Choice – it’s an American value that’s wrapped up in our idea of freedom. Isn’t that what our forefathers fought for? Freedom of speech, religion, the press…we get to choose what we say, how we worship, and what we publish. It’s the foundation of what makes America what it is and hence who Americans are. Though hard fought for, this ability to choose for ourselves is something I’d venture to say most of us take for granted, so much so that we fail to actually do it.
Not Making a Choice is Choosing
For millennials in particular, we want to keep all of our options open as long as possible. That’s our concept of freedom. By not committing to any weekend event in advance, I don’t have to make a final decision until the last minute – if at all. In seemingly “keeping our options open,” we tend towards apathy. The reality is, not making a choice is choosing.
Why do we do this? One reason is that our options from which to choose from are frankly overwhelming. Go to any given grocery store… there is an entire aisle devoted to cereal. Who the heck needs that many cereal options?! In a Harvard Business Study on choice, the results found that when offered to sample 24 rather than 6 flavors of jam, buyers were one-tenth as likely to actually choose and purchase one. In other words, research shows that there is such a thing as too much choice, and when that’s the case people are less likely to choose, and if they do, are less satisfied with their choice. This evidence is in direct opposition to how most of us define freedom – which is keeping all of our options open and delaying commitment to a choice as long as possible.
The irony is, if we really think about it, we don’t want a plethora of options (I think that relates to the experience of not even knowing what you want – or maybe that’s just me?). If I’m traveling to a new city, I don’t approach a local asking for a list of every restaurant within a 30-mile radius, I ask them for their recommendation! Hearing that the place down the block and to the right has the best burgers gives me the freedom to go enjoy a great meal in a new place relatively anxiety free.
Keeping Choices to a Minimum
This reality is humbling because it shows that we don’t always know what’s best for us. Though I think I need to know every option available so that I can make the most informed decision, sometimes keeping my options to a minimum and choosing one that is “good enough” is the best thing I can do for myself. Barry Schwartz talks about the difference between Maximizers and Satisficers – exhaustively seeking the best vs. accepting good enough. Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier with outcomes and can move on after deciding. They have a general attitude of “all will be well” and don’t obsess over decisions. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?!
You make thousands of choices every day regarding how you spend your time and energy, the things in life you are pursuing, and the means you need to put in place in your life to get you there. In light of how many choices we have to make, it’s important to be able to actually make them. One trap that makes us hesitant to choose anything is that we see our choices as extreme and absolutist: If I accept this job I will be there forever. Another trap is viewing our choices in the negative: If I date him, I’m not dating him, him, or him. No wonder we can’t make a choice!
Choosing to Take the Next Step
I recently walked 170 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and one of my greatest take-a- way’s from the experience was a better understanding of choice. On the last leg of 25-mile days, it all came down to deciding to take the next step. As Blessed John Henry Newman so eloquently writes, “Lead kindly light, I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” So much of life is just making the next choice – not dismissing it completely nor agonizing over it and giving it more weight than it’s due. But know that you will have to choose.
While we can rely on locals to point us to the best place to eat in a new city, unfortunately there’s no equivalent for most other decisions in life. Rather than viewing that responsibility as a burden, realize what a gift it is. It’s a great paradox that while God is ultimately in control, you simultaneously have so much say in your own life – if you choose to! Don’t keep your options open at the expense of actually choosing and living your life. Pray for God’s will always, but know that He asks us to meet Him halfway. Fight the lie and the distraction of so many choices. Accept responsibility for your life via your choices and make them bravely and boldly. God can always reroute the less-than-optimal ones and make good ones even better – together, you and God can make a great team, but you have to choose.