The Frightening Power of Choice

I was somewhere in my early to mid twenties the first time I realized that life wasn’t about a destiny set out for us by something else. Sure, life puts up obstacles sometimes, but I remember really believing that life was more or less planned. Not the details, but the big stuff. At some point I was gonna meet someone who I would marry and the two of us would have kids and I would buy a house and work a job and retire one day. Family trips and reunions and weddings and all that would pop up in there as well.

It’s not that I believed that I had no choice in the matter. It just seemed like the only choice available. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, but the small corner I lived in was a town called River Oaks. And it felt like despite being completely surrounded by Fort Worth, River Oaks still felt and acted like a small town in the middle of nowhere. Lotta old people. Hardly any ‘rich’ people. Most people seemed to know most everyone else. Old men gathered at the Whataburger at 5AM to drink coffee and hang out. And it seemed to me at the time that everyone went through a very similar cycle of life akin to the one I described above.

I went to college close to home, so I didn’t get the experience of living in a new state or metro area even, but I did get exposed to a few new types of people. My horizons expanded somewhat, but even still a lot of people I knew back then assumed they would get married and have kids at some point.

But after graduation I didn’t get an amazing job or anything. I moved back in with my parents and worked two part time jobs close to home. Something wasn’t right. You see, my life was basically planned and this was the point I was supposed to meet my future wife, get a great job and live on my own. None of those things happened my first year out of college. So, I did something slightly unusual for people from River Oaks. I moved to a new state by my own choice. Most of the people I knew growing up stayed in Fort Worth, or at least the state. And the ones who moved to a different state usually did so because of the military.

Even my move to Chicago wasn’t wholly my choice. I did it because three of my close friends wanted to move there and pursue improv. So, I jumped on that bus – actually it was a Penske truck, but you get the metaphor. After living in Chicago a while the thought occurred to me for the first time that I may never live in my hometown again. I didn’t think I would stay in Chicago forever, but the fact that I uprooted myself once meant I could likely do it again as many times as I wanted. That kind freaked me out. Extrapolating, I realized that this also meant that where I would live the majority of my life is as of yet unknown. Then I realized that a lot of things in life are unknown. Wait a second…

I didn’t have to get married or have kids. I didn’t have to do anything except die when my life was over. Everything else was my choice. Oh crap! That means I’m the one flying the plane! Up until this point I felt like a passenger. I had a few decisions to make like if I wanted cranberry juice or coke, but regardless of those choices, the plane was still gonna land in the same place. But now… Now every choice I makes mean completely affecting every future possibility.

I was half exhilarated and half scared to death. I was happy that I didn’t feel a requirement to have children. I never felt a natural desire to be a parent other than the fact that everyone of age seemed to be doing that in my hometown. But I was scared, because this literally meant that it was my choice to create a specific person or not. And that was way too much pressure.

Studies have shown that when given many choices, humans tend to not make up their minds nearly as quickly or as often as when they are given fewer choices. Here’s a citation on that: And it also shows that too many choices can leave us feeling unsatisfied with our choice. That’s crazy! And it’s very informative.

I look at life right now like a Rube-Goldberg device (if you don’t know that is, watch this Ok Go video ) that I’m building. So, that means that if I don’t build the first four dominos in a particular way, there’s no way they can knock down the other set of dominos. Physics demands that one domino touches another to knock it over. I can’t put four in a row and then leave six inches of space and put four more. They have to connect. For life this means that whatever choices you make now have to line up in a particular way in order for you to achieve a specific outcome. There may be many different choices that’ll lead you to the same outcome, but overall there are millions of decisions you’ll make (maybe billions?) and there are definitely many many ways to choose that disallow you to achieve a particular goal.

For example, if you wanna be a DJ on the radio, one choice you could make would be to attend a higher education school to teach you. I worked on my college radio for example. Had I stuck with it, I could have theoretically become a professional DJ on a major market stations at some point. However, I personally know a few people who have on-air radio shows and did not go that route. One girl I know is part of a morning zoo show because she got a bit of fame on a season of American Idol and parlayed that into a radio job. She never went to school. So, there are two choices right there that lead to the same point. But no matter how many total number of choices could get you to be a professional radio DJ, there are obviously a much much larger number of potential choices to prevent you from ever becoming a radio DJ.

My point is that, literally when I go to bed or what emails I choose to read, or whether or not I skip shaving for a few days are all examples of choices that could on any day have a huge effect on my future. Here’s a real life example: I was FB friends with a guy I’d never actually met because I’d seen him perform and we had a bunch of common friends. He lived in LA and I happened to be on FB when I saw him post looking for a room to film a scene. I had such a room in my apt building (thanks to a number of choices I made when looking for an apartment) and offered it to him. He shot his short film there and as a thank you offered me a small part. So, I literally have an imdb credit because I happened to be on FB at that time and he happened to post that and I happened to have what he needed.

All decisions presented to you only come in the wake of the millions of decisions you’ve already made. So, now I feel the pressure. Anything I do could really effect everything else I ever do. It’s the classic stone makes ripples in a pond analogy. So, here I am with this horrible realization that I have the power to make my own choices and that too many possibilities necessarily negatively affect the human brain when making a choice and how we feel about after we made it.

I really wish I could go back to that ignorant version of myself that had this calming feeling that I only had a few minor choices to make, but the big stuff was taken care of for me. Part of me doesn’t want that, because it involves permanently forgetting knowledge about the universe, but the other part of me values happiness over knowledge.

So, here I am 33 years old, never married, no kids and the weight of millions of future scenarios resting on every minute decision of my life. I still feel good about not ever having kids, but most everything else feels pretty up in the air right now. The only thing I feel I really know for sure is that I’d rather not be miserable in any shape, way, form or fashion if that’s possible. Or at least drastically minimize any misery to a 5% or less ratio the rest of my life. I’m not saying I’m miserable right now. I feel I do good at keeping it near the 10-15% range most of the time.

So, I ask you, how do you cope with the knowledge that every decision has far reaching effects? How do you make any choice knowing that you literally have the power to make one of millions of possible choices with every decision you are presented? Does it bother you at all? Do you not really care? And if so, how did you get to that point? I would like to get there, because I feel like I have no idea which choice to pick when it comes to life decisions most of the time.

Thanks, y’all!


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