Skip to navigationSkip to content
Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne

An economist’s rule for making tough life decisions

Sarah Todd
Member exclusive by Sarah Todd

“You must change your life,” Rainer Maria Rilke exhorts readers in the final line of his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It’s a surprise-twist ending, meant to capture the sudden nature of epiphanies. Having spent the entire poem contemplating the beauty of an ancient Greek statue, Rilke practically reaches through the page to shake readers by the shoulders, urging us to transform ourselves—to use our rapidly-dwindling time on Earth as wisely as Apollo’s sculptor did.

But changing your life is a big deal. It takes a lot of work and emotional energy. And it’s often very difficult to predict if a dramatic turn will actually make us happier and more fulfilled, or if it will be the biggest mistake ever and we’ll shrivel up into little raisins of regret.

So we waffle over whether or not to quit a job, change careers, start a business, or go back to school, weighing endless pros and cons. In behavioral economics, this phenomenon is known as status quo bias. People are generally predisposed to favor sticking with their current circumstances, whatever they may be, instead of taking a risk and bushwhacking their way toward a different life.