How Discernment Changed My Life, and How It Can Change Yours, Too
A Lesson in Thoughtful Decision-Making
In my relatively short life, I’ve discerned where I should work, where I should live, who I should date (and more importantly, who I shouldn’t date), and what to do with my life. I’ve discerned moving across the country, ending a three-year relationship that was one knee-bend away from engagement, and staying with the same company for 6.5 years. I’ve even discerned becoming a nun and getting married (not at the same time).
Discernment has been a key part of my journey, and it’s led me to true joy, peace, and trust. I believe in making rational and heartfelt decisions, both in personal life and in business, and the process of discernment has helped me do that. Indeed, it has changed the course of my life, and I am so passionate about it that I frequently give presentations on this very topic.
Now, Oxford Languages primarily defines discernment as “the ability to judge well.” With all due respect, Oxford, you got it wrong. Discernment isn’t about judging, so your second definition is actually more accurate: it’s the absence of judgment with a goal of obtaining understanding. In order to make a truly good and right decision, you need to put your own ego and opinions aside, not depend on them.
Before I explain how discernment works, let me be clear about one thing: any time you discern a major decision, I believe that you already know the answer to your question. Discernment is simply the process of uncovering that answer in your heart. In fact, you can think of all answers as desires in your heart. Based on my experience, there are some desires in our hearts that we’re already deeply aware of, that we’ve had for as long as we can remember. Perhaps it’s the desire to be married, or to be a mother or father, or to be a CEO or a doctor. There are other desires, though, of which we aren’t even aware yet, that haven’t yet been revealed to us, that are waiting to be discovered and to change our lives. Isn’t that exciting? We will spend our entire lives uncovering those desires. And if discernment is simply revealing the desires in your heart (and - this is important to note - those desires are objectively good and true), I believe they will be fulfilled.
In order to make a truly good and right decision, you need to put your own ego and opinions aside, not depend on them.
Every decision we make is either moving us closer to good or moving us further away from it. It is either pursuing truth or moving away from it - it’s that simple. And every person should be discerning. We’re the only beings on earth with reason and logic - let’s use it!
A good discernment process carefully considers the options, weighs the advantages and disadvantages, and thoughtfully examines the consequences. It’s important to note that (1) you can only discern one major decision at a time and (2) those decisions should be major ones like your vocation, your spouse, your job - not what to have for lunch today or which sweatpants to wear for your Zoom meeting.
So, how does one thoughtfully make decisions that ultimately lead to happiness and peace? Here’s my process of discernment that hasn’t failed me yet.
1. First, make sure that you’re choosing between two goods.
Sounds logical and even silly, I know. But it’s important: the first kind of discernment is choosing between good and evil.
There are good decisions, and then there are bad decisions. In business and in life, the line can be murky (if our current political situation is any indication). To put it simply, you can think of it as the decision between the truth and a lie. For discerning good vs. evil, we must first and only focus on the truth, because feelings and emotions won’t help you make this decision. Emotions can’t tell the difference between good and evil - that’s why crimes of passion exist.
That’s why you read headlines about a Florida man kidnapping a scientist to make his dog immortal or a woman killing her ex-boyfriend because she loves him. Sometimes, we think we’re doing things out of love or truth or goodness - but we’re too blinded by our emotions to see that what we’re doing is none of the above. It’s the same reason why “you do you” and “follow your heart” are bad advice. We must first and foremost focus on if something is good and true, not how we feel about it. If you don’t think you can trust your judgment, it’s best to enlist a mature, trusted advisor or an objective third party who can help provide clarity.
2. Once you’ve settled on two goods, you can start discerning.
In this phase of discernment, it’s ok to pay attention to your feelings. In fact, you need to in order to make the right decision. There are four main ways I discern.
The Truth Bomb
In my intellectual way, I call this first approach the TRUTH BOMB. This is the feeling people get when they say they “just know.” This experience means knowing with your whole heart, mind, soul, and being - not just your head. It is clarity beyond doubt, and out of all discernment approaches, this one is the most rare. It’s more of something that just happens to you vs. you actively discerning it, and it’s a true gift. Here, you know your answer, and you can make the decision quickly.
Discernment of Movements
Next is the DISCERNMENT OF MOVEMENTS. This type of discernment is more common. It’s the process of inner reflection and listening, of paying attention to feelings of both deep joy and peace as well as anxiety and fear. Attend to those feelings in times of quiet reflection when you’re alone, still, and able to process those emotions. Which choice are you drawn to in times of joy and peace? Which choice are you drawn away from in times of anxiety and fear? Your answer will be found through your feelings, and you can make a decision based on observation and reflection.
Crunching the Numbers
Next, the discernment method I find myself using most is one I call CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS. When there are no movements, feelings, or sense of joy or anxiety, then you need to look at the data, weigh the advantages and disadvantages, and make a reasoned decision. This approach is especially useful, again, when there are no strong feelings or emotions about one decision or another. Here’s how it works:
First, you need to state your specific intention. It’s imperative that you be as specific as possible. Discernment must be for a particular person in a particular time and a particular situation. You need to be detailed and concrete. For example, when discerning marriage, it’s not “I am meant to be married,” it’s “I am meant to be married to [a specific person].” Or “I am meant to leave New York” vs. “I am meant to move to LA.” People too often make discernment too vague, which inhibits the truth from revealing itself.
Then, gather data. Start with what you know. Gather data about each choice and lay out all of the facts so that you can deal with the known before you delve into the unknown. In this process, it’s important to seek indifference: you should desire whatever choice will be inherently good, not good for you. In this step, I frequently put together pros and cons lists and find them immensely helpful. If you do that, don’t forget to pay attention to your hierarchy of values. Just because a list has 10 pros and 1 con doesn’t mean you should move forward with your decision - that 1 con might outweigh all of the pros.
It’s important to seek indifference: you should desire whatever choice will be inherently good, not good for you.
Once you’ve done that, track your reactions. Do you feel good about the pros or worse about the cons? Your answer will be one of three options: pursue the specific option, test again, or defer to another time.
Perhaps my favorite discernment method is IMAGINE. The answer almost always reveals itself to me during this process. In this approach, throw hard facts out the window and spend time thoughtfully imagining yourself living out each alternative. I ask myself questions like:
What would it be like if I lived out each alternative?
What would I advise a dear friend who is in the same situation?
When I’m on my deathbed, which decision would I have wanted to make?
At the end of my life, which choice would I be able to defend?
Will I like who I become if I choose this option?
3. Next, take action.
You MUST make a decision. I’ve found that people love talking about discernment - but doing it? Not so much. Discernment isn’t just about reflections, it’s about doing. It requires bravery, courage, and a lot of humility. And the sooner you make a decision, the sooner you can move on with your life.
4. Finally, check the fruits.
This step is about confirmation, or confirming the decision you’ve made. Here, it’s important to check the fruits. Discernment is an ongoing process and can take a long time. After you make a decision, you should thoughtfully evaluate it. If the fruits (i.e. outcomes) of your decision—like your words, actions, and behaviors—are good, then it is a good indication that the decision you made is good. If the fruits are “rotten,” then it’s a strong indication that you may need to alter your course. True, thoughtful discernment should result in good fruit - even if it's not something we would have expected to pick for ourselves.
True, thoughtful discernment should result in good fruit - even if it's not something we would have expected to pick for ourselves.
Discernment is one of the best habits we can incorporate into our daily lives for our wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to dive in. And if all else fails, flip a coin - if you don’t like the answer, then you should probably go with the other alternative!