the downside of choice

the downside of choice - man thinking with arrows over head - The Best Advice So Far

Choice is a wonderful thing.

The advice from the very first chapter of my book, The Best Advice So Far – and, in fact, the central theme of both the book and blog – is this: “You always have a choice.” Here’s a quick snippet from Chapter 1:

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.

If you don’t accept this truth — that you always have a choice — if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice — now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person — you — can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we can not change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

best advice so far - you always have a choice - tweetable

This truth is, in fact, at the center of everything I write and speak about. I believe it to the core of my being. And I live out the practical ramifications of it in daily life.

As I say, choice – the awareness that, at every turn, we can choose – is a wonderful thing.

But it can also be a real pain in the neck.

There are some who bill themselves as motivational speakers and manage to make a pretty good living by carefully crafting presentations spoken in progressively louder tones that get audiences feeling all tingly and emotional, until everyone is bouncing on tiptoes, reaching toward the ceiling with spirit fingers and ecstatically chanting some pretty platitude that rhymes. There’s a real rock-and-roll atmosphere, like at a concert. And people cry and hug each other and exclaim how beautiful it all was.

And then those people drive home, feeling comfortably satiated with good vibes and that haze that comes over you when you’ve expended too much emotion at once. And when they get back, family and friends ask how the seminar was, and they smile and sigh and well up and use words like “amazing” and say things like, “It’s just too hard to explain.”

But then the next day comes.

And suddenly, that rhyme they chanted the day before has lost its ring and doesn’t quite sound like it did when they were crammed in elbow to elbow with hundreds of other strangers, shouting it out together as background music swelled. Today’s reality is feeling very real, while the magical mantras from yesterday are feeling … well, rather unreal.

I never want to be the type of writer or speaker or mentor who doles out snappy sound bites that give people momentary tingles – and yet which don’t make a difference in people’s everyday reality.

See, it’s all well and good to say, “You always have a choice.” But if that only works when the sun is shining and it’s 72 degrees and there’s a gentle breeze blowing and life is peachy keen – that is, if it only rings true when the choices at hand are easy – what good is it?

The reality is that, as wonderful and true as it may be, accepting that you always have a choice … comes with some potential downsides.

First, let’s face it – there can be a sense of something very close to comfort in believing I don’t have any choices. That things just are the way they are, and I can’t change them. C’est la vie (that is to say, “Life” is in control, I’m not).

So I have the job I have, right? I get up, brush my teeth, take a shower, get dressed, drive to work, do the job, head home, watch some TV, go to bed. And I do that every day – until the choice gets made for me otherwise. I get laid off. The company goes out of business. Then I apply to every place hiring and wait for someone else to make the choice to hire me. And when they do, I fall back into the daily routine. No thinking involved really. Perhaps a small stretch of worry, hoping that the universe does me right – or at least doesn’t entirely screw me over.  But that’s it. It’s easy.

Enter choice.

Well, now, I have to actually assess my life and my daily work. When I allow myself to believe that I always have a choice, then the reality now exists that every day, I am choosing to stay with this job.

This boss.

This unfulfilling work.

This departure from dreams and goals that used to excite me.

The word “responsible” suddenly takes on new meaning. It no longer refers simply to “doing what I am supposed to do” (i.e., fulfilling a choice that others have made for me). No, now the word “responsible” blows the lid off Pandora’s Box. Whereas before, the only thought was what I needed to do each day, I now begin to have to face the question of why.  And the matter of <why I do> takes much more brain space to consider than merely <what I do>.

Moreover, without an acceptance that we always have a choice, we allow ourselves free passes for bad behavior. In the book excerpt I included above, I talk about choice freeing us from victim mentality. But it also does away with “innocent perpetrator” mentality. You see, if I’m mean or I let my anger boil over and hurt someone, it’s easy to blame dead people somewhere back in my genealogy by laughing it off and saying, “What can I say, I come from an Italian family” or “I can’t help it, I’m Irish.”

The Best Advice So Far - Without an acceptance that we always have a choice, we allow ourselves free passes for bad behavior.

On the other hand, when I accept the notion of personal choice, then I have to consider personal responsibility, as well.

I have to consider the validity of others’ feelings and perceptions about me.

I have to consider, maybe for the first time, things like how to give a real apology.

I have to consider the hard work and potentially long road necessary in order for me to change my attitudes and behaviors.

The acceptance or denial of the existence of choice affects every area of life, really. I could never outline them all in a single post, but allow me one more example. When we ignore the reality of choice, the mentality of “Keep your head down and do what you have to do” makes complete sense. It’s reasonable. It’s an uncomplicated existence for the most part. And it applies to more than just work.

For instance, let’s say I’m at the gym. And let’s assume that I’ve accepted that going to the gym is routine, just part of “what I have to do.” I show up. I do my sets. My interactions are pragmatic, limited to perhaps asking people how much longer they’ll be using equipment I need. And then I go home.

But when I accept that I always have a choice, well, now things aren’t so cut and dry. It’s no longer “pick things up and put them down.” No, now every person around me represents a choice. And it’s not that I need to make the choice to talk to them all. Quite to the contrary, I don’t need to make any particular choice. But the awareness that I could – well, it changes things.

Just last night, I was at the gym quite late, as usual. I saw a guy I’d never seen there before, wearing a T-shirt that said “Muddy Waters” and bore a picture of the blues icon. In a world where awareness of choice isn’t involved – where you just “just keep your head down and do what you have to do” – I may not have even noticed his shirt. And if I did, it’d have been none of my business – no more than a vague thought like I know of that artist. It’s very me-centered. And me-centered living is easy.

But in my world, recognition of the little-known artist represented a choice: do I connect over this rare thing we have in common, or do I just keep working out? Neither choice would have been wrong; but the awareness of the choice definitely “interrupts life.”

I was mere minutes from being done with my workout. It was 1:30 in the morning. I could have been home by 2:00. In this instance, I chose to engage. “Hey, I’m Erik,” I said, reaching out my hand. “Muddy Waters, eh? Do you actually know his music, or is it just a graphic thing?”

Well, this serious-looking guy was suddenly all smiles. Yes, he did listen to Muddy Waters. And had I seen Cadillac Records? And did I know of Howlin’ Wolf? And somehow, somewhere along the way, this turned a corner into Charlie’s opening up to me about an unhealthy relationship he’d ended, and how he’d been hurt by it, and how he had trust issues, and how he had just had an argument with his new girlfriend before hitting the gym, and how he was really working hard to make this new relationship work.  And at every turn, that initial choice to say hello branched into new choices I needed to consider. Do I cut him off with, “Dude, that sucks, but I hope things’ll get better, see you around”? Or do I stay, listen, let him get hash it out, ask solid questions and offer some insight that might help him make healthy changes? Tick-tock-tick-tock … 2:00 A.M … 2:30 …

Again, no choice would have been right or wrong here. But one thing’s for sure: that acceptance that you always have a choice comes with a lot more personal responsibility and potential for “life interruption” than an existence where all I have to do is “keep my head down and do what I have to do.”  Life’s no longer neat and compartmentalized. It gets messy. But it’s rarely boring.

It gets real. And a reality full of choices can be difficult. But it’s also ultimately fulfilling. There is no longer “the way it’s supposed to be” – only the way I choose to make it. It reminds me of a quote my phenomenal friend Chad added to his voicemail message: “There is no world, only six billion understandings of it.” ~ Drew Dudley

The Best Advice So Far - There is no world, only six billion understandings of it. - Drew Dudley

Speaking of quotes, Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for having said that “with freedom comes responsibility.”

The Best Advice So Far - With freedom comes responsibility. - Eleanor Roosevelt

But could it be that with acceptance of responsibility comes freedom? My experience thus far has led me to believe that the truth lies in both.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

15 responses to “the downside of choice

  • Sean P Carlin

    Speaking as a writer of fiction, Erik, we are taught to make sure our plot is being driven by choices on the part of the protagonist — not by random events that “just happen.”

    But, really, what they mean by that (whoever “they” are!) is exactly what you’re demonstrating here: that we choose our reactions to the random things that happen, be it getting fired, getting sick, or interacting with strangers in the night. How many stories have begun with a scenario like that, and the plot that unfolded was determined by the hero’s response to those unforeseen circumstances?

    Also resonant: your rumination on victim mentality, something that afflicts several people I know; it is such an unflattering attribute, in fact, that I have taken active and conscious steps over the past few years to make sure it isn’t a mindset that I indulge. (My wife refuses to submit to it — she’s always been that way — and has been a great inspiration to me in that regard.) I’m reminded of one of my favorite Rush lyrics on the subject (another very personal source of inspiration): “‘The stars aren’t aligned — / Or the gods are malign’ / Blame is better to give than receive.”

    Another great piece, my man. You always have a choice is a lesson that can’t be retaught — or relearned — often enough.

    Like

    • Erik

      I always write from a personal place and, as such, my themes aren’t just attempts to be consistent with material in my book; they are reminders to myself along the way of mindsets I need to maintain. I think some people believe I have this stuff down and share it more like some cross-legged guru on a faraway mountain peak; but in reality, I’m writing as much to myself as to anyone else. Right now is a time in my life where I’m being ultra careful to guard against that victim mentality, and to remember that my “now” is part of that “always” in “You always have a choice.”

      Thanks once again for not only reading but sharing a perspective that only you can. I know you love to engage, learn and grow. But I also feel the personal support in it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sean P Carlin

        My screenwriting mentor, David Freeman, who’s done more to codify the craft than anyone I know of, not only practices what he preaches — i.e., uses his own tools (his copious lists of writing techniques) — but actually refers to them regularly when he writes! He says the same thing you just did, in essence: that the principles he follows aren’t second nature — even after years of developing and teaching them — but rather something he needs to apply consciously and regularly. I guess it’s the same reason people go to church every Sunday: Some lessons just need to be learned again and again, practiced day after day; they never become rote.

        Liked by 1 person

  • aFrankAngle

    Choice is so much part of life … and yes, we can control so much through them. BTW … I’ve said for a long time that the most important choice one makes in life is the people they chose to be around … meanwhile, I’m trying to get back into the swing.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Kirby

    Erik I think you hit the nail on the head when you say choice is a personal responsibility. Just the other day I was reading a book that discusses being lucky and unlucky. By giving away personal responsibility and giving everything up to chance you deny your involvement good or bad. I myself believe in my own ability to make choices and improve my situation. Some choices are harder than others but we have to make them and if we don’t they may be made for us. Who do you want to hold the baton to your future? Great post. Love to read the book. Will add it to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thanks, Kirby. I’m not the first to say it, but even leaving things to luck or letting others make decisions for us – is a choice. It’s a choice to relinquish other choices or to step out from under a sense of responsibility. But it’s a choice nonetheless. Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts and insights.

      Like

  • Jed Jurchenko

    I like this Erik, it’s very thought provoking. I like how you connect choice and responsibility. It’s a tricky balance for me right now. For the first time ever, I feel like I could keep myself busy a full 24 hours a day, and still not accomplish all that I would like.

    Choosing between supporting others, spending time with my own family, and getting the rest that I need to function well, has become quite the balancing act. Sometimes the sheer number of choices feels overwhelming. At other times, I find myself getting caught up in hyper-responsibility. I feel like I need to fix everything right now, and get everything done right now.

    Yet, I always have a choice… and some times it’s perfectly OK to slow down, rest, and take care of the, “to do” list, later. I like how you point out that many times the choices are not right or wrong. Erik, you are so great at reaching out and connecting with others. Yet, I appreciate the reminder that we are not morally obligated to connect with everyone who wants to connect, or help everyone who needs help.

    Not that I’m ever for passing by a person who is hurting, but sometimes delegation, or a referral to someone who is better suited to offer support, is just fine too. Perhaps, one of the down sides of choice is not only feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, but also forgetting that we can get creative in the choices that we do have?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      There is absolutely so much less thinking involved when options (choices) are limited or when our primary choice is to let someone else make our choices for us. Less freedom – but less responsibility.

      As for reaching out, there were perhaps 25 other people at the gym that night that I did not talk to, yet to whom I could have spoken. I chose not to. And had I not talked to Charlie, he would have survived, just as he had before our paths crossed (and just as 7 million other people on the planet are doing right now). That’s not to say that reaching out is unimportant. But it has to come out of a place where we have the extra to give. I’m at a place in life right now where sometimes I have the extra reserves – and many times I don’t. As I said in that recent post, there are times when the choice to extend ourselves to “one more” is healthy, and times when the choice has to be to ask others to extend themselves to us for a while.

      And the importance of rest and downtime can’t be underestimated!

      Like

  • D. Wallace Peach

    So much to comment on, Erik. I love the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, by the way. I’ve known a lot of people who spend inordinate amounts of time and energy avoiding responsibility when they could have quickly and easily taken responsibility, completed what they need to do, and moved on to more enjoyable endeavors.

    Choice is interesting because not all choices are made for “happiness.” I worked in business for 18 years and I chose to do it because I was a single parent, the money was okay, the future earning would be much better, I was able to support my daughter well enough, etc. I had responsibilities that I “chose” to honor over a more fun, less deadening work life. At the same time, I wasn’t without choices regarding my approach to the less than marvelous job. I chose to make friends, to learn new things, to work hard, and rise up the ranks. I was able to pay for my daughter’s college. THEN I quit!

    I guess I’m validating your point that taking a broader view of the scores of choices we face each day allows us to be the master’s of our lives and all that entails, rather than the perpetual victims of our days. We can choose to find or create the sunny moments in each day even when the sky is overcast. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Such an insightful response to this, Diana. I particularly love your inclusion of the work example in the center paragraph there. I talk a lot about the fact that we are motivated by perceived gains (which may or may not align with real gains). And, yes, that means sacrifice at times – while choosing to make the most of opportunities, as you found a way to do.

      Even writing this particular blog post was a sacrifice. I was drained. My brain was fried. And I’d already gone to bed with it unwritten, having decided that I needed sleep more than meeting my weekly Friday blogging goal. But then I woke up about 1:00 A.M. with a change of perspective. I had just enough steam, I felt, to white knuckle it and put three hours into writing, editing and posting it – because I felt it was a real moment I was in, a struggle brought on by choice. No one pays me to write. And, while I enjoy writing on the whole, it’s not always “fun.” It takes time and energy away from other things. But my perceived gain is that I am contributing something important to the world, if only in a small way. And so I combine love with discipline. (I know you know what I mean!)

      Another example with which I’m well familiar is choosing not to buy some new thing I’d really enjoy. In those instances, I often choose future peace over current fun. Denying myself some things also allows me to be generous with the kids I mentor, many of whom have far fewer opportunities for “fun stuff” than I do. These are very close to the reasons I stayed with a trying job all those years. As I wrote in the post, considering why we are choosing to do something is a lot more complex than just focusing on what we are doing or might like to do in a moment.

      Liked by 1 person

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