Choice is your enemy and ideas are like fast food
Freedom of choice is a foundational value of capitalism, and of democracies. While it has benefits in the context of those two collective systems, I believe it is a destructive force in many people’s personal lives.
Choices are necessary, and I am not suggesting you run from them – on the contrary – but it is important to master them and not let them possess you. Something as fundamental as a choice might be something we encounter often in life, but that does not mean we have learned how to master it.
A big choice, like which kind of career to pursue, what to do with your life, whether or not to have children, can often be quite treacherous. Are you really able to make that decision freely? Or are there external factors guiding your decision? In light of these considerations, freedom of choice takes on an entirely different meaning.
The wealth of options that are now available to us often make us unhappy because we do not feel up to the task of choosing correctly. We agonise over what to do, sometimes for years, while looking for the one clue that will tell us which way to go, only that clue never arrives. In some respects, people who just ‘end up’ in a situation through no fault of their own – becoming a butcher because their dad was one, working in their spouse’s company to support them without worrying about having their ‘own’ career – can be much happier than those who are constantly told: ‘you can be anything you like, so make the right choice!’ A good friend of mine would have been spared much existential angst had his parents just told him: ‘You’ll work as an X in Y. End of discussion.’
What is choice anyway? The reality is that if a choice is easy to make because one option is obviously better than another, then it’s not really a choice, since the outcome is predetermined. And if it is not, then the options are so similar to each other as to be practically equivalent, and it does not really matter what we choose. If we stick to the example of job decisions, if the profession you choose is not completely impossible for you to do or completely against your nature, the likelihood is very high that you can grow to enjoy whatever job it is you’re doing, if you look at it from the right angle.
If 1) the outcome of hard choices does not matter (because the options are equivalent) and 2) happiness can be derived from just about any situation barring wars and famines, then it stands to reason that we should not agonise over the big choices. Really owning a choice you made, i.e. really getting into whatever job you’ve chosen, or really making a change in that you decided on matters far more than the actual choice. I can decide to change my life and go on a diet 12 times in a year if I like. Unless I really adopt that change and implement it fully, the decision does not matter, and the initially big choice shrinks in importance into oblivion. A big choice therefore should ideally be made quickly, without agony, and then acted upon thoroughly. The positive outcome of a decision depends entirely on its implementation, not on the decision itself.
I would even go as far as to say that the wisest approach might lie in refusing to make ‘big choices’ altogether. I could think about whether to move to a different city or country, whether to look for a relationship, adopt a pet, change jobs,… but those are ultimately superficial choices that have no urgency (my current situation is fine, or dare I say great) and that would not profoundly change anything. Ultimately, my personal mission of ‘living well’ has to be fulfilled from inside out, not by changing the external circumstances. So all of my effort needs to come from the inside, not by changing the decorum of where or how exactly my life takes place.
… and little ones.
Now that the big decisions are out of the way, let’s turn to the little ones. Whereas the big ones should be swiftly made, the little ones, all to often, should not be made at all. They’re just little decisions, so don’t let them gunk up your life!
Part of the miraculous power of the mind is to plan for the future. That would be what I’d consider important. I might for example plan to start going to the gym for my health, an aesthetic physique and the joy of adding another challenge to my life and see myself grow and struggle to overcome it. How beautiful such a change can be! Yet how beautiful is a plan if I question its legitimacy at every turn, and constantly turn the decision over and over in my mind, asking whether I should follow through with it or change it? Questioning your own decisions makes life messy. And it makes you feel disappointed that you didn’t do what you intended. And it takes away much of the magic of decision-making. After all, if no decision is followed through on, how powerful are your decisions?
The antidote to this ‘gunk’ of unrealised decisions, this death by a thousand cuts of hesitation, is to vastly reduce the number of decisions you make. Put as much of your life on autopilot as you can, meaning: decide what your life should look like in broad strokes, find out what you need to do to ensure it is / becomes / stays that way, and then do that. Once you have implemented such a plan, do not waiver. Don’t redesign everything once a week. Stick with it. Efficiency is born out of routine, and you can only get good at something if you do it for a long time with dedication and discipline. Discipline is not the opposite of freedom, it’s what enables freedom because it takes care of the framework for it. So make decisions you can stick to, and get rid of all the unnecessary ones.
What that basically means is: use your habits as a decision avoidance device. If your habit is to go to the gym, once it really becomes a habit, it’s blissfully efficient: no questioning, no wondering if you should do it or not, no uncertainty as to when you should do it, no procrastination. It has become, not something you have to do, but a part of you. That is the mode that most of your life should happen in, so you can pay attention to the moment, and not to planning.
The magic lies in the execution
The fact that big decisions are only big if properly and thoroughly executed explains so many people struggle with… well, lots of stuff. Consider this: for any conceivable problem, be it romantic problems, difficulties at work, personal satisfaction, major life goals and even dietary imbalances, there is a whole treasure trove of tips and guides available, in libraries as self-help books, online on blogs like this one and in newspapers, everywhere. We are drowning in information, and you can easily find people online to listen to, maybe in a lecture on Youtube. But all the world’s problems in those areas are not solved yet. And why is that? Certainly not because information on solutions is scarce.
Information is plentiful, but first, much of it is noise. So you first need to find the pearls in the ocean of data. Once you’ve done so, thoroughly applying another person’s knowledge wisdom to your own life is a task that takes years, if not a lifetime. If you look at something like samatha meditation and Buddhism, it’s all there for you to read, but you don’t become enlightened by reading about Buddhism. Lots of theology scholars know all there is to know about Buddhism and never become enlightened. It takes a tremendous amount of work to change your life so that a worldview you want to adopt gradually becomes your own and starts to infuse those eyes you view reality with. It cannot be done quickly, and sometimes a life is not enough to do it fully, so it certainly cannot be done in a pinch or several times a week.
Because it takes time, we need to choose our battles. So reduce the number of areas in your life that you want to change or improve on, and make a real effort to make those limited changes thoroughly. Once you’ve mastered them, you can move on to something else. But it’s a balancing act. Do not squander your lifetime by treating ideas like fast food.
We can achieve great things, if we make a proper effort and accept that all that is worth having cannot be gotten easily.