I’ve always been intrigued by cultural difference in the language of decisions. An American would say, “I made the decision to attend a college in the Midwest.” In French, as well as other languages, the phrase translates more as “I took the decision to attend a college in the Midwest.” The difference seems simple, but to me it reveals a difference in mindset. The American phase to make a decision has a certain sense of agency to it, emphasizing the role and voice of a do-er. The phrase may even suggest an attitude of command, perhaps an attitude that the speaker is confident of the decision that has been made. The phrase to take a decision, on the other hand, reveals less surety, more awareness that the speaker considered multiple possibilities and then chose one to pursue.
Although I (being American) use the “make” version of this phrase, I actually identify more with the “take” version. I think “take” when I say “make” and by doing so, reveal the continual state of ambivalence I feel about the process of forming any decision. I always seem to see a dozen different sides to every issue and am never sure I know which is the better (or best) path to pursue. I realized early on in life I needed some kind of standard—some verity—that would help me decide on the correct path to pursue in any situation.
Religions offer guidance on the different decisions one faces. I grew up attending a Southern Baptist church, and we had the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and various other scriptures that provided guidelines for living one’s life. Somehow, though, when I am in the midst of the deciding process, too many prescriptive rules confuse the path. I need one simple idea—one clear standard.
Robert Frost’s decision to take the “path less traveled” in his famous poem “The Road Not Taken,” seems to offer an attractive alternative to the prevailing mindset of the moment, and being a product of the sixties, I somewhat identify with the rebelliousness couched in that dictum. Ultimately, though, that choice of pursuing the path less traveled doesn’t really offer the guidance I need because the speaker merely concludes that such a choice made “all the difference,” and that’s a pretty ambiguous conclusion. We don’t know if the different is for the better or for the worse, so how helpful is that? Not very.
A decade or so after the sixties, in the course of learning to meditate, I ran across the verity that works for me: “Highest First.”1 It is such a simple dictum. I interpret this phrase to mean that in any situation that involves a decision, decide for the option that offers the highest value of life. I’m always astonished by how that cuts out certain options immediately and, ultimately, helps eliminate all options except one.
Applying the “Highest First” principles to any decision, whether it’s which job to pursue or whether to buy that larger bag of M&M’s, cuts through all the rationalizing we indulge in when we are forced to decide on a course of action. I’ve always stewed over whether to go for the money angle when hunting a job or the enjoyment angle (somehow they never seem to coincide), but when I think “highest first,” I know that bringing home a good salary from a job I hated would never work for me. The highest value for me is enjoying what I do each day, so I tended to take the decision that led to that possibility. Admittedly, the larger bag of M& M’s dilemma has been harder for me because that choice involves enjoyment vs. balanced good health. If I don’t think about the principle of highest first, I’ll always choose the larger bag of M&M’s, but when I do think “Highest First,” then I can remember that my health has the higher priority, and I reach for the small bag.
Exploring paths less traveled and following the golden rule of doing unto others as I would have them do unto me can offer good experiences and positive benefits, but for a cutting-edge principle that helps me through any decision, I choose the principle of “Highest First.” This phrase creates the clearest, simplest, and most profound thought process and lets me take/make the right decision and leads me along the right course of action.
1 Maharishi Mahesh Yogi identifies the principle of “Highest First” as upholding the movement of the mind toward the pure field of creative intelligence. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (1972). The science of creative intelligence. [33-videotape series]. Livingston Manor, NY: MIU Press.