the process – where I assigned higher or lower values, and the reaction I had when I heard organizational psychology had won – those are more helpful data for me in this process than the results themselves.

Pivot Procrastinator’s totally reasonable measures of success:

1. Money.

I’ve been in nonprofits my whole life and so I am only now realizing that money is important for supporting human life and that I would to earn some. Not a ton, but above the average household income in my city would be nice.

2. Having a career fuels me and fits me. I broke this down into:

  • Pace. As a metaphor, I’m really into “Fartlek,” the Swedish art of pacing in long-distance running. I’ve learned that I thrive when I have the opportunity sprint short distances – to work intensely on short projects – and then to recover with a calm pace.
  • People. As an extravert, I am fueled by people.
  • Creativity. Writing is my creative outlet of choice, but I’m flexible.
  • Structure. Success in this area means having some external structures and deadlines.
  • Learning. As previously discussed, I am a huge nerd.

3. Balance, which is broken down into:

  • The opportunity for flexibility: to travel and eventually to parent.  My dream is that my partner and I are able to each work 30 hours a week while our kids are young. Perhaps a crazy dream.
  • Working, on average, a reasonable number of hours per week. Reasonable is relative. Fewer than 50 would be great.
  • Emotional balance.  I want to be emotionally invested and know that what I’m doing matters, but not to feel the weight of humanity entirely on my shoulders.

Numbers v.s. Guts

I used to think intuition was antithetical to a scientific lens. Now I’m not so sure.

At age 9, I watched “Fools Rush In” and thought it was aptly named. Salma Hayek’s character believes life is fated and you just need to read the signs. I thought that was totally ridiculous. I thought intuition was a myth. I stubbed my nose at tarot, astrology, and any sort of fortune telling. I was dismayed by flipism, although I secretly consulted a magic 8 ball frequently.

I grew up in a culture where science was our religion. My father is an atheist, raised by a mathematician. We have to go a few generations back to find anyone with a strong faith in a higher power. I believe that everything can be measured. I believe only way to truly know you’re making the right choice is to collect data against a hypothesis. No wonder I’m indecisive.

Of course, my faith in data has been tested. I work in progressive education, in a community where we shun the tunnel vision of standardized assessments. I’ve seen data fuel bigotry and war. Every faith has their fanatics.

My mind started to open when I met brilliant, balanced people who kept data and intuition side-by-side as equal tools for guiding decisions big and small. My nurse friend collects blood samples and makes data-informed decisions by day and lives by the movement of the moon at night. My professor friend has tattoos of his astrological signs and is the author of many studies and a book, for which he conducted highly structured research for years. My friend who works in data analytics lights up when she talks about numerology.

Of course, now, we have amazing research on the science of intuition! We’ve begun to understand the “gut feeling” as a result of the powerful link between the intestines and the brain.

I’m particularly interested in selective attention — the sounds, sights, and smells that we unconsciously pluck out from the infinite cacophony around us. Neuroscience has helped us understand how much work our brain puts into making signals from the noise of our daily experiences. Hearing our name in a noisy room (the cocktail effect), or noticing the clock at 11:11.

It follows that selective attention might seem to bring to the foreground “signs” to support choices that we might have already unconsciously made, or attune to narrative threads in Tarot or Horoscopes.

In the 20 years since I first scoffed at “Fools Rush In,” I’ve come to understand that nothing is quite so binary as scientific method=accurate, signs and intuition=hogwash. Everything that we perceive is data – from the rumble in our stomachs to the values we assign on a spreadsheet. Whether a nudge in one direction comes from intuition, noticing a sign, or the results of mathematical decision making process, we are constantly collecting important data to inform decision making. What matters is how we respond to the data we receive.

The most exciting outcome of these studies for me is that intuition may be improved over time. There’s hope for me after all!

Welcome To My Personal Hell

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Decisions are my achilles heel. I come from a family of indecisive people pleasers. My chosen life partner is similarly inclined. Choosing what to have for dinner is an hours long game of hot-potato. Does everyone feel this way? It’s something we are actively working on. We close our eyes in the grocery store aisle and try to choose before we get crushed under a the weight of spicy v.s. sweet, local organic v.s. cheap generic, sliced v.s whole pickles.

I recently learned about mathematical decision making. The two things that make me most uncomfortable, together at last.

I decided to lean in.

This blog is the product of leaning in to what makes me uncomfortable. Stewing in it, studying it, carefully pulling it apart by the seams and wearing it like a costume. Maybe in this way I can become a decisive person.

I imagine this is how the creators of Sharknado felt.

I stumbled into nonprofits and fundraising in 2010. I knew it wasn’t a perfect fit. Since then I’ve been itching for new challenges. I’ve looked down many paths and, not knowing which way to go, just stayed put!

For 8 years, I’ve thought about going back to school, changing course, but there are so many options and ultimately, it’s safer and easier to do nothing. I’ve just been digging deeper into my cozy rut.

A little over a year ago, I started to externalize my internal struggles with indecision. First, in the form of a journal, then work with friends and mentors. I’ve learned that I’m extrinsically motivated, and need to make big public commitments as part of my change process.

So, welcome to my public processing forum. I’ll be using this platform to work through my career pivot and exploring other things that make me uncomfortable, like choices and math. On this blog, I’ll explore and test decision-making strategies and share my research on various career pivot options. Some of what I write will not be relevant. In which case, it’s not for you.