When faced with a big career or lifestyle choice, we can become completely overwhelmed and find it impossible to make any decision at all. We consider every possible implication, we gather as much information as we can, and we talk to other people in the hope that someone will tell us the “right” answer. Today, we’re faced with many more decisions like these, as we’re questioning things that used to be taken for granted – if and when to get married or have babies, buying versus renting, changing mid-careers, and so on – while getting an unprecedented glimpse into other people’s choices via social media.
The funny thing is that smaller, quite trivial decisions can be paralysing as well. We may agonise over which restaurant to go to, which dish to order when we get there, or maybe which film to watch on Netflix.
Too much choice
Now I’ve read that there are two kinds of people when it comes to making decisions.
First, there are satisficers: these lucky individuals will make a decision once a set of criteria is met. Those criteria may be demanding, so it’s not that these people are “settling” necessarily, but they’re simply satisfied once they find what they were looking for.
Then there are maximisers: these people want to ensure that they make the absolute best choice, so they might wander up and down the street until they’ve looked at each and every restaurant menu, or spend hours reading reviews on Amazon.
This distinction is something that Barry Schwartz talks about in his book , in which he argues that it’s the satisficers who are likely to be… well, more satisfied! Schwartz questions the assumption that more choice means more freedom, which in turn leads to greater welfare. He points to two negative consequences from all this choice: (1) it makes it harder to make any choice at all; (2) once we’ve made the choice, (a) we’re less happy with it because we worry if maybe the alternatives would have been better, (b) there are always opportunity costs, i.e. benefits that you’re missing out on because you made this particular choice (FOMO!), and (iii) our expectations escalate as we think that with so much freedom and choice we should be able to make the perfect choice. If we don’t make the perfect choice – well, then, that’s our own fault!
A lesson from BDSM?
I watched Fifty Shades of Grey the other day – my excuse is that I became overwhelmed by the endless choice available on Netflix – and when Christian Grey describes his time as a submissive, he explains:
“By giving up control, I felt free, from responsibility, from making decisions. I felt safe.”
I can see some truth in this: taking away the need to decide can give you a sense of peace and help you to simply go with the flow, removing all sense of responsibility and blame. It’s the same with the stories I’ve read of people who’ve turned to dice to make important decisions, or committed to saying “yes” to everything for one year – it can be quite liberating.
But which is the RIGHT choice?
Philosopher Ruth Chang has dedicated her research to understanding how to make hard choices, and she explains that choices are most difficult to make when the two (or more) options are both good, just in different ways; so no alternative is actually better than the other overall. We may think that we just need more information and then we’ll be able to decide, but this fear of the unknown in fact rests on a misconception that we’re not smart or informed enough to make a decision – which is why we often take the (in our eyes) least risky option. The truth is: there is no best option! So we shouldn’t be looking for reasons “out there” that will tell us which is the right choice, but rather we should look inside of ourselves to create those reasons for ourselves.
What Chang means by this is that we create stories as to why one decision is better than another, in a way post-rationalising so that we feel better about a particular choice. We tell stories, convincing ones, around why we chose a particular career path, or a house, or a partner, making one alternative better than the other and therefore helping to reassure us that we’ve made the right choice.
So here’s the good news: there is no right choice.
Hurrah! That should take some of the pressure off, and prevent you from conducting a never-ending search of information or advice that will magically tell you which is the right decision. Whichever path you take, you will find a way to explain it to yourself and to other people, so that it becomes the right choice for you.
That being said, it’s in these decisions, these stories that we create, that we define who we are as individuals and what kind of life we will lead. Am I an adventurous and independent soul who is willing to take a risk and do something different, even if it means a few raised eyebrows from my current social circle? Do I choose the less risky choice of the status quo and stay in a comfortable job where I know what I’m doing and I have my daily routine, stable relationships, and above all a regular salary? Am I a lawyer or an artist, an employee or an entrepreneur? A singleton or a wife, a father or an eternal bachelor?
I actually don’t find those latter labels particularly helpful, as we are more than one thing, more than just a noun, and identifying ourselves with such an explicit category simply gives us an excuse to act in a certain way. Humans are inherently adaptable, our brains scientifically proven to be plastic, and although we may think that we are what we are and we’re unable to change, that’s simply not the case.
The point, though, is that our decisions are what make us who we are – so make those choices with care!
I was inspired to write this post by the NPR TED Radio Hour called Decisions, Decisions, Decisions. It referred to Ruth Chang’s Ted talk on How to Make Hard Choices as well as to another great talk on How to Make Choosing Easier by Sheena Iyengar (you can find her book, , on Amazon).
You can also find Barrys Schwartz’s book on Amazon or watch the Ted Talk.