Vignette: On the Predetermined Appearance of Good Decisions

The dinner table is set. A plate piled with tender, marinated chicken breast is at the center. Surrounding it: grilled pineapple; a salad of rocket greens, walnuts, and olives; and fried yucca. The edge of the glassy infinity pool is highlighted by the full moon, which is hanging over the Pacific Ocean, its waves twinkling, as if to wink and say “see you again tomorrow.” A soft hum of jungle creature sounds is settling over the night.

It’s a beautiful scene.

And I’m freaking out. Everyone at the table is trying to calm me down.

One week prior, my friend Noah had invited me, out of the blue, to come to Costa Rica. At first, it sounded like a horrible idea. After all, I had a book to write. Now was not a time to take a vacation, and besides, it was such short notice, flights were double the price that they would normally have been.

But then he told me more about the trip. “It’s called ‘Project Phoenix,’” he said.

“Hmm, ‘Phoenix.’ The bird that was reborn from its own ashes? I’m listening.”

Some of Noah’s friends — a group of tech entrepreneurs from Boston — were at various turning points in their careers. They were organizing a retreat to regroup, explore their options, and emerge anew — hopefully without having to burst into flames first (however, sunburns were likely).

It sounded like just what I needed, and I had been fantasizing about visiting Costa Rica someday. The process of merely deciding about whether or not to go on this trip sticks out to me as an example of the importance of decisions, and how the repeated making of good decisions might drastically affect the course of one’s life.

For people from Nebraska — at least the circle in which I grew up — you do not just hop on a plane and go to Costa Rica at the last minute, especially when you have money in the bank for a contract you signed. Only people in movies do things like that.

It never occurs to us that the people who write said movies actually do many of the things you see people in movies do, such as live in Paris or have sex in the middle of the afternoon or buy tickets to fly to the tropics with merely (gasp!) seven days notice.

If you have work to do, you sit your butt in a chair and you do the damn work. Maybe when you’re done, and if you have anything leftover from maxing out your yearly Roth IRA contribution, you can start planning a weekend in Des Moines or Kansas City or — if you’re really feeling adventurous — Minneapolis.

Fortunately, by this point, I had gained an inkling that this kind of thinking was terrible for creative work. While I still advocate the tax benefits of a Roth IRA (talk to your accountant), I had recognized that a “scarcity” mentality — the mentality that the world is scary, and the antidote is staying close to home and saving all of your money is the only defense — only prevents you from doing your best work. You’re living in your amygdala, and you’re cutting off the creative portions of your brain. This mentality may work great if you have a job in a factory, making widgets, but when your work is valued by the quality and originality of your thinking, it will just lead to a downward spiral in your performance.

So, as my finger hovered over the “buy” button for this $900 plane ticket, I fought my ingrained tendency to interpret the freezing rain outside my window as a signal to save up acorns for the winter. I remembered the time I had sat in Piazza Navona for the first time, ideas spewing from my pen on a study abroad I almost didn’t take. I remembered how invincible I felt every time I drove down I-280 in California, overlooking San Andreas Lake. I remembered, for the first time, thinking it plausible that we all could just be antennae for ideas in the ether, the first time I felt the energy of the streets of Manhattan.

After the initial “buyers remorse:” oh no, what have I done? Let’s look up their refund policy. Oh, and here’s a ticket that’s $6 cheaper — a 17-hour layover is worth $6. A wave of peace washed over my body. I can’t imagine having decided any differently.

So back to me freaking out at the dinner table….

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