In the digital age, you can do anything and be anyone you want to be. The world is your oyster, it’s at your feet, at your fingertips, in your pocket, and sitting right there for the taking.
If only you were able to make a damn decision and take it.
You would think having ultimate freedom and seemingly unlimited choice would only be a good thing. How could it not? We should be grateful for being born into countries and societies with such wealth and liberty.
But as Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice points out, whereas having more options no doubt has its benefits, a lot of the time it doesn’t lead to better choices and a higher quality of life.
Schwartz argues that as the number of options we have on the table increases, the more likely we are to experience regret and disappointment about whatever we end up choosing, and as a result, frustration around any decision we have to make.
Let’s say, for instance, there are a hundred different companies and jobs you could pursue, and you can only choose one of them. Since there are so many possibilities out there, you start thinking there must be one perfect choice — the one perfect job that’s right for you.
The result: Your expectations go through the roof, and you are inherently dissatisfied with whichever role you happen to land.
The job you have may be great, but things could always be better. The grass could always be greener. You get chronic FOMO and spend your life thinking about “what ifs” and “shoulds” and “could haves”, lost in your head and losing grip on what’s right in front you.
This cycle is so common and toxic today as it is perpetuated by social media and media in general. It’s a purposely-designed side effect of entertaining ourselves with Facebook and movies and constantly weighing our lives up against everyone from friends and celebs to X-Men and cartoon characters.
Through all this social comparison, we inevitably begin feeling we’re always lacking in something. We want more. But at the same time we’re blinded by the number of options and unable to take any action or make any decision whatsoever.
Blue socks or red?
Muesli or cereal for breakfast?
London or Rome? Graphic designer or lumberjack? Have kids or travel?
There’s only so much of this dissatisfaction and analysis paralysis we can take. So rather than burn out before breakfast, we put all the big, important decisions on ice and consume ourselves in smaller conundrums that don’t really matter, things like what flavour ice cream to have or whether the middle name of your next door neighbour’s second cousin is Burt or Barry.
Anything meaningful that takes some effort is deferred until tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, to the point that you end up in the grave with all your wishes and hopes and dreams still waiting to be fulfilled.
Okay, I think you get the point.
So what can we do about it?
There are no right or wrong choices, unless you choose so
Of course it’s possible to make a bad choice. You pick the guy that ends up being a douche. You choose the seafood salad at the buffet and spend the whole night puking.
But there’s a difference between making a “bad” choice out of unavoidable ignorance, and making the “wrong” choice simply because there’s no “right” options.
If you’re not confused already, you’re about to be. In her book, Making Comparisons Count, Ruth Chang explains how when encountered by any hard decision, in which there are multiple options to choose from, we like to think we can defy physics and jump out of the present and know how things will turn out.
We try and fly into the future a few years and see in which scenario we’re the happiest, with the biggest house and the cutest kids and the smallest bags under our eyes.
But as you can see and Chang points out, this is not how real life works.
When we do this, we’re often believing in the myth that there’s one way our lives should turn out and one way things are meant to be. It’s the pursuit of your life’s passion, your soul mate, that one dream job — all the super attractive and profitable ideas made popular by everyone from Disney and fiction authors to corporate giants and Youtube Yogis.
We like these ideas because they put all our fears to rest and transport us from the harsh reality of the world into a virtual one of simple, mapped-out decisions and fairytale endings. But whereas such ideas can make us feel nice and warm and cosy for a while, when actually faced with hard choices, they can mean we make the mistake of believing there really is one option that’s better than all the rest.
The reality of hard decisions is that they’re often hard because there are no right options. Usually, it’s a matter of whittling them down to as fewer choices as possible and then choosing to give yourself a reason to pursue one of them.
Both jobs look great, but I will go for this one because I want to improve my management skills.
I could live in London or Rome, but I will give Rome a go first because I already have connections there and they have better ice cream.
I want to travel but also want to have kids, but I will choose to travel first as there’s no rush for the latter and I’ll be a better parent for it.
Having a solid reason for making a choice automatically makes it the right one. You don’t give up to which way the wind blows and how things happen to play out; you provide yourself with a purpose and summon the impetus to invest in it all you’ve got, knowing that, no matter what comes of it, there was a reason you pursued it, and by any definition of the word that means it could not be more right.
What’s liberating about this is that it’s embedded in the truth that no matter what’s happening on the outside, we can always choose how we feel and respond. It’s Viktor Frankl and his ideas on how everything can be taken from a person but their choice of how to act in any given set of circumstances — the freedom to be able to “choose one’s own way.”
The problem that many people run into here, though, is actually finding a good enough reason for themselves to commit to a choice.
There’s no getting around it; it’s a difficult thing. So it helps if we step back a little and think about it like this: choice is not so much about the big external decisions that occur throughout your life (that are largely down to luck), but rather the little internal choices you make in every single moment.
It’s these little choices — whether you are polite, whether you ignore the homeless person, whether you apologise to a friend after an argument — that say much more about us and are much more closely aligned with our morals and values. And despite being forgotten, distorted, or covered up for a lot of us, it’s our morals and values that are there to guide us through life and to give reason to the choices we make, both big and small.
When we start focusing more on these little choices — instead of, say, what career to pursue, person to marry, place to move to — things start to suddenly look a bit clearer. We become grounded in what’s going on around us right here right now and are pulled out of some distant future fantasies. We start to remember our morals and values and make sure they’re reflected in what we do and in the everyday decisions we make. And all the while, the big dilemmas and questions that were once so burdensome and difficult, slowly but surely, start making a whole lot more sense and falling into place.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.