A life is made of a million decisions, forks in the road that require a choice: Do I want to be a lawyer or a film producer? Should I travel across the world to attend college? Do I need to stop drinking martinis? Should I take the lucrative job offer if it means spending less time with my family?
Sometimes we know the answers intuitively and quickly decide. Other times we debate endlessly, agonizing our way toward an answer. At pivotal points in life, the number of decisions can be overwhelming.
Robert Frost suggested that the best path was the less predictable one.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That was true for some of the achievers we talked to—that taking risks led to fantastic success. But others said well-worn paths work, too. That’s why choosing can be so difficult. Here are what some decision-makers described as their best choices, how they were made, and how those decisions helped lead them toward success and happiness.
Country music star and The Voice judge
The best decision I ever made was two weeks out of high school I moved to Nashville to pursue my dream of being a country singer. I think if I hadn’t made that decision at such a young age I might have been afraid to do it later on in life.
Best-selling author who is releasing his latest book, Filthy Rich, in October
I’d like to think I’ve occasionally made good decisions in my life (first among them marrying my wife, Sue)—but professionally, I’d say that leaving my post as North American CEO of J. Walter Thompson.
At the time I left, I was being considered as a candidate for worldwide CEO, and it’s scary to contemplate a second career when you’re doing that well. But I knew I never truly had a passion for advertising. As a business, I’d always found it more difficult than it had to be—it’s surprisingly hard to sell clients blueprints that communicate what a television campaign is going to look like before it’s filmed. And every client you deal with is very different than the last.
Leaving JWT was a decision that I’ve never regretted, but it wasn’t easy. You never know what’s going to happen. All I knew at the time was that I loved writing and that I wanted to do more of it. So I kept writing and haven’t stopped since. I’ve never been happier. And I’ve never been more successful.
Author, financial adviser and motivational speaker
Fifteen years ago I decided that I didn’t want to live a lie anymore. I wanted to stand in my truth. I didn’t want people in my life who did not support me—emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I only wanted people in my life who were positive influences on others and me.
So at the age of 50, I decided to make a clean sweep. I took a hard look at my friends, my employees and a relationship I’d been in for eight years. In just one week, I ended a lot of relationships, cutting off some friendships I’d had for a good 15 years.
And I have to tell you, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Because the true key to success, believe it or not, is to keep good company. You might have a great idea, one that is great for you, but others will try to sabotage you.
When you stand in the truth of who you are, on all levels, then you become the most powerful person that you can be. The world is attracted to truth. The world is repelled by lies. When people can feel something isn’t right, they’re repelled from you, from your product, from your idea, from hiring you, from being around you. When you speak the truth—and act in the truth—everybody is attracted to you.
Alana Jane Nichols
Three-time gold medalist in the Paralympic Games
I went to college at the University of New Mexico. To everyone there, I was a disabled girl in a wheelchair. I got really depressed. I started thinking about suicide. I just didn’t want to live the rest of my life in that chair. It was unbearable.
Then I rolled into the university gym one Wednesday afternoon. That’s when I saw a whole team of people playing basketball in wheelchairs. They were violent and loud and hitting each other. They’d fall over in their wheelchairs; then just get back up. It was wild and ridiculous.
At some point they noticed me, and they stopped playing. They asked me my name. They asked me if I wanted to play. I had always been a rough-and-tumble girl, but since my accident, everyone had treated me like I was fragile.
That day I rolled myself onto the court, and I decided to keep playing.
Author and entrepreneur
The best decision I ever made was the decision to start making decisions. To respond and initiate, not merely to react or take what’s on offer. Mostly, the commitment to pick myself, to pursue a path that mattered to me and the people I work with. We have way more freedom than we realize, but it begins with deciding.
Award-winning broadcast journalist and CEO of Starfish Media Group
I knew I wanted to have a substantial career. I also knew I wanted to get married and have kids. Lots of kids.
Because I was very strategic about it, it helped me make decisions all along the way. I had it mapped out, the things that were all important to me—career, husband, children. Now I’ve been married for more than 20 years, I have four children, and I love my work.
I like to give this advice to young women: Be as intentional about planning your family life as you are about planning your career. That’s what worked for me.
Songwriter, musician and record producer
Who would turn down working with Pink Floyd in their heyday? I did.
Recording Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon was not a very lucrative activity. I was a staff engineer at Abbey Road Studios on a fixed salary of 35 pounds a week. Following the album’s success, I turned down a substantial full-time job offer from the band to work as their recording and live sound engineer.
I was fortunate enough to soon enjoy immediate chart success as an independent music producer with a number of British and American artists. I had the creative freedom to produce artists of my own choice, and to continue with the formation of The Alan Parsons Project, which in retrospect might not have happened if I had accepted that job.
Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston and author of Think Better, Live Better, released in October
My best decision, after marrying my wife, Victoria, of course, was the decision to take over as the senior pastor at Lakewood Church.
After my father went to be with the Lord, I felt a deep desire to step up and serve as pastor of Lakewood Church. Having preached only once in my life—a week before my father died—that desire was soon bombarded by a variety of negative thoughts. Today when I see the opportunities to make a difference in the lives of so many people, I am truly grateful for God’s grace and the strength to have made that decision years ago.
Mayor of Dallas
I’ve made a lot of decisions—I’m old—but I think the seminal one for me was deciding to stay in Dallas. I came to Dallas in 1976 after graduating from Boston College. I didn’t like Dallas very much. I thought I’d stay here for a few years, then move back East. But I went through a divorce in my first marriage and my daughter was here. I really wanted to be near her. So I decided to stay in Dallas. And I think that made me accomplish what I think is the most important job a person has, if you’re lucky enough to have kids: to be a good parent.
I think how you go about decision-making is important. A lot of decisions I face, I don’t immediately know what the right answers are. If I’ve got the time, I let those decisions come to me. You need to feel decisions as well as think them; they have to make sense both intellectually and emotionally. Then once you know what the answer is, you move quickly.
Legendary eight-time Oscar nominee and Grammy-winning songwriter
The best decision I’ve ever made is to follow my own vision. I’ve never been someone to go around asking, “What do you think? What do you think?” I’ve always let my passion lead me. I’ve tried to just keep my blinders on and go for what I believe in. I know when something is great. When I know this, nothing stops me.
President of Trulia
By far the best decision I ever made was to move from the East Coast to Silicon Valley 20 years ago. I grew up in the New York suburbs, and I was fascinated with technology. I realized that all of the companies I wanted to work for were located within 10 miles of each other in Silicon Valley. I wanted to be in the center of the action.
I’d advise people to think about where they live, based on what they want to do. If you want to work in automotive, you might want to move to Detroit. If you’re interested in entertaining, you probably want to be in Los Angeles.
Get to where the action is.
Co-founder of The Huffington Post and author of The Sleep Revolution
The best decision I ever made was committing to getting eight hours of sleep a night. For many years I subscribed to a very flawed definition of success, buying into our collective delusion that burnout is the necessary price we must pay for success. Then in 2007, I had a painful wakeup call: I fainted from sleep-deprivation and exhaustion, hit my head on my desk, and broke my cheekbone. From that point on, I knew I had to make sleep a priority.
Now, 95 percent of the time I get eight hours of sleep a night. Once I started giving sleep the respect it deserves, my life improved in pretty much every way. Now, instead of waking up to the sense that I have to trudge through activities, I wake up feeling joyful about the day’s possibilities. I’m also better able to recognize red flags and rebound from setbacks. It’s like being dialed into a different channel that has less static.
TV legend and winner of seven Emmy awards
The best decision I ever made was taking the job on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was as fine a decision as I ever made. I was branching out into an area of comedy that I hadn’t perfected yet, so there was a lot to master. Taking that role changed my life.
One thing that comedy did for me as an actor is that, no matter how gripping a role may be, it’s not real unless you can incorporate comedy into it. It always makes a role more believable. That role helped me learn so many things I needed to know.
Mehmet Oz, m.d.,
Surgeon, author and television personality
After 31 years, I can say without question that the best decision that I ever made was marrying my wife, Lisa. I found a worthy opponent and wisely put a ring on
her. She had bigger aspirations for me than were on my vision board and mastered the art of telling me what I need to hear rather than what I want to hear. She fills in the many areas where I am weak and turbocharges my strengths. In failure, she steadies my foundation. In success, she maintains a balanced perspective.
CEO for Match group North America
The night before my mother died of ovarian cancer, she did a blood test, and we discovered she had the BRCA1 mutation. With this mutation, you have a roughly 90 percent chance of having breast cancer—which my mom had in her 30s—and you have a up to 70 percent chance of having ovarian cancer.
I got tested, and I tested positive for the defect. Then I had a choice to make. Unlike the genetic tests for Alzheimer’s—for which there’s not much you can do—you can take preventive measures for this. So in my 40s, I had a preventative double mastectomy, and then a couple of years later I had a hysterectomy and oophorectomy.
In some ways, it wasn’t even a decision—I watched my mother die. With my genetics, I felt as if a bomb were going to go off at any minute. It has given me a great sense of relief, the feeling that I will have a longer runway in front of me, more time to spend with my own two daughters, more time to do the work that I love.
Actress and producer
When I was younger, several people forced me to think seriously about planning for retirement. So I did that, kicking and screaming. But now that I’m older, I’m grateful. That has allowed me to explore my art, without worrying about whether I work next week. It’s given me a great deal of security and freedom.
Another big decision is that three or four years ago I re-evaluated my priorities, took another look at what it takes for me to be comfortable. I started downsizing and that has made such a huge difference. I have no interest in keeping up with the Joneses or anyone else. I chose to simplify and pare down, do what I want to do, be where I want to be.
I have so many friends who are very well off and they are still having conversations about not being fulfilled. They’re wondering, What is the meaning of my life? I don’t feel that way, because I feel as if I’m living my purpose.
Stand-up comedian and actor in the Netflix series, Fuller House, and author of The Adventures of Jimmy Burger
I grew up in Detroit, and everyone there worked in the automotive industry. You pretty much decided between the big three: Chrysler, General Motors or Ford. But I was interested in entertainment and stand-up comedy and doing silly voices for a living.
So I moved to Los Angeles and threw myself into the unknown fire. I also decided to forgo college, and everyone thought I was crazy. But I thought, No one in college is going to teach me how to do funny cartoon voices or how to be a comedy writer.
Back then, at 19 years old, I was too inexperienced and naive to know the odds—they weren’t good. But it ended up being the best decision I ever made because it completely shaped and changed my world.
Actor in Beverly Hills 90210 and Sharknado, and entrepreneur
I’ve always looked at the celebrity I’ve earned as capital. I believe spending that capital doing good things for other people is the best way to spend it. When I was asked to participate in The Celebrity Apprentice, I felt lucky and honored to have the chance to raise money and awareness of a horrible disease called epidermolysis bullosa. With that goal in mind, I came to the show with a no-lose mentality, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Though Leeza Gibbons ultimately won the title and $320,000 for EBKids.org, getting to mention EB on every prime time show produced that season was all I needed to feel like a winner.
Director of imprints at Arcadia Publishing
At 40 years old I made a decision to run. It wasn’t a well-thought-out decision; it was a spur of the moment choice on a miserably hot summer day in Charleston, South Carolina.
I am the most unlikely of runners: I have never been an athlete, I smoked for the better part of two decades, and I was one of those people who always quipped, “I only run if someone is chasing me with a knife.”
But in the months that preceded that hot summer day, I had quit smoking and I’d begun to exercise. I was going through a divorce and looking for positive outlets to channel my anger and anxiety, wishing especially not to channel them toward my 5-year-old daughter.
So I laced up my shoes, walked out the door and started to run. That first run was brutal and, truth be told, almost every one of them has been brutal since that day.
And although I haven’t exactly hated shopping for smaller clothes, the real reward has been something much deeper. Running has opened up ideas of possibility for me; I see myself in a different light.
Author of the New York Times best-seller, Blackout
I quit drinking at the age of 35. I did not want to do it. I’d loved alcohol since I was a girl. It had been my rebellion, my path to adventure, my identity, my life companion and, eventually, my undoing. What happens when you rely on booze to fix you is that you don’t learn to soothe yourself. I’ve heard other problem drinkers say if they hadn’t quit, they probably would have died. I never thought that. But I did think, If I don’t quit, I’m never going to live.
My world had become so small by the end. Addiction is life on a very short leash. I was unhappy—no, miserable—for the first year of sobriety. I felt bitter and robbed, but with time I began to see how much I had been drinking away: my gifts, my clarity, this present moment. Sobriety was a chance to start my life over and discover all the joys in my own body that I had been drinking in order to find: confidence, creative inspiration, pleasure.
I am 41 now, a beginner in many ways, and I think of quitting drinking as the beginning of my adulthood—the moment I decided to take full responsibility for my life and, in doing so, finally made it great.
Mark Victor Hansen
Motivational speaker and co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul
The best decision that I ever made after my painful divorce was to keep my heart open to the idea that I could still find my true love in this lifetime. I started by writing a list of 267 ideals that I desired in a marriage and marital partner, if I were ever to marry again. I wanted someone who could share my values, spiritual beliefs, ambition, desire, drive, hopes, and big goals for the future. I wrote that we needed to have absolute love for each other and a mutual affinity for projects we undertook. I believe that clarity of thinking and spiritual alignment with God creates the space for dreams and goals to manifest. Once created, then you need to be awake and aware when the answered prayers show up on your path.
My answer presented at an Author 101 conference. From the stage, I saw in the audience a vision of loveliness, charisma, style, and perfection in motion. I asked and discovered the woman I couldn’t take my eyes off was divorced. Fortuitously, in the evening VIP reception where I was surrounded by people who were barraging me with questions. I noticed from across the room, someone suddenly spilled red wine on this glorious woman’s white slacks. Opportunity presented itself. I responded. I broke from my group of fans and rushed to her rescue. I promised that I knew the secret doorway to the kitchen and the Club Soda to save her stained slacks. I took her hand and rushed us out of the questioning throngs, and once the club soda was procured, I was able to chat a little bit with her to find out more about her. We had instant camaraderie and after a few minutes of chatting, I knew there was something very special about this woman, and our encounter. Even her name, Crystal, seemed like the perfect fit.
I gently invited Crystal to dine at a nice restaurant in the in Hollywood neighborhood, and she admitted she was starving, as was I. When we arrived at the restaurant, the line to get in was long and a hundred dollar bill would not gain entry, I felt assured. I approached the maître d’ smiling. He looked at her, saw her radiant undeniable glow and said to me: “Who is she?” I jokingly said: “She is the Queen of Denmark.” He said, “No way, really?” Oh my gosh, she is! And who are you?” I know as a lifelong sales trainer to answer a question with a question and said playfully, “Who travels with the Queen?” “Oh my, you’re the King! Wait right here one second and we’ll get you the perfect table.” I glanced at Crystal who had a huge smile on her face. She whispered, “I think it’s too late to too tell him you were kidding.” After a couple of hours of extraordinary conversation and a lovely dinner, it felt like we had known each other forever.
Throughout our courtship, I would have to pinch myself because it really seemed as though my dreams had truly been fulfilled. I asked her repeatedly to marry me because she always said “Yes!” and I never got tired of hearing that answer!
Eight years later we are happily married, beyond what either of us ever imagined could have happened. It is said there is a level beyond Soul Mates, called Twin Flames in which when two people come together, like flames from two candles when they’re joined, they rise together as one flame to exponentially higher levels. Crystal is my Twin Flame and I am hers.
After almost giving up on love after my bitter divorce, the decision I made to find the courage to continue to believe in my dreams and goals, and in the divine power that orchestrates them into reality is the best decision I have ever or will ever make.
Dr. Travis Stork
ER physician, best-selling author and host of the Emmy Award-winning series, The Doctors
I never intended to be a doctor and took a consulting job after I graduated as a math and economics major from Duke. I began volunteering at a free health clinic and it was there that I found my true calling. The best decision I ever made was to take a leap of faith and go back to medical school. I took the prerequisite classes needed at night while continuing to work. I still remember, like it was yesterday, shedding tears of joy as I sat on my front porch reading my medical school acceptance letter. My career in medicine has given my life purpose and helping people live the healthiest life possible has become my true passion.
Related: A Guide for Making Tough Decisions
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.