4 Reasons We Suck At Making Big Decisions
At the risk of forever being quoted out of context on social media, legal documents, and eulogies: I, Mark Hill, think freedom is overrated. Don't get me wrong -- it has its perks. If George Washington hadn't invented it, I wouldn't be writing this while wearing a Wookiee bathrobe and testing the limits of my neighbor's endurance with a blaring 10-hour loop of "Work Bitch."
But, as bumper stickers and racist uncles keep reminding us, freedom isn't free. And while this is usually in reference to soldiers sacrificing themselves in the line of duty or my heroic decision to tolerate people who like cilantro, our struggles with freedom sometimes manifest themselves in subtler ways.
We're Still Getting Used To Making Big Decisions
You're going to make a lot of choices today, none wiser than deciding to read this. But choice is a concept we're still adjusting to. For countless centuries after we slew the dinosaurs that God placed on Earth as a test of faith in our combat skills, what you did in life was largely determined by the circumstances you were born into. If your father was a farmer, fisherman, or village idiot, the odds were pretty good that you'd grow up to be the same. You would marry someone from the same town, either because your family arranged it or because who do you think you are visiting? A neighboring town to troll for strange, Christopher fucking Columbus? Then you'd pump out some kids, because not wanting to have children was a sin worthy of being placed in the stocks and pelted with rancid vegetables. (Note: My entire understanding of the Middle Ages comes from Monty Python-esque comedies)
I'm glossing over large swaths of human history, and we could all think of dozens of counterexamples, like the well-known fact that Napoleon worked his way up from being a male prostitute to become the mayor of France. But generally the average person today is forced to make far, far more decisions than they would have as little as 60 years ago.
It takes me hours just to do a cost-benefit analysis on eyeliner brands.
I'm not just talking about choosing between 827 varieties of potato chips at Subway (technically 826, because fuck dill pickle and anyone who enjoys it). I mean big, life-changing decisions, like choosing a city to live in or a video game console to own. Never getting married, never having children, and marrying children are all valid options now (the last one isn't yet, but now that gay marriage is legal it's only a matter of time, right?). You can earn three degrees and change careers eight times, and no one will bat an eye. You can make peace with the dragons that have plagued your village rather than fight them like your ancestors, and your reward will be a feel-good documentary instead of banishment.
Again, this is not a bad thing. Many of the careers and relationships our ancestors were stuck with were unenviable, to put it mildly. But while we've become pretty good at making decisions, we're still struggling at living with them. You probably know at least one person who brands him- or herself as a life coach, and that person is probably insufferable. Life-coaching has only been around in earnest for a couple of decades, because, well, just try to imagine a life coach in a previous era. "Try not to get shot by communist revolutionaries during your 12-hour factory shift." "Hey, you know typhoid? Yeah, don't get it." It's not the sort of advice worth shelling out money for.
"I know you're not happy with your life right now, but have you considered toughing out
another 20 years of backbreaking serfdom?"
But, as one coach points out, his clients come to him well after making a big decision. They didn't have trouble making it, but they had trouble dealing with the consequences. A no doubt related fact is that increased choice has coincided with decreased well-being and happiness. Happiness is a complicated subject, and saying that it stems entirely from freedom of choice is like saying your headaches stem entirely from the mind-control chemicals the government sprays out of streetlights. There are many factors, but a big one is that ...
We're Constantly Questioning Our Choices
Because we're still getting used to constantly making big decisions, we end up with nagging doubts about whether we made the right call. It's not that our decision made us unhappy; it's that we can't help but wonder if another decision would have made us even happier. But don't let my rambling neuroses do the talking -- science will back me up. Give employees more options for their 401(k), something I'm told is better for your finances than stuffing all your money in the vegetable crisper, and they'll be overwhelmed and not enroll. Participation rates are higher when options are fewer.
And yet, my "You'll eat what I goddamn give you, you ingrates" restaurant never took off.
It's one thing to get so panicked by the number of options at the barber that you shave your head and lie about having cancer for 30 years, but this is a dilemma that manifests itself in much crueler ways. Let's talk about a topic that's always sure-fire comedy gold: terminally ill infants. A study compared American parents, who have to explicitly decide to end life-sustaining treatment, to French parents, whose doctors make the call unless the parents say otherwise. Despite both groups suffering awful tragedies, the French parents handled the emotional fallout better and were left with fewer lingering regrets about what could or should have been.
"So you're saying we should let the government decide what we do with our money and children? What are you, a depressed communist?" I am, but that's not the point. We're constantly worrying about whether we could have done better instead of accepting what we earned. You may have heard of the Fear Of Missing Out, which is when we log on to Facebook, see that Chad hosted a kegger without inviting us, and are left wondering what other fun things everyone else is doing behind our back. That line of thinking can be extended well beyond fucking Chad and his dumb party for jerks that probably sucked shit anyway.
"They're the ones missing out on my awesome birthday party."
Whether it's when you're picking a college, buying a home, or clubbing a woman from a rival clan and declaring her your spouse, we're chasing a perfection that doesn't exist outside of '80s sitcoms and creepy families in commercials. The question isn't "Am I happy?" but "How can I be happier?" And then the next thing you know you're abandoning your loving family and shacking up with some floozy half your age on a beach in Tahiti in a futile attempt to recapture your fleeting youth, to invent a totally random example off the top of my head, Uncle Steve.
As Will Smith and some old, outdated document that everyone keeps arguing over taught us, it's good to pursue happiness. But we have these regrets about our decisions even when they were logically sound. It's understandable to be upset if you buy a house and learn the real-estate agent didn't disclose that the basement hid a Black Gate to the Realm Of Infinite Shrieking Skeletons. But there's no way you could have known they lied, and that's the problem. We equate endless choice with total control over results. If you painstakingly choose from a dozen job offers, you expect it to be the best job ever. But no matter how careful you are, you can't prevent the economy from collapsing and wiping your carefully selected dream job out of existence.
"I can't believe there's no longer a market for professional cardboard box carriers."
It's a vicious cycle. Choosing from so many options causes us anxiety, and when the decision goes awry thanks to factors beyond our control, we regret the call we made, blame ourselves, and feel guilty for wasting an opportunity, and we double down on anxiety for the next big decision. Or we hedge our bets and avoid the decision altogether, but that creates its own problem ...
We're Told We Can Do "Anything" And Interpret That As "Everything"
We all know someone who constantly flits between commitments. One day they're learning Spanish, the next they're trying to master archery. They're dating Raul, then they're dating Chris. They work at a hotel, but all of a sudden they're a gravedigger. By not sticking with anything for long, they may be getting a wide variety of experiences, but they don't actually know much about any of them. They're the customer at the ice cream parlor who insists on sampling every flavor.
Then there's that one weird friend who says frozen yogurt is better, rejects society, and lives in the wilderness.
Assuming your parents loved you, they probably told you that you could do anything you wanted with your life. But some people, myself included, interpreted that to mean we can do everything. It's like how I love writing for Cracked, but I also want to win an AVN Award. They're both noble pursuits, but there's only so much time in a day. The dream of winning Most Majestic Ejaculation has to be put aside so I can bring you more of these insightful analogies.
Goals are like cats. Having one or two is normal, but if you have eight or nine, people will start to worry that there's something wrong with you. You can care for a couple of cats, but if you have a dozen you will fail to look after them, and then the SPCA will knock down your door and leave you with none. You need to concentrate all of your efforts/snuggles where they'll generate the most success/purrs.
"One of you must perish."
If you can't accept the fact that you can't do everything, you'll become paralyzed with indecision and accomplish nothing. And the only thing that will upset you more than failing to overachieve is failing to achieve anything at all. If you have a goal, whether it's launch a career, write a novel, or eat the world's biggest submarine sandwich, you have to monomaniacally focus on it. You have to say no to every other career, creative idea, and foodstuff to reach the limits of what you can accomplish, and that goes against the notion of freedom that's been drilled into us since birth.
And thanks to our constant questioning, there will always be a nagging little voice telling you that you're wasting your time. That's what makes freedom of choice so appealing. If you never truly commit to anything, you never run the risk of truly wasting your time. And here's the kicker -- that little voice might be right. Maybe you work on a novel for hundreds of hours only to discover that your story about an orphan boy who discovers he's a legendary wizard has already been done. Maybe you decide to practically live at the gym and sculpt the perfect body, only to grow bored with all the sex that comes with it. You don't know until you try hard, and trying hard is scary when you know you could back out and do something else at any moment.
"You're going to make it, Johnson! And then we're going to quit this bullshit and restart our ballet quartet!"
That's how we turn opportunities into problems. That's why we stress out just as much about having half a dozen dream-job offers as we do about having none. That's why we feel like we haven't accomplished anything with our lives while being blind to what we actually have done. It's only human to dream about more achievements or competitive eating records, but we also have to stop and remind ourselves about the "only human" part of the expression. And hey, speaking of following your dreams ...
"Follow Your Dreams" Is Terrible Advice
As someone who quit their day job to write full-time, what I'm about to say is going to sound incredibly hypocritical. But I already make fun of other people's taste in music while owning a Goo Goo Dolls album, so here goes. Telling someone to follow their dreams is awful advice, at least in the way we tend to go about it. Felix Clay can back me up here.
I love my job, and I haven't felt this creatively fulfilled while naked since I went to Thailand. But while the message of following your dreams is more ubiquitous than ever, the world is run by the vast, vast majority of people who settled on something mundane, either because following their dreams didn't work out, because they didn't have the opportunity to do so, or simply because their life goals lay elsewhere.
"Writing my million-word erotic fan fiction, A Game Of Bones, isn't a goal. It's a calling."
That doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do what makes you happy. But we rarely frame the issue as, "Pursue your dream but have a backup plan that you'll be content with." It's always, "Make this massive choice right now or you'll regret it forever." That puts a lot of undue pressure on people who don't have the experience necessary to make that decision.
There are some paths in life where you have to make a big decision early. It's probably too late for me to break into the NHL, despite my sick backhand. And yes, the sooner you figure out which of your goals you want to focus on, the better your chances of success will be. But your chances will be pretty poor if you can't pay the heating bill as well.
It's easy to say living like this is worth the sacrifice if you're saying it in retrospect.
By giving people the choice to take risks in life but telling them that they'll hate themselves if they don't try (or try and fail), we're framing already difficult decisions in apocalyptic terms. We tend to look at people who followed their passions and failed with a mix of pity and scorn ("It's sad she never made it in Hollywood, but really, who does she think she is to have even tried?"), but in reality that person probably found a job that comfortably pays the bills and affords them enough spare time to raise their kids, volunteer at the soup kitchen on Sunday, and appear in the local community theater project once a year. They're happy and contributing just as much to society as they would have if they had "made it," if not more. But by telling everyone that they should risk everything to follow their dreams, we're devaluing the people who don't. We think they lack passion, drive, and ambition, even though they're quietly keeping civilization running.
So not only do we have more choice than ever before, we're telling people that if they don't make the right choice their lives will be meaningless. That puts even more pressure on them to make the perfect choice out of countless imperfect options. That kind of mindfuckery is usually reserved for the villain in the Saw movies.
"Go ahead and save your friend's life ... if you want to be stuck in telemarketing forever!"
If you're anything like me, and you better pray that you're not, making big decisions can reduce you to a trembling heap of anxiety. But unless the decision in question is "Should I fight that tiger?" there is no issue big enough to radically and permanently change every circumstance of your life. So go exercise your freedom to make some decisions, you beautiful bastards. Buy a condo, start a band, and get drunk and throw up on the mayor. Just keep in mind that these decisions won't play out how you imagined them, and that's OK.
You can read more from Mark, if you choose to, at his website.
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