A long time ago, This American Life taught me that while you are doing something, there is always the myriad of things you are not doing at the same time, and really – what you ended up doing is just the tip of the iceberg of all those available options.
For work, I recently had the opportunity to speak to Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist who has been pondering the question of choice from the viewpoint of freedom: How does the freedom of choice affect our decision-making and what impact does this have on us? Let me just say that he essentially explained my whole life to me when he took on the idea from the radio show: Not only does the feeling of not having done something else subtract from the joy of what you have chosen to do, the expectation of using freedom to choose also weights down on people, since they feel pressured to alway optimize what they are doing.
“You’re not shackled the way your parents or your grandparents were, what could be better? It just turns out that when you give people this kind of unconstrained opportunity to reinvent themselves, they don’t know what to do. Or if they do it, they look over their shoulders, convinced that they’ve made the wrong decisions, made the wrong career move, the wrong romantic choices and so on. So you are plagued with doubt, you are always dissatisfied with whatever you’ve chosen because just around the corner there’s a better option.”
Or, as the New York Times put it: The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill,” and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.
What makes this so insightful is that it explains a lot of the petty indecision I happen to be prone to. One thing that comes to mind is traveling, something I have written about before. As a matter of fact, the vastness of what is out there ties me down and makes it hard to just go out and see places. In this age of the internet, being bombarded with a constant photo stream of othe peoples’ travels, one feels obliged to do something similar. Schwartz argues that the path out of this paradox lies not in constant pondering the options but in being content with what there is – or acting spontaneously. Does opting for the latter still count as spontaneity? I’ll give it a shot.