Friday, April 28, 2006

Good decisions

How many good decisions have I made?

I don't mean things that ended up being good decisions. I mean active choices. Sometimes it's more important to make a decision than what that decision is. Sitting on a dilemma and not moving is a bad place to live. As I like to say, sometimes any decision is a good decision.

I don't know if going to grad school was a good decision—but once I decided to apply, it gave my life focus and direction. I took the GRE, I took a couple of night classes (demography and stats). I interviewed people in my future discipline. The decision to leave Seattle, though, inevitably ended the best romantic relationship of my life (so far).

Joining the rowing team in grad school was a great decision. It would seem to be one of the dumber things I've ever done, but I have zero regrets. It insured that what I got from grad school was only partially a function of my course load.

Starting to row again is definitely a good decision. We'll see if I keep it up, but even if I don't, reconnecting with the sport has put me in a great (if tired) mood.

My thesis and dissertation topics were good decisions. MA: racial differentials in US infant mortality. PhD: how does living in public housing affect working for pay? Even though the topics are completely unrelated, I still find both of them fascinating. I lived with the thesis topic for over a year and never got bored with it. I lived with the dissertation topic for more than five and I'm still interested. If I had the motivation to turn the conference papers from the dissertation into journal articles, I could live with it for many more years. (I still like the topic, but I find the mechanics of doing the writing and analysis tiresome and I can't get motivated to do the work.)

Changing advisors in grad school was a very good decision and extremely difficult to do. So many politics. I am convinced that I never would have finished if I'd stayed with my original advisor (who thought I was stupid). The woman who accepted me as her student was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I've ever had the privilege to know. Even after I moved to DC, with a defended (but not accepted!) dissertation proposal, she never questioned my commitment to finishing. I never got one whiff of doubt from her. And, she was sick with her third round of cancer for about half of our time together. It killed her not long after I graduated. I am very grateful to have had the chance to work with her.

I wonder if I should add something like "breaking up with Tom" (my important grad school boyfriend) to the list, but it's a negative, and it wasn't completely my choice. It's hard to prove that the absence of something is good because what is the comparison? How can you say if you were better off doing or not doing something? Is life without Tom better than life with Tom? Well, it's certainly different. I'd like to think I'm better off without him, but how can I know?

I can imagine my life without rowing because I know all the things I learned from it that I wouldn't have gotten any other way. I can imagine how I would have felt if I'd hated my dissertation topic; I probably never would have finished. But I can't imagine if I'd chosen some of the things I didn't choose.

This is why social scientists like random-assignment controlled experiments. You may observe what happens to one group of people under "business as usual" conditions and compare them to a similar group of people who receive some sort of intervention. Then you can draw inferences about what would happen to similar people under different circumstances.

I am also deciding, on an every-other-day basis, NOT to call Tom. He's been on my mind lately, perhaps because I associate him with rowing and also because I feel the need for some reassurance. (Why is it that this reassurance must come from someone who, not only finds you attractive, but who you find attractive?) Over the last several years, I've convinced myself that it's ok to call him and keep in arms-length contact with him. But I've changed my mind. As much as I enjoy speaking to him and as much as it soothes me to know I could have him if I wanted to (but I couldn't really, now could I?), I'm deciding not to call him and weather the emotions life rains down on me on my own. Well, it's not really on my own. I'll do it with the support of my real-life friends and my internet friends and trust that this will be a very good decision.

Sometimes I think I'm too passive in my approach to life. That I let things happen. I was not very aggressive when I searched for jobs, I didn't try that hard in my classes, and sometimes I succumb to pursuit. But when I get a hold of something I want, I don't let go. I'm not really sure what that is. I guess I just have to trust myself to know which decisions are worth the trouble.

P.S. I wrote the original version of this post back in January and it was rather more heavy with musings about relationships and what-might-have-beens. I find myself not thinking about my past relationships very much these days, with the exception of the most recent ex-boyfriend. And even those thoughts are fleeting. As you know, most of my head space for the last couple of weeks has been taken up by rowing. I must say, it's a refreshing change.

Grateful for: trusting myself to make good decisions.
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