Choice is not always our friend

Ever found yourself rooted to the spot? Overwhelmed by choice, unsure what to buy? 30 sorts of cooking oil, 23 brands of shampoo, 15 types of eggs. The issue is not what. It’s which.

Renata Saleci is a Professor of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Law (an interesting combination). This is her talking about the paradox of choice. She is originally from Slovenia, the first former communist country to join the Eurozone in 2007. This is what Professor Saleci says about that time of flux: “At the end of Communism we had a feeling that rights and choices had been finally secured for us. And suddenly a possibility of social change might happen.” But it didn’t go that way because there was too much choice.

Saleci says that we are “frozen in some kind of state of indecisiveness when there are too many choices.” But our decision-making isn’t at fault. It’s because society creates choice at every level of our lives since “choice is a domineering idea on which capitalism is based.” We are racked with uncertainty, like deer in the headlights because:

1) “We choose what other people are choosing. We are obsessed with how others will regard us… It is a very social matter.” 

2) We try to make ‘ideal’ choices. It’s “why people are constantly switching telephone providers, or going from one partner to another, and always feel dissatisfied.” 

3) Choice “always involves a lossWhen I choose one direction in life, I lose the possibility of another.” And loss is just as anxiety provoking as choice.

4) Our ideology “forces us to perceive ourselves as being guilty for the failures in our life. Especially in our professional life.” The problem is we think we have control over our lives. We forget that our good fortune may be down to chance. 

Capitalism capitalises on the idea that everyone can make it. The idea of self-made man is the corner stone of this ideology. But today this idea of self-making has been pushed to its utter limits. So, everyone can become a celebrity. Everyone can make it. This very much dominates society.” 

Saleci may have been aware of Psychologist Barry Schwartz and his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: why more is less. This is him in 2005 on a TED talk. Schwartz says the official dogma of Western industrialised societies is that maximising freedom maximises citizens’ welfare. “Freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own, to do the things that will maximise our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf.”

The idea of choice is “so deeply embedded in the water supply that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to question it.” But too much “produces paralysis rather than liberation” and the more we have, “the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option you chose.” 

So, we’re back to oil in the supermarket. Five types = helpful. Thirty = we can’t think straight. If it’s hard selecting oil, what about choosing a career? I spoke to 100 people going through career change in my Spoon by Spoon conversations. Forty-eight percent talked about “choice” and 44% discussed “options.”  

Kristine worked at a consulting firm and had little choice over her projects. “They said you can put in your request for what you want to work on. But really, we were just put on what was available and where they needed you. You were not really empowered to make your own choices. You’re forced to do what you were told.”

One project stood out. “We were at this remote location. We had to live at this strange airport hotel, so it was really hard to go outside. I couldn’t go for a run because it was right next to the runway. And I was very stressed and there was only one restaurant so I felt I couldn’t even decide what I was eating. And I was away from my partner.” She felt that she was “imprisoned in this consultant lifestyle. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.”

Louisa worked as a fashion buyer and wanted to leave but felt overwhelmed with ideas about what she could do instead. “I think for ages I was a bit ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was stuck and I was procrastinating… there are things like fear of failure and perfectionism and fear of being vulnerable.”

Phil felt trapped in his work. “I wanted to get out of that. It was in the factory. It was working long hours. It was unpredictable hours. I had been doing that for a number of years in different environments. And I felt as though I’d narrowed down my options to a point where I could only do that job. And I could only do that job in the industry I was in, which is quite small.”

Alma’s work in HR was challenging and inflexible and she found it hard to look after her son. “In the end I really had no choice but to leave because it was going to kill me in not that long a period of time. It was that bad… I thought, I’ve got a son. I want to enjoy that experience for the period it lasted and I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t continue being torn.”

Suzanne worked for her employer in different countries. At the start she loved the travel and different cultures. However, over time she realised she wanted to do something else. But what? She was thrown into indecision when she was offered another posting. “Oh God, what do I do? Do I go to Madrid? Do I not? What am I doing? I just couldn’t sleep, or I’d get off to sleep okay, but wake up a hundred times during the night.” The options were so different – Madrid or go back home without a job. She felt the dilemma was “overwhelming and it was too much.”

Like anything in life, we generally want what we don’t have. Feeling trapped without choices? We picture freedom and opportunity. Feeling overwhelmed with options? All we want is simplicity. So how to square that circle? Here are a few suggestions that might help:

Mindset shift: Even if you have no options, you can shift how you frame the problem. Ask yourself what else do I get from this role, apart from job satisfaction? For example:

  • Does it make me feel safe/do I have good friends here?
  • Am I learning anything, even if it’s clarity about what I don’t like? 
  • What skills have I gained – tenacity, patience, empathy?
  • Can I do more training – are there courses I can go on or volunteering opportunities?
  • Are there other benefits – will they match my pension if I increase my contributions, are there other resources/services I’m not using?  

Wood and trees: Sometimes we don’t think we have choice when we do. Perhaps we’re not seeing the bigger picture because we’re confused, or our thinking stops us from seeing the options. 

  • Try creating a mind-map of all the opportunities that might be available. Let your imagination fly, don’t hold back. Write down all the wildest possibilities that could be. 
  • For each one, identify someone who could help you move that idea forward. 
  • Pick one idea and go and talk to that person. Don’t be shy, people generally like to help. And don’t forget to quieten the negative voices in your mind for a while.
  • See if you can move that idea forward. Just step by step. Don’t overreach. If it doesn’t work out, see it as an experiment. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. 

Dilemmas a go-go: the problem with choice is it’s sometimes between apples and pears. 

  • When we’re not weighing up the same thing, either choice can bring us benefit. Role A has a great salary, but we think we’ll dislike the work. Role B will be really satisfying but it’ll make us as poor as a church mouse. 
  • This is philosopher Ruth Chang on a TED talk in 2014 – “hard choices are hard, because there is no best option.” 
  • Chang advocates ignoring rational weighing up of benefits and instead “becoming the authors of our own lives.” We need to be aware of the reasons we want to (rather than ought to) make a choice. “Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here.” 
  • Otherwise, we drift into choices “allowing the world to write the story of our lives” letting reward and punishment, “pats on the head, fear, or the easiness of an option” determine the choices we make.  

And what about easier selections, like oil in a supermarket? I suggest you don’t follow my lead as I use gut instinct and chance: dive in, pick the first thing I see, run out. It makes for interesting conversations and meals. “Did you mean to get rice bran oil?”


 This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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