Choose or Die- why our choices make us more alive
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
"Life is about choices, and every choice you make, makes you" John Maxwell
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Professor Dumbledore
We have more choices today than ever before in history. More options for entertainment, employment, relationships, clothing, food, and just about anything else. But how can we choose when it gets harder the more options we have? In one year some 500 new scripted series are released on television, 400 new movies are released to theaters, one million new books are published, and over 22 million new songs are uploaded to Spotify.
The paradox of choice says that while we think we want more and better choices, choosing becomes harder as options are added, and we become less happy as choices increase. When presented with too many options, we get stressed and unsure, and resort to inefficient shortcuts to narrow things down to a manageable level.
Here are some common strategies that people use when dealing with choices:
1- Rely on opinions of others. This is great for small choices but not so great for big ones like careers or romance. For movies, restaurants, books, or vacation spots, I always rely on reviews from others to get a feel for the choices. But for big things, like romance, career, or where to live, others rarely have our best interests in mind. And even if they did, they just cannot possibly know what makes us tick and what the best choice would be for us.
2- Pretend other options don't exist. This makes the status quo look easy to accept and is the lazy way out of making hard choices. Of course you need to put many of your choices on autopilot to avoid being overwhelmed, but for the big things it's good to take periodic examinations of your other options.
3- Procrastinate. Put choices off until an undetermined future time. This preserves the illusion that the choices are all still out there and will wait for us until we're ready. But many choices are short-lived, and once they're gone, they're gone.
4- Use an algorithm Make a list of plusses and minuses of each choice. Weigh the different options using numbers that you grade them with. Come up with a final formula that presents the optimal result. This is one of the most popular methods and is how many of us make big purchases, choose politicians, or decide on jobs. The big problem with algorithms is that they turn people's lives over to computer programmers, and if the algorithm is wrong or biased, they can produce bad results. Algorithms should be simple and understandable.
5- Go with your gut. Choose the thing that feels emotionally like the right choice. In relationships, this can be effective, but in most other things like investing money or choosing jobs we typically don't have enough information. Without proper information, going with a gut feeling can be disastrous. Hiring an attractive job applicant who does a good interview may feel right, but a background check could turn up major issues with past employers or criminal records.
6- Use the 37% rule. This choice optimization strategy has been derived by mathematicians to be the optimal time to make a choice. This rule states that if you pick a goal, and a large enough list of options, that by the time you get 37% of the way through your list you will have found the best option. For instance- say you want to find love and commit to going on 100 dates in a year's time. By the time you get to date #37, you should be able to locate the best one for you out of those available to you. Once you get past that number, additional information becomes less and less useful. But up until you hit the 37% threshold, your brain uses trial and error to figure out what works for you and what doesn't, getting better and better with each trial. (This rule works better the more options you try to choose from).
Read the two quotes at the top again. The choices that we make, and how we process the results of those choices determines who we are and where we end up. Many of us would rather blame someone or something else for our fate, and certainly there are things beyond our control that no choice can change. But to feel truly alive, we must embrace our choices and dive into them 100%.
What if you've been dealt a bad hand and have very limited choices? Life is not fair and the options available to a poor child of a single parent are much different than those of a wealthy person with unlimited resources. No matter how bad your situation, we all have one basic human choice left, and that's the choice on how to think about and react to that situation. As Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl writes:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
I highly recommend Frankl's book Mans Search for Meaning as well as fellow survivor Edith Eger's book The Choice. I can't imagine what they went through, but my problems are nothing compared to that. If they can experience losing everything and everyone in their life, survive concentration camps, and still have faith, hope and meaning in their life, then almost anything is possible.
Because of the overwhelming quantity of options today, ironically our ability to choose is dying. Many people feel disconnected from their jobs, each other, and life in general. They turn to algorithms that make their choices for them and suck up huge amounts of their time and consciousness. Here I'm talking about social media, which excels in finding out what makes us tick and provides us with an endless array of content that's guaranteed to addict us to their platforms. I'm talking about streaming services like Netflix that try to make our choices for us by pushing certain shows on us and automatically starting the next one without us having to do anything. And then there's our phones that blare advertisements and alerts at us to distract us from our real choices, hoping to get us to buy whatever it is that they're selling.
Enough. With this blog I am reclaiming my power to choose. You may notice that all over this blog are reviews of books and tv shows. I chose these books consciously and devoted hours to absorbing their lessons and content. Reading books is an active pursuit that engages your mind, and it's not something that you can do passively. Books require time and attention, but they strengthen your ability to actively think and choose. Reading a book that challenges you is even better, because much of what is published today involves reliable formulas that some authors use over and over. The books on this blog were chosen by me because they deal with important ideas, and are written by people who have devoted a significant amount of time and energy to those topics.
Here I also review tv sitcoms. A few years ago I realized that much of my spare time was devoted to watching whatever was new on broadcast or streaming television. A day after watching much of this content, it was forgotten. To fight this default mode, I consciously chose to find old sitcoms of significance, and attack them with new fervor. I had to choose which shows to watch, where to find them, and set aside time to follow every season. I used IMDB and the internet to gather data on the actors, writers, and behind the scenes stories, and that knowledge brought those shows alive for me in a much different way than when I first watched them. I recommend it. And I felt like somewhat of a rebel for watching an old show that was no longer on people's radar while the rest of the public seemed absorbed in whatever was new and hot.
Today's choices are overwhelming and far from ideal. To get power over our life and feel like anything matters, we have to make choices, some of them tough ones. Making a choice means that we're picking one thing over another, and it can be hard to let go of things. But truly embracing the things and people that we choose to interact with makes those choices mean something. And choosing our own attitude about the things that are beyond your ability to choose saves us from despair and cynicism. We always have better choices that we can make every day, if we're awake enough to see them.