The Limitations of Cost-Benefit Analysis

It’s easy to assume a simple cost-benefit analysis is always in order for every important decision.  I’ve found that the more important and radical the decision, the less valuable c-b analysis is.  It’s often little more than a way to complicate things, stall a decision, add stress, and provide cover for a choice your gut tells you is wrong but you fear to pick otherwise.

When I think about all the biggest decisions in my life they all had a moment of crisis where c-b ceased to bring any clarity and I was forced to answer one simple question – the only question that really matters – do I want to do this or don’t I?

Whether considering marriage, moving to a new city, having a child, starting a business, or any other major life-altering action, c-b analysis is probably distracting you from being honest about what you want and doing it.  It’s possible analyzing the pros and cons can help you discover what you really want, but far more likely you know with your knower already, but what you want is scary or unconventional or hard to explain or justify to others, so you look for additional ammunition or an out.  Push all the clutter aside.  Throw away your two columned pros and cons list.  Sit down with yourself in the quiet and ask, “Do I want to do this or don’t I?”  Sit in it.  Imagine what choosing no feels like.  Imagine what choosing yes feels like.  Which do you know deep down you want?

Once you honestly know the one-word answer to “Do I want this?”, commit.  Resolve to do it.  Take some action that holds you accountable to your commitment. (Tell someone in private, make it public, etc.)  The rest will follow.

Cost-benefit analysis is great for picking a web-hosting service or a tagline – decisions that don’t affect the core of your being and that have a lot of small differences worth exploring – but it’s woefully insufficient and even counter-productive for deciding which bold steps to take on your life journey.  None of the pros or cons can really be known with any degree of certainty, and all the best decisions have more unknowns than knowns, thus fewer items that can fruitfully be put on the ledger.

Trust your gut.  If you want it, go get it.  There is no such thing as the perfect choice, or the right choice.  There is only what you want to take a chance on and what you don’t.