Decision or Choice?

Even as an insatiable language enthusiast who revels in the nuances of words, for most of my life, I had used the words choice and decision interchangeably. “Come on, hurry up and decide!” or, “Come on, hurry up and make a choice!” sound quite the same to most ears and minds, don’t they?

In the summer of 2005, at the urging of a colleague, I enrolled myself in the Landmark Forum. There were many, many transformative things I learned in that intense 3-day weekend, but one of my biggest takeaways was an awareness of the significant difference between a decision and a choice. This distinction was only introduced to me that weekend; it has taken years of iterations to really understand it, and continues to take more time to actually practice it.

A wildly energetic, forceful and convincing ex-military man named Jan was conducting the Forum, and he ran several interactive exercises during the course of the 3 days, in each of which a handful of the 100 participants usually became his mediums to extract and illustrate key lessons. In one exercise, he put two women and a man in the hot seats center-stage, and asked them a simple question: “Which between chocolate and vanilla flavors of ice-cream is your favorite?” As soon as the person picked a flavor, he asked, “Why?” This question usually provoked puzzled looks, and then responses that explained the individual’s reasons for the preference. One person might have said, “Well, chocolate because its flavors are deeper and richer…” while another might have offered, “Vanilla because it is mild and always goes with everything…” Jan would promptly and aggressively cut them short and yell, “Tell me again – why?” Now the poor scapegoats looked frightened, and delved into further stammering elaborations to defend their preference, floundering for the right answer to please the whip-cracking master. No answer seemed good enough, and Jan kept the pressure on, demanding incessantly, why, why, why? Then suddenly, one of the women cracked open her face in exasperation, stamped her foot, and yelled back indignantly, “Because! I just like it!”

In an instant, Jan’s face relaxed into a calm and kindly demeanor, and I felt the intense pressure in the room release. (I eventually grew to admire Jan’s well-practiced abilities in putting on the pressure when necessary, and recognized that it was always done with expert and conscious control.) The young woman who had just exploded was now pretty much in tears, and Jan walked up to her and placed his hand gently on her shoulder. “Congratulations, you have just made a choice,” he said softly. Then he turned around to the whiteboard and wrote out the following:

DECISION: A path selected as an outcome of various considerations.

CHOICE: A path selected after all considerations have been made, examined, and put aside.

In other words, reasoning out a path through rational considerations leads to a decision, whereas, conducting the reasoning and then putting it aside to move towards what feels right is a choice. There are other ways in which I have learned to distinguish between the two. A decision can be explained, a choice simply exists. A decision comes from the mind; a choice comes from the gut (or the heart). A decision is often obligatory to others; a choice places no burden of responsibility on others. A decision might be second-guessed; a choice is never prone to doubt. A decision is laborious; a choice is fun. A decision leaves us with a feeling of compromise; a choice gives us contentment.

Why work so hard to make this distinction? The difference between decision and choice is terribly significant because it is the difference between surviving and thriving. Our society has become riddled and crippled with decision-making, and we have forgotten to make choices – simple and straight. We have forgotten to be comfortable and confident about what our internal compass – our Higher Power – tells us. Instead, we second-guess our internal guide and we ask others, conduct Google searches, make spreadsheets with weighted factors, and calculate our way forward. For those who have been in abusive situations, whether personal or professional, this becomes even more debilitating. This is because, quite ironically, the more hostile the environment, the greater the rationalization a survivor undertakes to explain away the reasons for the abuse, and the reasons for deciding to maintain the status quo. And most often this rationalization keeps one hostage in a harmful, unhealthy environment that in turn, further chips away and erodes one’s recognition of choice, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse. When we listen intently to our internal compass, it will always show us the right path promptly and unequivocally.

The causes for not making choices are many. Society, our typical upbringing, and the gaining of knowledge together conspire to condition us to be “rational” and “reasonable.” Do you think a child makes decisions, or do you think she wants what she wants because she simply wants it? As we grow into adults, caution and risk-management strap us in, and we become people who manage resources and outcomes, forgetting to lead our lives. We discern fewer and fewer opportunities to make choices. We no longer give ourselves permission to be unreasonable, afraid that if we haven’t mapped out all options and considerations, we will be wrong and we will fail. Fear of failure, or of losing something else in return for making a straightforward choice cripples us, and often the only types of choice we allow ourselves as adults are, perhaps, limited to the flavor of ice-cream or the clothing we want to wear on a given day. (Sometimes that too becomes riddled with external considerations!)

In my journey towards a life of thriving, I have come to recognize that while at times decisions might be necessary, the more often we make choices, the greater our contentment (and through our choices, greater the welfare of others in our lives as well). Choice liberates us from the artificial pressures of circumstance, and it makes each one of us responsible for leading our own paths. Each of us was born with a powerful internal compass, lovingly gifted to us by our Creator. A life of choice-making led by one’s internal compass is a life of thriving.

Go ahead and be unreasonable!


Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. Khushi

    In all major decisions in my life, I have always made choices. Never decisions. The jury is out on how right they were. Once you have kids, I think, you have to become more rational and make decisions on important issues.

  2. indrani

    For all the ‘important’ things in my life, I have made decisions, after weighing the pros and cons of the available choices I had. For the lesser important ones, I’ve made choices. But whether one makes a choice or a decision, its important to stick to the same and never to regret the chosen path.

  3. Tana

    I attended a panel discussion at Seattle’s Town Hall yesterday, with the prime invitee being the original iconoclast and feminist Ms. Gloria Steinem. I noted down several of her amazing quotes as she was speaking, but one of my absolute favorites was “You can’t say Yes, if you also can’t say No.” Talk about describing CHOICE succinctly!

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