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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 17, 2021

Podcast #740: Life’s 10 Biggest Decisions

How many of your life’s ten biggest decisions have you already made?

My guest today, psychologist Dr. Adrian Camilleri, would often ask this question to friends and family, and found that it generated a lot of interesting conversation. It also generated a lot of his own thoughts, which made him want to dive more deeply into it and empirically study it and other related questions as well.

The result was the Biggest Life Decisions Project, which we’ll be talking about on the show today. Adrian first explains the criteria that define a big life decision, the most common ones people make, and which of these decisions people rank as being the most important. We then talk about the numbers and types of big life decisions people typically make in each decade of their lives, and how these decisions tend to be front-loaded in your twenties, but you’ll still have a surprising number to make in your later years, too. Adrian shares which decisions people tend to look back on positively and are correlated with higher life satisfaction, and which tend to lead to poor outcomes and regret. We also get into the way people can both underestimate and overestimate the importance of some decisions, before ending with what Adrian has learned by working on this project about how to make good life decisions.

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Read the Transcript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, how many of your life’s 10 biggest decisions have you already made? My guest today, psychologist, Dr. Adrian Camilleri would often ask this question to friends and family and found that it generated a lot of interesting conversation. It also generated a lot of his own thoughts, which made him wanna dive more deeply into it and empirically study it and other related questions as well. The result was the Biggest Life Decisions Project which we’ll be talking about on the show today. Adrian first explains the criteria that define a big life decision, the most common ones people make, and which of these decisions people rank as being the most important.

We then talk about the numbers and types of big life decisions people typically make in each decade of their lives, and how these decisions tend to be front-loaded in your 20s, but you’ll still have a surprising number to make in your later years, too. Adrian shares which decisions people tend to look back on positively and are correlated with higher life satisfaction, and which tend to lead to poor outcomes and regret. We also get into the way people can both underestimate and overestimate the importance of some decisions, before ending with what Adrian has learned by working on the project about how to make good life decisions. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

 Adrian Camilleri, welcome to the show.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are a consumer psychologist, but you’ve been doing some research on big life decisions that people make. I’m curious, how did you get started researching Big Life Decisions and how is this connected to your work as a consumer psychologist?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Well, as a psychologist, I’m really interested in how people make decisions. Now, most of the decisions that I tend to study are those that you might call small, such as, how to choose different options on a menu? But a few years ago, I found myself having to make a number of very large decisions. So, I was deciding whether to get married to my long-term girlfriend. I was living in the US at the time and I had to decide what job to take and whether it was going to be in the US or back home in Australia. And then a little bit after that, I was deciding whether or not to buy a house and have children. So, these were so much more important than the decision about what to choose off a menu, and most of my research wasn’t really helpful in making these bigger life decisions.

And when I looked at the existing literature, I didn’t find much to help me there either. So, I thought, “There seems to be a bit of a gap here,” so that’s when I decided to start this Big Life Decisions Project. And it really began by asking people a pretty simple question, which was, “How many of your life’s 10 biggest decisions have you already made?” And that’s a question that really gets a conversation going. So from that point forward, I decided to take a little bit of a more scientific approach and get people’s answers to that question and related questions.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk definitions. In your research, how are you defining a big life decision?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: My working definition of a big life decision at the start of this project was one in which you explicitly are making a choice between two or perhaps more options, knowing that the outcome is going to have a significant, possibly long-term impact on how you and maybe others live. So, that’s how I started thinking that, but I really wanted to know what others thought the definition was. So, I’ve asked hundreds of people to tell me what their definition is, and I’ve taken those responses and I’ve hired people to read through those responses independent of me to try to sort of synthesize what are the core features of a big decision? And we’ve come up with nine or 10. So, first is the decisions rarely made. So for example, getting married is a typical big life decision, and most people do that once, maybe twice.

 The decision involves a lot of thinking, and because it’s part of the definition, people know they’re making a big decision at the time, so they often spend a lot of time thinking about it. The decision outcomes are uncertain. The decision often challenges our morals or values. So for example, the decision to get an abortion is often a really big one, and that often challenges people. The decision often requires significant investment of resources, so here I’m thinking about things like buying a house. The decision rules out many other options, so if you pursue one career, for example, you’re ruling out every other career. Big decisions tend to impact multiple areas of your life, as well as multiple people in your life. They have long-term consequences. And big decisions tend to be difficult to take back or undo.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So those are 10 of the ideas of what makes a big life decision a big life decision. When you looked at the research that you’ve done, these surveys you’ve done, what are the most common big life decisions that people make?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, so I’ve asked hundreds of people to tell me about their biggest life decisions, and I… There were basically open text boxes where people could tell me anything they wanted to, and I had some really fascinating stories come up. But it was a mess initially, so I was really trying to come up with some kind of structure. In the end, I came up with a structure that had nine decision categories, and then within those, 58 different decision types. So, the decision categories are, the first one is career-related big decisions, and the most common of these is to start a new job. There’s the education-related decisions, and the most common here is to pursue a degree. There are family-related decisions, and the most common one here is to have a child. There are finance-related decisions, the most common being buying a home.

We have relationship-related decisions, and the most common one here is getting married. There are relocation-related decisions, the most common being to move to a new state. There are self-destruction type decisions, these less common, but the most common among them is to begin an addiction. And then we have the self-developmental decisions. Again, these are relatively less common, but they include things like pursuing a religion or engaging in travel or holiday. So, out of that list, the most common decisions were to start a new job, get married, and pursue a degree. And there were also some interesting differences in terms of who you asked and were biased. By that I mean, the age of the person, so. Decisions that were made by those who were younger, or described by those who were younger, tended to focus more on things like education, whereas those who were older, they tended to more often describe things like getting divorced and retiring.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. We’ll talk about how decisions change over the life course of a person. So, you would just list off the most common decisions as basically education, job, family, like, marriage, have kids. When you asked people, and you did these surveys, did you ask them what they felt like was the most important decision out of all the major life decisions they made?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, I did. So, I’d ask people to tell me about their 10 biggest life decisions so far, but then I asked them, “Can you please rank those decisions from most to least important?” And what we find is that at the top of the list, the decision that’s ranked as the most important is ending a life, and this was often in the form of an abortion. And it wasn’t very common, but when it was mentioned, more than 50% of those who mentioned it put it right at the top of the list. Other decisions that were put right at the top of the list were engaging in self-harm, getting married, having a child, and pursuing religion and spirituality. So again, it’s interesting to look at this list, because as I said, ending a life was fairly rare, but getting married was very common, and about half of those who mentioned getting married, again, put it at the top or second on their list.

So we can think about decisions in two dimensions. One is how common are they, and also how important are they when they happen? And so, I think if you were to ask me what is really the biggest decision in life? It’d be a combination of most common and also most important, and that would be getting married and then having a child, but then we have these other relatively uncommon decisions, but when they’re faced, they’re often monumental. And I think when I was stepping back trying to summarize, “What are these decisions representing? Is there a further abstraction I can make?” And it seemed like people trying to solve kinda four basic questions in life, and that was, “What kind of education should I be getting? How should I be earning a living? Where should I put down roots?” And perhaps most important, “Who should I put down those roots with?”

Brett McKay: I’m curious about this idea of starting… Like, self-harm. Do people consider that a decision? ‘Cause I feel like oftentimes we think of addiction or doing self-harm, whether that’s, I don’t know, cutting yourself or something like that…

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Right.

Brett McKay: People don’t really think like, I purposely thought about doing this, it just sort of happens. I’m curious about that dynamic of like, is that really a decision?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Well, I guess, it’s… I can’t tell whether it’s a decision. They tell me it was a decision. And I should also point out that we’re, I guess, getting in the sample of those who engaged in self-harm and weren’t successful in many cases, in committing suicide, because obviously we don’t get those responses. So, I think for many people, it was a decision, and for example, cutting might be not an attempt to commit suicide, but maybe an attempt to get attention and say, “Look, I’m in trouble here, I need help.” And so, I don’t think many of them spent a lot of time thinking about the decision before they made it, and we might talk later on about which decisions people spent a lot of time thinking about versus those that they did not spend much time thinking about, and certainly the self-destruction type decisions, such as engaging in self-harm, committing a crime, these are decisions that people didn’t spend very much time thinking about.

Brett McKay: When you used to talk to people about big decisions, did things come up about what to do with an elderly parent who’s got some sort of terminal disease or has Alzheimer? Did that come up as well?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yes. So, the category of ending a life included potentially people who were on life support, and the decision-maker was responsible for deciding what happened there. And one of the other categories was choosing for another person, and often that was for a child, but sometimes it was for a parent. And another decision was seeking medical treatment, and so, sometimes that was for the individual. Maybe let’s say they had cancer and they’ve got different options on how to seek treatment, but that could also be for a loved one.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about when these decisions happen. So you mentioned earlier, there are differences when people say they make big life decisions. When you’re younger, typically education’s on your mind and you think that’s a big life decision.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Right.

Brett McKay: What else are the differences across the life spectrum when it comes to big life decisions?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, so I asked people that question I started with initially, which is, “How many of your life’s 10 biggest decisions do you think you’ve already made?” And it’s a bit of a tricky question, because it requires you to kind of cycle forward in life and basically figure out, “Okay, when am I going to die? On that day, hopefully, many years from now, looking back on my life, how many of my 10 biggest life decisions have I already made in the year 2021?” But I did ask that question, and I get some sensible answers back. So those in their 20s, they say they’ve made about three, three-and-a-half of their 10 biggest life decisions. Those in their 30s say they’ve made about four-and-a-half. Those in their 40s say about five. Those in their 50s, about five-and-a-half, those in their 60s, about six-and-a-half, and those in their 70s about seven.

So, there is this general increase, but it is interesting that it kinda plateaus, and even those who are in their 70s, they think they’ve still got three big life decisions lying ahead of them, so that’s interesting. When we look at the age period, at which most of these decisions that have been made in the past were made, we see that it’s something called the Reminiscence Bump, and it actually shows that most of the memories and the decisions that people recall, even for those who are 50, 60, 70 year old, they tend to be during the period of 20 to 29 years old. So, for every age group, most of the decisions were for the period of 20 to 29, and I guess, that makes sense. This tends to be the period where people really, you know, establish themselves. They get a degree, maybe, they start a career, they meet their life partner, they often buy a house. So this is a fundamental period in life, and this tends to be the time where most of the memories come from as well.

I can also sort of break down the decisions in terms of those that tended to be made earlier in life versus those that tend to be made later in life. So as you mentioned, it’s the education-related decisions that tended to be made earlier in life, such as what university to go to, what major to follow. There’s also the self-destruction-type decisions made earlier in life. So, beginning an addiction, committing crime, doing some silly things, and also, we see things like joining the military for those who are older, that happened when they were in their 20s. And then the decisions that tend to be made later in life. These were things, wouldn’t surprise you, such as retiring, making a will, taking social security, selling a home, closing down a business. So I think the take-homes, I guess, are that big life decisions are front-loaded. You’re most likely to make them between the ages of, say, 16 and 35, but although front-loaded, big decisions are happening throughout one’s life.

So, you might think at age, let’s say, 35, which is approximately where I’m at, and with a degree, I’ve got a job, a home, a spouse, child, it seems like most of my big life decisions have already been made, but I’m probably wrong, and you are too, if you’re thinking the same thing, because life seems to have a way of constantly throwing curve balls. So, in your future there may be post-graduate degrees, and career changes, renovations, remarriages, even more kids. And I guess, as I mentioned, even those who were 70, pushing 80 years old, they still thought that there were a number of big life decisions lurking around the corner, and the data that I’ve collected seems to suggest that they’re probably correct.

Brett McKay: Yeah, if I look at my own experience, I feel like I made most of my big life decisions in that time period, like 20 to 29. And it’s interesting, that’s when I journaled a lot. I used to be a journaler. And I haven’t journaled in a long time, and I think it’s because I don’t have any big decisions to make, [chuckle] right? It’s mostly… My life for like the past, I don’t know, six years has been pretty much the same.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Right.

Brett McKay: ‘Cause I’ve had kids, married, house, jobs, alright, school’s done, but I mean, who knows, that could change any moment. Like you said, job could go kerplunk, or someone could get sick in your family, you could get a sickness and you’re forced to make a big life decision that you didn’t even think you’d have to make.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, I mean, I, like you, also wrote a journal when I was in my early 20s, and have not done that for a long time. And sort of the period in life that we’re at now, maybe 30s, 40s, this is a high-pressure time, because we’re in the middle of careers, paying off mortgages, we’ve got younger children, we’ve also got older parents that we need to take care of. So, it’s a really busy time. If you look at the judgments of happiness, this tends to be the lowest period for most people, because it’s so stressful. But I think I can assure you there will be some big life decisions ahead of you.

Brett McKay: I don’t know if you looked at this, but one thing I thought of as you were talking was the trend in people marrying later, and how this has maybe crammed life decisions together, that they otherwise would have been more spaced out if they’d gotten married earlier. One thing I’ve heard is, as you get married later you have to make that decision of like, to have kids a lot sooner than maybe than you would if you got married if you were 24. But if you’re getting married when you’re 37, you might have to make that decision really fast. And then you have a kid, let’s say you have a kid, then you have the challenge of making decisions for your kids, but then you also have to think, “Well, man, I’ve got my parents, they’re older, they’ve got issues.” And now you have the situation where you have people making a lot of big life decisions they otherwise would have been more spaced out if they had made other life decisions earlier. Does that make sense?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think I looked, or have too many insights from my data on this, but you’re right that there is definitely a trend of people marrying later and having children later, and probably these big decisions are getting squished together and happening in the same period of time, and that’s probably increasing stress during those times. And it’s also true that many of these big life decisions are what I might call path dependent, or they… You can’t, let’s say, get divorced unless you’ve gotten married. And so, there are a number of other decisions where you can’t engage in a particular decision unless you’ve come from a previous decision. And so, it’s interesting also to think about those paths.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’d be interesting to look into that more. When you did these surveys, were you able to see any differences amongst a gender about what people thought were… Like, men and women thought were a big life decision? Any difference there?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, I haven’t spent a ton of time analyzing gender differences, but I certainly have noticed a few patterns. So men are much more likely to mention career-related decisions, such as starting a new job, joining or leaving the military. Men are more likely to mention finance-related decisions, such as buying an investment. Men are also more likely to mention self-developmental decisions such as pursuing a religion, or engaging in a hobby or sport.

On the flip side, women are more likely to mention decisions related to family, such as having a child, or making decisions for their child. Women are more likely to mention relationship decisions, such as getting a divorce, and even disclosing secret information, and women are more likely to mention relocation decisions, such as moving to a new state. It’s interesting to reflect on what’s causing these differences. Is it different life experiences, or is it different criteria for what’s important in life?

It’s a little bit hard to tell from my data, but certainly, for example, getting a divorce, or having a child, this is a decision that both men and women would be eligible to describe, and so it’s interesting that it comes up more often for women than men. So maybe that’s a difference in the criteria, and yeah, it’s hard to separate that from what I’ve collected so far.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So when you ask you people about the big decisions they’ve made in their life, how do people re-evaluate the decisions they made. Is it like in a positive light? Is it in a negative light? Is there regret? When people do talk to you about those big life decisions they have made, what do they tell you?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, so for every decision that people describe to me, I ask them to retrospectively evaluate those decisions from basically, “It was a great decision” to “It was a bad decision” or “It was somewhere in between.” So I guess the good news is that most people are evaluating their past decisions positively, and that actually ties into something in the academic literature called the positivity bias. And this is the observation that those who are older tend to be focused more on positive things, so positive emotions, positive memories, so that’s something, I guess, for everyone to look forward to.

It was interesting to break down the types of decisions that were most likely to be described positively in retrospect and compare those to the decisions that were least likely to be positively described. So, those decisions that were most highly evaluated were to pursue a philosophy or ideology, to pursue religion or spirituality, to quit an addiction, and even take social security is up there.

In contrast, the decisions that were least positively evaluated, so we could consider these to be the regretful decisions, these were again, those self-destructive type decisions, so beginning an addiction, committing a crime. There’s also engaging in a sexual activity there, and disclosing secret information. So I guess we can see a bit of a pattern in those responses. I didn’t conduct this research, but one of my favorite books on the topic was written by Bronnie Ware. She’s an Australian palliative carer. She wrote a book called ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,’ and she basically summarizes what she learned from working with those who were soon to depart.

The one that stood out for me is, “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.” A lot of people who’ve reached these older ages, they just disconnected from so many of those who really understand them and accept them as they are. So I think when thinking about these decisions and regretful decisions, it’s clear that the most enduring regrets relate to social relationships. Humans, we have a biological need to belong, and it’s important to nurture those relationships.

Another thing that stood out from my research, as well as conducted by others, is that most of the big life regrets we have relate to decisions that are inconsistent with our personal life rules and values, and I think it’s important to understand what your values are, and then make decisions consistent with them because even if you make a decision and things turn out poorly, at least you can have that knowledge that, “You know what, I made a decision that made sense at the time and was consistent with who I am as a person, or who I want to be as a person.”

And I guess finally, the biggest regrets tend to relate to things you didn’t do, and that might be because you were scared or maybe you were too busy working. And I think it’s easier to take a decision, engage in some kind of change, and then course-correct if things aren’t working. That’s much more likely to happen than trying to let’s say time travel and pursue opportunities that you left behind.

Brett McKay: So when you did the survey, you also asked people to predict future big life decisions, kind of like what decisions they’ll make or when they’ll happen. What did you find in those questions?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, so I was really interested not just in what people’s past decisions were, but also what they thought were the future big life decisions. So I asked people this question in a number of ways. So for example, one group, I asked them, as I did with everyone, “Tell me how many of your life’s biggest decisions, your 10 life biggest decisions, you’ve already made.” But then I asked them to estimate what their answer to that same question would have been 10 years ago, and also I asked them to predict what their answer to that same question will be 10 years from now.

And so, with these three data points, I can basically compare the predictions of, let’s say, a 25-year-old with the realities of a 35-year-old. And we can also compare the recollections of a 45-year-old with the realities of the 35-year-old. And so we can do this with each age or each age group.

So a couple of interesting findings. So firstly, people overestimate how many of their life’s biggest decisions they’ve already made. So if we just look, for example, at the 45-year-olds, they indicated that they had made three of their life’s biggest decisions when they were 10 years younger. So when they were 35, they thought they had made three big life decisions. However, when we asked the 35-year-olds, “How many of your life’s biggest decisions have you already made?” They say 4.2. So 4.2 is higher than three. So that suggests that there is some kind of overestimate happening there and we see that same pattern for every age group.

We also see that people overestimate how many of their life’s biggest decisions will happen in the near future. So again, if we look at 35-year-olds making predictions about how many of their big life decisions they would have made by the time they’re 45, they suggest it’s about 8, 8.3, whereas if we look at what 45-year-olds report, they say it’s just 5.8 at age 45. So again, we can see that this forecasting error exists and it’s even stronger for those who are younger.

So that’s sort of some difference in when big decisions are gonna happen. We also can see prediction errors in the types of decisions that are expected. So we can think about decisions that are over expected and those that are under expected. So for example, younger people tend to over-predict decisions such as traveling and buying something or an investment as big life decisions, and it turns out that those who are older, they don’t mention things like traveling in their list. In contrast, those who were younger tend to under-predict things like starting a new job, getting divorced, or ending a romantic relationship, or quitting a job.

So these decisions tend to be ones that the younger people say aren’t going to happen very often, but those who are old will say, “Yeah, that actually did happen much more often than I expected.” So I guess some important take-homes from this analysis, firstly, people are really poor at predicting when their big life decisions are going to happen. And it seems like people just find it really hard to imagine any big life decision that’s more than 10, maybe 15 years in the future.

And it also seems like the foresight that the younger people are lacking is potentially a problem, because were they able to see what’s coming down the road, they would probably make some different decisions such as quitting smoking or buying insurance or investing their savings or taking care of themselves better. So I think this… You might call it a blindness, is particularly problematic, but it’s something that we can improve if we think hard about what’s actually coming down the road and look at those around us who have had more experience than us.

Brett McKay: This is interesting. In your study or research as a psychologist, have you found any tactics that worked that can help people think… Or pretty young people think about their old self so that they do things that their old self will appreciate [chuckle] when they’re 50, 60, 70 years old?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, this is a big question, how do you get people [chuckle] to make good decisions now for themselves 30 years down the road? A lot of research actually has been done on retirement savings, because this is a classic problem where the decisions that we make today going to have significant financial impacts on our future selves. And so there have been a number of studies that have attempted to basically increase the connection that the present person feels about their future self. Because often we don’t think about our future self, or when we do, they may not feel that close to us.

And so my favorite study was one in which they took photographs of individuals, and then they presented age-rendered images back to the individual. So you would basically see a photograph of yourself, but now you were like 70-years-old. And in the study they were trying to increase savings. And the way that they did this was essentially they had a button on a screen that you could drag left to right which was indicating how much savings you were going to put into retirement, and the age-rendered face of yourself changed from being happy to sad depending on what you did. So if you put in very little savings, then your future self looked really sad, and if you put in a lot of savings now, then your future self looked quite happy.

And as you can guess, since I’m mentioning it, and you can probably envision what this experience would look like, people felt much more connected to their future selves, and as a result, they were much more likely to increase the rate of savings today. So that’s one fun way of just thinking about how you can increase the connection between your present self and your future self.

Brett McKay: No, yeah. That’s something to think about. There’s… Often… We often think of ourselves as a one continuous person. We are, but what you need or want now is probably gonna be completely different from what you need or want five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah. I guess there’s a psychologist at Harvard, he’s got a… Dan Gilbert, he’s got a theory, it’s called the End of History Illusion. And basically he asks people to describe how much they’ve changed in the last decade, and then to predict how much they think they’ll change in the next decade. And basically people suggest that they’ve changed a lot in the last decade. They’ve grown a lot, they’ve changed, their tastes and personality have changed, but they don’t think they’re going to change very much in the future. And it seems like this point in time, right now, is sort of people’s peak and their final version of themselves, and that’s just not true.

Brett McKay: So when you did this research and did this survey, and you asked people about their big life decisions, were you able to figure out which big decisions lead to long-term happiness and fulfillment?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah. So I attempted to answer this question. So I asked people to complete a standard life satisfaction questionnaire, which basically just asked people things like, “How satisfied are you with your life?” and, “Is… How close to ideal is your life?” So it’s not a measure of happiness in terms of how happy you’re feeling at the moment, it’s a self-reflective life satisfaction question. And so I was able to look for correlations between number of or different types of big life decisions and who was more likely to report having a high life satisfaction.

So those who had high life satisfaction scores were much less likely to mention things like engaging in self-harm, which makes sense. Having a family member move in also turned to be quite a negative impact on life satisfaction. And then also interesting was getting medicine or treatment, and so obviously this decision was mentioned by those who were having health problems. The decisions that were significantly more likely to predict high life satisfaction were pursuing religion and spirituality, and that’s… I’ve mentioned that one a number of times now, that’s… Comes up a lot. Buying a home, so having that financial security seems to be a big one, and just generally having finances in order. It also seems like some big life decisions that seem really important at the time may not be as big.

So, in particular, education-related decisions, they seem really big, really important. What university degree should I study, but it turns out these fade in importance over time. And one of the reasons is that, I think I’ve read, we can expect five career changes in our lifetime, so many people’s initial degree at University just doesn’t matter a decade or so on. I think some of the take-homes from this analysis is that, firstly, the good news is that there’s many paths to happiness. Most people, if we look at the results to that life satisfaction scale, most people are fairly satisfied with their life, and it was regardless of the unique composition of the big life decisions they’ve made.

It’s just because people are fairly happy. They like who they are, and it was their unique set of decisions that got them to who they are today. So even though it seems at the time like many of these big life decisions are really going to have a huge impact on our life satisfaction and happiness, you’re probably going to end up fairly happy regardless of what happens. For some, that might be reassuring.

Having said that, there are some big life decisions that are probably going to decrease your life satisfaction, and these are the self-destructive decisions such as committing crime, maybe engaging in drugs and getting addicted. These tend to be decisions that are not really thought through much at the time, but they really put one on a treacherous path. They can last for decades. And then finally, there are some big life decisions that seem to reliably predict a higher life satisfaction.

And the thing that’s common among them is that they really involve taking control of your life and pouring yourself into a particular pursuit, or a project, be it religion or something else. And I think it’s hard to sometimes make the time for these more self-developmental decisions, but in the end, these tend to be the ones that may be most impactful on our happiness.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that insight about college, young people, we think it’s the most important thing, but then you ask a 70-year-old and it probably won’t even come up. I’ve seen that in my own life and just the lives of friends. I went to law school, and when you’re in law school the most important thing is you have to get… You should get a good rank in your class, you gotta get a law review, ’cause that’s how you’re gonna get a job, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I asked my friends, we’re like 11, 12 years out of law school, “Does that even come up anymore, what your GPA was in law school?” Was like, “It hasn’t come up since I graduated.” [chuckle] No one cares, because now what matters is the reputation I’ve built as a practicing attorney, not what I did as a law student.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Exactly.

Brett McKay: So when you did this survey, did you find out anything about practices or processes that people who make good life decisions, that are applicable to anybody? So basically, are there any tips that you’ve found that help us get better at making big life decisions?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah, so whenever I asked people to tell me about their big life decisions, I also asked them to tell me about all of the factors surrounding that decision. I wanted to know what was the process that they used, so I could get to this question that you’re asking now. What makes a good big life decision? And there are a lot of results here, so I’ll try to pick out the ones that I think are most perhaps easy to implement. The decisions that were most favorably judged in retrospect, they tended to be the ones that firstly involved a change, as opposed to maintaining the status quo.

And so often, we’re faced with this decision, should I just stick with my current job, or should I make the change? And it seems like a general good piece of advice is, if you’re kind of 50:50, unsure of what to do, and you’re thinking about, “I should just flip a coin here.” It seems like the right thing to do is to make the change. Forget the coin, just go ahead and make the change.

Another thing that turned out was that using a more analytical approach, as opposed to a more intuitive approach tended to be associated with better decisions, at least in retrospect. Analytics means people took the time, they did research, they asked people, they got advice, they weighed up their options, as opposed to using the more intuitive approach, which was just to go with a gut feeling. So I definitely recommend using a more analytical approach, which often includes spending more time before making a decision.

Some of those more self-destructive decisions, often, the amount of time thought was like just a few seconds, which is, in comparison to some of the more self-developmental decisions which I’ve described as being hugely impactful on life satisfaction. People spent years, in some cases, thinking about those decisions before actually pursuing them. Another factor that was really important was confidence, how confident are you in your decision at the time? And often, this confidence is derived from having thought through the options, having reflected on your own goals, and then committing to a decision. So I think that’s important.

And finally, decision-makers who felt less obligated to make a decision at the time. So sometimes we feel cornered to make a decision because of obligation from family, or expectations of society, and that tends to be a recipe for disaster. So attempting as much as you can to avoid the sense of obligation and choosing the option that you think is best for you. Overall, I think the take-homes for how to make good life decisions, firstly, it requires understanding yourself. What are your goals, what are your values, and how are you going to really know what’s a good decision unless you have these as your reference point? That’s the first step.

I think it’s also important to recognize that a good decision is not just about ending up with a good outcome, but it’s about having a good process to begin with, because in most cases you can’t control the outcome, there’s too many random elements, but you can control the process. And so having a process where you are able to reflect on your options, get advice from other people, I think is really important, and certainly a good way to insulate yourself from feeling regret later on.

And finally, there’s a lot of experience out there. Although I’ve mentioned big life decisions are rare, they’re actually quite common in society, and so you might get married once in your life but getting married is really common. And so there’s a lot of wisdom that can be learned from the experience of others, and so I think it’s important to seek out that wisdom.

Brett McKay: And for people, listeners, who are looking for a process to help them make better life decisions, we’ve had some guests in the podcast in the past, you might wanna check out. We’ve had Annie Duke on the podcast, she’s written a book, ‘How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices.’ A lot of neat tools there. And then the other one is Steven Johnson, he wrote a book about… It’s called ‘Farsighted: How to Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,’ and a lot of mental models that you can use to make decisions.

A lot of it’s just trying to figure out different possibilities, that’s when you’re making a decision. Like you said, life decisions are so complex ’cause they can go down these different pathways, and so the whole idea is to help you get a better idea of the different possibilities and then decide which one’s the best out of all the options.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah. Those are great books, definitely, I recommend those.

Brett McKay: So where do you see this research going? What else would you like to do with this research on big life decisions?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Well, I guess at this point, I focused on Americans and there’s certainly going to be cultural differences. So it’d be really interesting to see how different cultures and those from different countries arrange their big decisions and maybe they’ve got even different criteria. So one of the things that I’ve done is build a website, it’s called,, and I’ve been encouraging people to go to that website. They can explore the data, but they can also complete the survey and they can then compare their results with others and so tens of thousands of people have filled that in at this point.

And so I’m starting to create a database there of different cultural results. I haven’t stopped to look at the data yet, but that’s certainly one interesting direction. And one of my other goals is really to try to put together a book that summarizes some of the wisdom here and maybe walks people through their 10 biggest life decisions, summarizing what I’ve learned from conducting this research.

Brett McKay: So that’s the thing, that’s the big take away, people… On average people make 10 big life decisions in their lifetime?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: When you freely ask people to just list down the number of big life decisions or big life events, you get a range like 3-20, and so 10 seems to be in that sweet spot of how many big life decisions they do make.

Brett McKay: Well, Adrian, where can people go to learn more about the work and maybe take part in that survey you talked about?

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Yeah. So, and feel free to explore the data and complete the survey, and if you have any questions about it, feel free to contact me. My details are on the website.

Brett McKay: Alright, Adrian, thanks for your time. It’s been pleasure.

Dr. Adrian Camilleri: Thank you very much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Adrian Camilleri, he’s the founder of The Biggest Life Decisions Project. You can learn more information about this project at Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to our resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check at our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles and interviews about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code “MANLINESS” to check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher App on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.

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