Too Much Choice is Pure Hell

February 19th, 2008.

Whenever I confess to people that I don’t work a regular job, their response is always the same.

“You’re so lucky.”

I cringe a little every time they say it although I know that two weeks after I quit my first job, I would have enthusiastically agreed. Back then, the days stretched out before me, long and unscheduled. With my ‘To Do’ list firmly placed into retirement, I spent a large majority of my time sleeping late and lounging around my house. I basked in the glory of my unencumbered days as if each hour were a delicious, ripe cherry I had lazily picked from a Utopia tree.

Then the boredom set in.

Eventually, I started living the same day over and over again. Lack of surprises, goals, and accomplishments in my daily routine made me increasingly frustrated. All of the sudden, I understood all too well the phenomena of people who die shortly after they retire. After all, if you’re not going to do anything, you might as well die.

Of course, it was silly of me to feel this way. Not only was I still young, but I finally had the time and money to do all the things I never had time for back when I was a part of the work force. Without supervisors and coworkers dominating my life, I could indulge in every whim.

So, I started doing stuff. I took classes. I started this website. I began volunteering my time to not one, but four different organizations. I went on trips. I took up every hobby I could feasibly imagine. In the midst of it all, I even got this crazy idea to start my own business. And why shouldn’t I? In a world of limitless possibilities, it almost seemed a waste not to follow every single one of my dreams.

You can all guess what happened, right? I became totally overwhelmed. Very abruptly, I found myself back at square one: waking up every morning with absolutely no idea what to do. Only this time, too many choices became the cause of my inevitable discontent.

It all came to a head yesterday. As I made my breakfast and brushed my teeth, I couldn’t stop stressing about the decision I had to make. Namely: how I was going to spend my day. Finding something enjoyable to do was no longer my problem. However, picking from multiple pleasures added weight to my shoulders and constricted my chest until I could barely breathe. Furthermore, I was very conscious of the fact that once I finally decided on something, I would be simultaneously deciding against something else.

For example, I could have sat down and penned you all a nice update to read. But in order for me to do that, I would have had to forsake my volunteer work. Meeting with an architect to discuss the facility I’m planning to build was another option of mine. But in choosing that, I would also be choosing not to look at a property I’m interested in buying. Faced with a long list of choices, all equally enjoyable, I mentally froze.

Crippled by indecision, I decided against everything and ended up spending my entire day shopping for a coffee table. Honestly, I couldn’t have been forced into a more unfulfilling activity, either. I despise shopping with the fire of a thousand suns and I couldn’t care less about the table in my living room. But I plowed through furniture store after furniture store anyway; merely because I couldn’t bring myself to pick out something fun to do.

For the record, even picking out a coffee table proved to be a difficult endeavor. There were far too many styles to choose from. Did I want something contemporary or antique? Should it be made out of oak, cherry, pine, marble, slate, tile, glass, or goddamn wicker? Some tables were far too expensive. (I refuse to spend two grand on something my dog will just chew up.) Some were too cheap. (Laminate over particle board? Are you fucking kidding me?) I liked a lot of things, but nothing thrilled me. And with all these choices available to me, shouldn’t something…thrill me?

Finally, I gave up. I came home completely empty handed, angry and disappointed in myself for wasting an entire day.

Determined not to repeat my mistake the next day, I decided to ask my Husband for help in narrowing down my decisions.

“What do you think I should be focusing my time on?” I asked him.

“What do you like best?” he countered.

“I’m not sure. I’m enjoying everything.”

“So do everything.”

“I can’t. I’m spread too thin. I’m starting to do a sloppy job at things and that’s detracting from my enjoyment. It’s no fun to screw up.”

“So pick the thing you can be most successful with.”

“But I don’t know what I can be most successful with. What do you think?”

“I think you can be successful with anything.”

“Maybe I should quit the thing that has the most negatives? Or risks?” I mused.

“Which thing is that?”

“Now that I think about it, I guess everything comes with negatives and risks.”

“So,” my weary Husband finally announced, “I guess you’re just going to have to decide.

I’ve always tried to be honest on this website, even if the honesty made me look bad or weak or ineffectual. So, in maintaining that spirit of full disclosure, I suppose I have to admit that when my Husband insisted that I should ‘just decide,’ I buried my face in my hands and burst into tears.

I can’t do it,” I sobbed over and over again, “I can’t do it.

In the throes of my mini breakdown, I wasn’t even particularly sure what exactly it was I couldn’t do. But now that I fully consider it, I realize that simply making a decision was my oh so impossible task. Which is ridiculous, when you think about it, considering that so many people zealously insist that access to many choices is liberating.

But is it really?

The fact of the matter is, human beings are not mentally equipped to cope with the level of choice we are confronted with in our daily lives. There is just too much shit to think about.

We have to decide when and if we’re going to get married. When or if we’re going to procreate. Should we go to college? Travel abroad? Attend a tech school? Ditch school completely and just head into the work force? Choosing a job may seem like a good idea at first, until you consider that there are hundreds of thousands of potential occupations to choose from. All of the sudden, more school seems like a good way to buy some more time. But which school is best?

We have an entire planet full of places to live and billions of people we could potentially surround ourselves with. Gone are the days where we are just born into a religion. Now we can choose our own. But after we finally muddle through all the nuances of faith and spirituality, we still have to pick a specific church.

And after that, we have to decide what to eat, what to wear, and what to buy. If we don’t like the way we look, we have to decide whether or not to have plastic surgery. But if we choose surgery, we are also choosing a never ending list of possible things to physically alter.

All of these things are big decisions and they never fucking end. Even worse, after making one (And even if you choose well) there is always the sneaking suspicion you could have chosen better. There’s an almost insidious nagging in the back of your mind that a different decision could have resulted in slightly more success or a somewhat happier lifestyle in general.

Is anyone else feeling queasy yet?

Want to fuck up a school aged child’s morning? Ask him what he wants for breakfast. Watch in amazement as his face goes completely still as he desperately considers everything from a bowl of cereal to an omelet. It’s breakfast, not brain surgery. Yet I’ve seen this simple question reduce kids to tears. However, should I ask that same child if he’d prefer oatmeal or a waffle, he’ll make his decision almost instantly and he’ll end up incredibly satisfied with what he picked out.

The moral here is simple. A few choices are good; too many choices are pure hell.

Lest you think this behavior is strictly reserved for children, I urge you to have a talk with a waitress. She can tell you firsthand how many times a day she renders her customers dumbfounded with a single question: “What can I get you to drink this evening?”

And $10 says her customers played the ‘Where do you want to eat?/I don’t know. Where do you want to eat?’ game before they even walked in the restaurant. $20 says they spend their entire meal wishing they would have gone somewhere else. It’s an almost impossible game to win.

A while back ago, I was listening to a lecture by a man who adamantly insisted that too many choices had a tendency to paralyze people mentally. He used a study researchers did on retirement plans as an example. Apparently, researchers found that the more retirement plans a company made available to its employees, the less likely said employees would participate at all. In some cases, employees were actively giving up generous offers from their employers to match their savings by thousands of dollars simply because the idea of picking out a retirement plan overwhelmed them.

The end result? A generation of people who will retire without a dime to their name.

If that doesn’t give you a pause, consider a study that was done on cancer patients and how they deal with their illness. Nowadays, Doctors fear accountability and lawsuits so much that rather than treat a cancer patient (Or any patient, for that matter) the best way they know how, they have gotten into the nasty habit of presenting sick, addled people with difficult decisions. Instead of just telling their patients what to do, they outline the costs and benefits of chemo, medication, surgery or multiple combinations of the three and then they ask the patient what should be done. The patient, in obvious fear of their life, usually always asks the Doctor, “What would you do if you were me?”

Without fail, the Doctor answers, “I’m not you, so you’re going to have to decide on your own treatment plan using the information I just gave you.”

Anyone want to take a guess at what some of the cancer patients decided? They chose to do nothing. Yes, that’s right, nothing. Faced with an overwhelming decision they were plainly unqualified to make in the first place, they went into full on avoidance mode. In essence, they chose to give up and die rather than pick out their own treatment plan.

My Grandmother, who was born in 1908 constantly referred to the 20’s as the ‘good ol days.’ Often, she’d tell me stories of her youth. As a child, she spent 12 hours a day working in a tire factory for pocket change that she had turn over to her parents at the end of the week. Her family consisted of 6 people, all crammed into a minuscule house and they ate chicken and cornbread almost every night. They lacked creature comforts like radios, televisions, and air hockey tables. Listening to my Grandmother’s tales, I found myself constantly wondering what was so fucking good about the ‘good ol days?’ As I saw it, the only indication I ever had that I wasn’t listening to a fucking horror story was the dreamy expression on my Grandmother’s face.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the mostly autobiographical ‘Little House’ series, wrote about her life in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s in a shockingly uplifting, joyously nostalgic tone. Furthermore, this was not something she did purposely in order to sell more books, either. People who knew the author personally insisted that Laura sincerely enjoyed growing up on the wild frontier.

It all sounds so preposterous, doesn’t it? After all, what could possibly be fun about living in a one room shack in the middle of nowhere without electricity or plumbing? What is so damn great about working all day, every day just to get by? How could anyone possibly describe a life full of famine, disease, poverty, oppression, and war as part of the ‘good ol days?’

In comparison, we have everything. Yet…yet…they were the happy ones. It doesn’t make sense. What did they have that we don’t?

I’ll tell you what they had: fewer choices to make. In the early 1900’s you could either become a farmer or you could run a shop. Typically, you picked the one you preferred and even if you were only somewhat successful, you considered yourself blessed. Everyone got married, had children, attended the only church available to them and called it a life well lived. No one stayed awake all night wondering what alternative path they could have taken out of millions simply because there weren’t a whole hell of lot of paths to take. Modern day life lacks the same simplicity and overall sense of well being our forefathers enjoyed.

Now we can go anywhere, we can be anything, and we can try everything. But instead of this making us feel liberated and free, it imprisons us.

How can so much choice be a good thing if it causes so many of us to bury our face in our hands in order to avoid making yet another decision?

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