Ah yes, “two roads, diverged in a yellow wood”. Mr. Frost let us all know that our choices will make our lives. Choose carefully. Choose the unlikely, he advised. Nonetheless, choose or be stopped. And therein lies what I’ve observed is one of the most challenging aspects of modern American life, as seen from my neighborhood.
You might think that choice looks like the above picture. Left, or right? This way, or that?
No. Not at all.
For me, and for many folks, choice usually looks like this:
In the far right corner, you can just see a bit of blue. That’s the ocean. That’s where you’re trying to go. Now decide how to get there. Ready? Pick a path.
“But there are so many!” you say. “How am I supposed to know which one is the right one?”
My answer: you won’t.
“Then can I use my intellect or gut to help me make the choice? Don’t I have the ability to narrow the options and pick the very best one?”
My answer: you don’t.
But let’s not hear my answers. Let’s suppose you’re listening to people, culture, media, education and the general zeitgeist and you’re hearing them loudly and clearly. (Sorry, compelled to use adverbs.) In that case, you will hear you will and you can.
YES, there is a right path for getting where you want to go and you will certainly recognize it when you come upon it and YES, if you have some trouble, your intellect and intuition can be relied upon to assist you toward the right answer. Because, hey, there are 3,655 memoirs written to show you how other people did it. And there are educational institutes and training and advice columns and self-help books and even (gasp) blogs. And let me remind you of the biggest, most wonderful part of it all, which for generations your (pick one) species, nation, tribe, family, parents didn’t have: the freedom to choose. My goodness, the freedom you have! You could do anything you want! Anything!
And so, because you, like me, believe everything that everyone has ever told you (I really did. It wasn’t until my 30s that it started to occur to me that maybe, just maybe the things I’d been told all my life weren’t necessarily so), you start trying to figure out what is the best path by using your intellect and gut to make that choice. Oh, and by the way, you are starting with not two, but 722 different paths to assess, rank, review intellectually, pass by your gut response and eventually choose from. And for every one of those 722 choices, you’ll need to see what steps should be taken next AND ALSO peer into the future to anticipate all possible consequences of each step, where they lead, the possibilities they generate, and assess all of those as well. It’s only logical.
You can see how this might take a lot of time.
Just ignore the fact that everyone is WAITING for you to make a choice and DO something.
That’s no reason to be stressed, right?
Oh my. And what if several of those choices, say 12 of the 722, actually make it through the review process and all look pretty do-able. You think you had a problem before? No. Now’s when you really have the problem.
Because you’re going to have to make a choice. And the consequences of that choice are on your head. You’re responsible. Oh my, yes. Because with freedom comes responsibility. And with great freedom comes great responsibility. So whatever you choose, it better be the RIGHT choice, because you’ll have to defend that choice for the rest of your life.
How many times will the twelve options held both positive and negative aspects, making the decision a little more difficult?
How many times will trusted friends, family and mentors give you differing advice?
Every time. But don’t worry, they’ll all say “That’s just my opinion. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide.” With the best of intentions, others will hand the responsibility right back to you. And their differing opinions will generate even more confusion in your head.
How many times will 3 of the 12 options sound equally good?
Just about every time. All things being equal, having used all your best capabilities, looked for advice, sifted, sifted, sifted — you still have choices.
Have I mentioned that the question with which you started is getting heavier to carry? Bigger and more important. Tick. Tick. Tick. Time’s a wastin’!
That big green question mark is getting bigger and bigger. How long can you carry it?
(My dad hates that word, but as my friend Jeremy taught me, sometimes it’s the one that best expresses how you feel. Sorry, dad.)
Seriously… fuck. You’ve just spent an incredible amount of time and effort trying to work your way through your options (keeping in mind how you’re so lucky to even HAVE options). Now you’re exhausted. You’ve really tried your best. You’ve used all your best resources, inside yourself and beyond yourself and you STILL aren’t there. Now you have to make a choice between the remaining 3 options — each that by all accounts is just as valid and good as the others. Oh, and by the way, remember that whatever happens after you make that choice is your responsibility.
Sit down, think it out. Surely, one of them must emerge as the clear choice. Think harder. HARDER!!!!
Go back over your whole process again, from the very beginning, just to make sure you didn’t miss anything. So you sit down, start thinking and do it all again. And again.
Think I’m being overly dramatic?
I’m not. I’m really not.
I’ve had so many conversations with people about this very scenario, it’s almost humorous. I mean, I thought I was the only one doing all this. Imagine my surprise when I heard others describe it, almost word for word. I refer to the whole subject (in my own head, but now publicly, in this blog) as “The Tyranny of Choice”. You could also call it Choice-Based Paralysis. Yes, that’s IT! CBP sounds like a real something, doesn’t it?
I interrupt the flow of this post by interjecting “Good for you! You made it through that perilously long and annoying description of Choice-Based Paralysis”. Sorry about that. Had to walk you through the full, messy process. Some of you got it right away. But some of you needed a clear description of what goes through someone’s head when they have to make an important choice. Scratch that — not everyone’s head. But for highly intelligent, intellectually-based people who also embrace the concept that intuition has validity in their world, the process is exactly as I’ve described it.
When I was in my early twenties, I was deeply immersed in CBP. I was desperately unhappy in my new profession, for which I’d endured a rigorous college program and had worked my butt off for five years. I spent hours and hours neuroting over it. Why was I unhappy? Would I prefer just a different kind of architectural practice? Why was everyday work in my profession so different than the enjoyable years I’d spent in school? Did I have some kind of flaw which I could repair that would allow me to enjoy architectural practice?
And always, always, the most overplayed question of them all: What was wrong with me?
I had choices. I definitely had choices. I could change to a different firm, change the type of architectural work I did (corporate, educational, small projects for rich people, public projects for poor people), I could pursue more education and become a professor or an architectural historian, etc etc etc. I used my intellect and my well-honed skills in creative problem solving to look at options. I kept running into walls. I kept walking down dead end streets, seeing within a few yards that the pavement would end and turning back around to try yet another avenue. I thought and thought and thought and thought. And thought. About choices.
And in the meantime, I hated going to work every day. I felt worse and worse about myself. Time was passing and I wasn’t identifying the best option. So I tried harder to identify and embrace the best option. And I couldn’t. And then I felt worse about myself.
Starting to get the link with Depression?
In my conversations with others, I’ve heard this process described over and over. I don’t know if it’s a particular type of person that gets into the loop of Choice-Based Paralysis or if the CBP results in a spiral of frustration, anxiety and depression and would for anyone. In the first case, I think it’s more likely that a certain type of personality is prone to CBP. In the second, the wide freedoms and choices available to us can easily lead anyone into a situation of CBP. In either case, it’s clear to me that contemporary society offers us lots and lots and lots of options. The more education you have, the more money you have, the more opportunities you have, the wider your exposure to what is out there in the world that you can access, the more likely you’re going to feel the burn from Tyranny of Choice.
And if you’re not doing well, it’s double tyranny. How’s that? Because your not doing well is the direct result of your choices. But hey, make some more choices!
Uh, oh. Now you start thinking that to make a choice at all is a bad idea. At least if you make no choice, nothing bad will happen. Even when nothing good is happening.
Experience that cycle a few times, and you stop believing that you can make good choices at all. Every choice is a bad one.
Hmmmm. That starts to sound a lot like Depression.
I’m not saying lots of choices give you Depression. I’m saying that in our contemporary society, where we have lots of choices all the time, it can become absolutely exhausting to make your way in life. If, at every step of the game, you have to go through all of the above paragraphs (ha! I dare ya!), your reserves of energy are going to get awfully low. And your ability for discernment gets tired. Until you just can’t handle the idea of options anymore.
We accept the idea of information overload. Sometimes you just need to take a break, let your mind relax and regenerate.
But who’s thought about choice overload? Did it ever occur to anyone that I might just want to walk into the grocery store and buy laundry detergent without having to think about it? Instead, I go to buy laundry detergent and stand, dumbfounded, in a twenty foot long aisle offering up 17 different types of laundry detergent, each clamoring for me to choose them for a hundred different reasons. Laundry detergent isn’t even important! If it’s that complex to buy laundry detergent (and frankly, exhausting — think about how you gear yourself up to go into the market), what is happening for us in more important regions of human experience?
Or, if you prefer… this one. (It does kind of feel like this sometimes.)
Well, I’ve thought about choice overload. And how it leads to paralysis. Which, if left unmitigated, contributes to the contemporary stew of stuff that makes us more likely to develop Depression.
But don’t worry, I do now have an antidote to Choice-Based Paralysis. It’s something I’ve developed over the last many years. Don’t know if it will work for anyone else. But hey, if you are looking for an antidote for yourself or someone you love, first you’ve got to study the beast. If you understand the beast, you’ll surely identify its weaknesses. And then you go in for the kill. With a big knife. Sorry if the hunting metaphor feels a little violent. Wait, no — I’m not sorry. The things that contribute to serious Depression deserve to be slayed.
For now, I’m pulling up the beasts to examine, one by one.
p.s. Have you been wondering all this time what DinaMC is, or did you figure it out? Right. Well, I didn’t want to have to keep typing out Depression in a Modern Context at the beginning of every post title. Or should I call it Depression as it Looks from Suzie’s Neighborhood? That’s DaiLfSN. Not so graceful. A Blog about Depression that You Might Want to Read Anyway? BaDtYMWtRA? See what I mean about the Tyranny of Choice? I could spend the rest of the day trying to come up with the right title, using my intellect and intuition. But. I. Won’t.