The paralyzing fear of choice


It's no mystery that I am a TED talk fanatic. I was recently reminded of a favorite talk by Barry Schwartz, and my mind has been racing on the topic ever since. Barry talks about "The paradox of choice", and I can't help but think back on the last 26 years and marvel at the impact this very subject has had on my own life.

Having grown up with older parents, I've always found myself drawing from viewpoints spanning multiple decades. You may be surprised to learn that the mindset in 1950 as compared 1990 was a TEENY bit different. :) While I have no desire to grow up as a woman of the Madmen era, I do find it interesting to look back on all of this change and reflect on the impact.

My philosophy has always been to choose the option that limited my future choices the least. For instance, I chose to focus on math and science in high school because I was told that I would increase my chances of a practical college degree. I then went to college for a degree in engineering because a STEM degree "was smart for a girl of my generation". I even focused specifically on Industrial Engineering as it was well known for spanning all industries - even more choices! After graduating, I then pursued a career in consulting. Once again, I was told it was the limitless option that would afford me the experience I needed for my future.

I have continually chosen the option that limited my future choices the least, but for what? Is the goal to reach a point of endless choices? Is that the ultimate freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom of choice? What happens when your choices are suddenly infinite and as a result you are unable to make a decision at all - living a life paralyzed by the fear of our choices. That doesn't sound like freedom to me.

By maximizing our choices, we expect our freedom to increase at a proportionate rate. Instead, it seems that the more choices we have, the fewer decisions we make. We have driven ourselves into a state of fear - fear of making a decision at all.

While men and woman may have the ability to choose like never before, the fear of making the wrong decision has never been a bigger burden. While I may be able to do it all - the career, the family, the friends - I know I won't be be able to do all of it well. Moreover, I will be living in a constant state of unmet expectation. Is there anything worse than being at work wishing you were with your kids and then being with your kids but unable to get work off your mind? Expectations continue to rise as our satisfaction plummets. Throw social media on top of it all, and we're bound to a continual state of disappointment.

It's an interesting time in which we live. 2016 is quite different than 1989 or even 1950, as it should be, but I do hope that these ideas make us stop for a few minutes and encourage us to pursue a life lived well. Sometimes the best choice is the most simple.

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