Pains of the Paradox of Choice

Photo: A Dark Stare - Toronto, 2010

I’ve been in this crippling transient state these days, feeling restless and confused about where to go next on my journey.  I know, right?  What a ridiculous complaint.   Most people would kill for this opportunity to have an open itinerary and have endless choices of where to go next.  It's especially illogical when the problem comes in a place with beaches this stunning.  Yet I’ve been feeling gloomy and lost while mulling things over for a few weeks now.  Something is to be blamed here. How can I be feeling this way, and whom can I blame?  Choice.  I blame it on choice.

Psychologists call it the paradox of choice. When we’re given endless options to choose from in life, we sometimes end up choosing none at all.  Millennials in particular can relate best to this.  We’ve been told we can be anything we want to be when we’re kids, then we grow up with no idea about which to choose from.  My story isn’t unique, lots of people in their twenties and thirties are confused or settle for something and suddenly wake up realizing it’s not at all how they thought things would go.

Who else comes to the Thai islands with perfect sunny weather, lots to do and see, surrounded by great people, and feels bored?  I’m guilty of it.  And I’m slowly realizing what’s happened to me.  Maybe it’s leaving the comforts of travelling with a companion and going back to solo travel, or maybe it’s that I really just don’t want to make the wrong choice in where I go next. 

Then there’s the term analysis paralysis.  We have a million options to choose from, we sit down to analyze them, and we feel completely stuck and can’t make a decision.  What if I choose the wrong one? What if I regret my choice?  What if I could have been happier with the peanut butter instead of the Nutella?  You look something over for too long and it’ll be the death of your confidence and abundant decision-making skills. 

 
This view doesn't always soothe

This view doesn't always soothe

 

Ah yes, once again - I’m guilty of this.  It’s why I’m trying to inject spontaneity into my life on the road as much as possible.  That spontaneity flame that we’re all born with (and use actively as kids) dwindles the further we get into a life of predictability and grown-up decision making.  

And this can be completely avoided!  Yes, I’m lucky to be in a time of my life when I can travel and move from beautiful place to beautiful place.  But let’s be honest, you aren’t trapped where you are either.  In fact, you probably have too many choices to choose from when you really boil it down.  So you have kids? Well the lady sitting next to me has triplets, and she’s found a way to travel.  So you have debts to pay off?  So does a guy I met on the beach who’s here simultaneously looking for clarity and work on the island.  You can really do a million things, just like we were told as kids.  And this is why you’ll have the hardest time getting out of whatever rut you’re in unless you consider it and make a decision sooner rather than later (a paradox in itself, I know).

As I’m writing this in a beautiful yoga resort on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand, the sunny weather has temporarily, but immediately disappeared.  A storm is rolling in, the first I’ve seen in months.  It’s a beautiful sight to see after days and days of heat.  It breaks the routine I’ve been sinking into.  The humidity has been cut and I can finally smell the rain.  The storm is the wake up call, the thing I need that helps me realize that while decision making isn’t easy, it absolutely doesn’t need to become the greatest stressor in my life.  My future career, the place to go to next, what to eat for dinner- these are all choices that need to made eventually, but they don’t need to be scrutinized to death.  

Sure, some choices weigh more than others.  Should you marry her?  Move in with him?  Go through with the abortion? Eat the muesli or the poached eggs? Leave your job?  Tell them you love them? Admit your dark secret?  Take that scary solo journey across the world? 

Let’s validate our feelings here and say it again - decision-making can be damn hard. But how do you choose when you have a dinner menu in front of you?  You eventually must decide.  You feel the server getting closer to you in your periphery and you make a spontaneous, last minute choice.  I feel the storm coming and I prepare to get inside, away from the beach and I quit procrastinating.

 
Alternatively, just let the coconuts guide you.

Alternatively, just let the coconuts guide you.

 

So what’s my 5-point solution been these days for my problem of feeling directionless?

  1. Trust my intuition
  2. Realize that all options are equally as exciting, and all are better than staying still
  3. Use the signs around me to put the pressure on, but make a decision before the pressure arrives at the last minute
  4. Make a spontaneous, quick choice (when the matter isn’t so drastic)
  5. Reward myself only after making a decision

So it’s decided right now while writing this- I’m next going to Malaysia, a place that I wasn’t planning on visiting and a place I know very little about.  But I have friends saying to go and my heart says sure, why not

Sometimes we do need a push.  Listen to a loved one who’s been telling you to just do it already.  Unsolicited advice is annoying as hell, but I’m grateful every time I’ve called a friend (asking for their help) and they help me hear my own thoughts and say, ‘just try option A.’

Your intuition serves you best in the decision making process, no doubt about that, but so do those around you.  Look for the signs, listen to friends, trust your heart- but just choose already.  And then you can enjoy the beach, or eat that slice of cake without feeling guilty about it.  Reward comes after the decision-making.  Your brain may resist, but your heart will catch you when you fall.  So just fall already.  It’s better than sitting idle. ■

 
 

 What decision have you been stalling?