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The Power and Paralysis of Choice

When I talk to my kids about school, I talk about choice.  It has always seemed to me that the more choice you have in life the better.  So I encourage my kids to take a variety of courses, be active inside and outside of the classroom and do their very best at whatever they tackle.  In doing so, I believe that they will have a variety of options available to them when it comes to further education, employment and all the other things life has to offer.  They will have more choice.

In my final year of high school, I decided to drop all my science courses in favor of extra spare periods that meant I only had two classes in my final semester..  This would allow of course, extra time for studying while at school during spare periods (socializing), university prep (spending time with my boyfriend) and planning my future (going to bars and dancing all night).  As a result, the choice of becoming a marine biologist was removed from the table as an option.

All I want for my kids is for them to as much choice as possible when it comes to what they want to do in life and so these are the conversations we have:

Are you taking chemistry in your final year?
Should you do you think?
I don't need it for computer science.
Don't you?
But what if you want to do something with computer engineering?
Then I would need chemistry.
So maybe you should take chemistry.
I don't want to do computer engineering.
But you might?
I won't.
Are you SURE?
I'm just saying....

I have been lucky in life in that while I am not training dolphins (wouldn't that be cool!!!) making the choice to drop my science classes helped sharpen my focus on my other dream--to become a teacher--which I began to pursue with enthusiasm in my final months of high school.  I didn't see the lesson at the time, but by closing one door, I could focus my attention on one thing instead of dividing it among many.

My father used to say, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans". 

A distinct chuckle could
be heard each time I opened another rejection letter from another teacher's college.  

With that choice unavailable,  I chose to take a year off and traveled Australia (creating more fantastic memories!) only to return to more rejection letters and a temporary job as a receptionist, followed by a letter about a waiting list and eventually, admission to teacher's college!

The Power of Choice

So why do I espouse the virtue of choice when my experience only proves that often having fewer choices can not only help you focus, but also by having choices taken away, you are encourage you to take risks, go on adventures, and have amazing experiences?  Are fewer choices better?  Do we only consider taking risks when our target choice is unavailable?

I learned a valuable lesson about choice when I went to visit my Sista Perfectionista at a bookstore for coffee.  It was at a midway point between our houses in a retail plaza and adjacent to a store I had been wanting to visit. I had ordered their coffee pods on line for both of my individual coffee/tea brew machines (yes I like coffee so much I have two different brewers), but I had never visited the store.  I was looking forward to checking our their stock, and saving shipping charges.

She texted me that she was at the bookstore and I texted back that I was about to enter the coffee place. The storefront was small.   I told her I would only be a few minutes.

Smooth, rich, deep waves of spicy warmth washed over me as I swung open the door and stepped inside.  I closed my eyes and inhaled morning peace.    

Wispy tendrils of pleasure chemicals oozed through my brain.  My body melted in the luxury.

This was a moment to pause time.  But instead, I opened my eyes and stepped into the store. Faced with rows upon rows of boxes and individual discs and pods, stacked six high that seemed to vanish into the horizon, I stood slack jawed and brain dead.
I probably could not have told you my name if asked. Everything shut down.

I blinked a few times, trying to break the spell of whatever had hijacked my brain.  After all, this was only a pit stop before....before....  Wasn't I supposed to be doing something important?  I had somewhere to be.

Oh yes, I was meeting Sista.  I would have to text her that I would be late. Really late. Yup.

This was a perfect example of how today, we have so much choice, so many options available to us it
becomes too overwhelming for our brain and we either spend so much time analyzing our options to find the perfect solution which creates so much anxiety we decide nothing or we just make random choices with no information and then later, berate ourselves as we play out all the missed perfect scenarios in our head.

Or we just walk away.

Standing with my mouth open, eyes unable to focus on any one thing as they scanned the coffee/tea continuum, I took a step backward toward the door, colliding with a staff member.

Hands clasped in front of him, eyebrows knitted together in concern and pity, he spoke softly, trying not to spook an already freaked out potential sprinter.  He had cleverly blocked my exit to the door.

JUST LOOKING! I blurted.
I can see that.
Yes there is. Isn't it great!
This is your first time here?
I'm Trevor. (he extended his hand)  Let me explain how the store is arranged.

Extending his hand like a life preserved to the drowning,  I dragged my reluctant gaze away from the abyss, and concentrated on his smile. I shook his hand and the spell was broken.

Fifteen minutes later,  I had collected what I had come for, found some interesting new coffees for both my machines, joined their points program and vowed to return, thanking Trevor for his assistance.

So what happened?  How did I go from paralysis to action?  When I discussed my experience with The Spouse, who lives and breathes sales, he helped me put labels to the steps that Trevor led me through. 

Identify Your Goal(s)
Recognizing my 'deer in the headlights' look, Trevor kindly asked what brought me in to the store. My eyes raked the shelves a He looked nice enough.  Suddenly the fog cleared around us and I could focus.  I wanted coffee, for my two different machines. Having a goal is key to successfully navigating your way to a decision.   Write it down.  Things become important and clear when you write them down.

Unable to evaluate the thousands of options, my brain then processed the whole inventory as one huge, image made up of a million parts. 

It was like trying to watch 300 in an IMAX theatre.  You risk whiplash trying to see it all.  And so my brain shut down.  Information overload.  Gone Fishing.  Out of Business.  Vacancy....
Now that I had identified my goal, out load to Trevor, I felt my confidence return.

Assess the Importance of Each Goal

I actually had three goals when I came in the store.  Get coffee for machine A, get coffee for machine B and get to the bookstore to meet my Sista Perfectionista.  I expressed these to Trevor.

My priority was to get to my date with Sista and I decided at that moment that if Trevor could successfully illuminate a quick path to A and B, I would stay.  Otherwise I would browse for five minutes and then come back another time. 

Package Your Options

Using the information I provided about my goals, Trevor could now deconstruct the overwhelming image COFFEE,  framing the choice and determining what options were considered as subjects to factor.

First he described how the store was laid out, starting with my area of interest.  This side of the store was for coffee for machine A and B.  The other side was for other types of machines. This helped me cut the huge image in half.

Within each broad category; individual cups here....packages there....and he drew my attention to the signage that indicated decaf was in one location, all "regular coffee" in another and all flavored coffee in another isle.  As a librarian, used to using signage for way finding I had been so overwhelmed with choice, so paralyzed, I hadn't even seen them. 

Evaluate Your Options

Visual and verbal cues help the brain process information so I was able to further carve up the store into even smaller parcels of information my brain could handle.  A shifting priority list of what would fulfill my needs began to quickly form in my head.   I was evaluated as Trevor spoke so I could achieve both my coffee goal and my bookstore date with Sista in a timely manner.

To assist with my evaluation I asked a number of questions about price, flavored coffee and how to collect the individual cups.  He responded, and with this new information, identified a special area of the store where limited edition flavors were available. Then he took me to the barista at the back of the store who would make me any drink of my choice if there was something I wanted to taste.

Confident I could now make my goal, I thanked Trevor for his excellent help and started selecting.  (Sadly, I did not revise my goal list to include taste testing, however tempting that was.)

Make Your Choice(s)

I skipped the decaf isle and went straight for the individual flavors.

At less than a seventy-five cents a cup, I knew even if I chose one I did not particularly like, I was not risking much.  I was able to quickly select 24 cups.   My gut plays a key role in choice, so while I had a logical, linear plan, I still rely on intuition when it comes to the fine details, like whether caramel combustion or salted caramel was going to make the cut (I got both).

When I got stuck, I looked to "staff picks".  As "coffee experts" I concluded (correctly or not) that there must be something in that particular coffee that stood out over all the others (could be that had an overstock but hey, I was in a hurry so...) 

In a time crunch, with little at risk, I chose to rely on someone else's instincts.  Trevor had been my guide to the store.  I relied on an 'expert' gut in this case.

Next I quickly navigated to the isle for boxes of coffee and selected three packages of coffee that I knew and liked.  This made me feel more comfortable with the risks  I had taken with the individual cups.

Satisfied I finally headed for the cash, thanked Trevor again for his amazing service and headed to the bookstore where I met Sista and regaled her with my adventure in coffee wonderland.

The universe didn't chuckle at me that day.  I clearly identified mygoals, prioritized them, learned my options, evaluated them and aligned them with my goals, made my choice(s) and achieved my goal(s), 
Choice can be overwhelming and my"go to" is often getting caught in a circle of evaluation, always hoping the next thing I look at will be the exact perfect thing and if I settle too soon, I will always regret not continuing the search.  This leaves me frustrated, anxious and often leads to a feeling of hopeless or helplessness and depression at all the wasted effort if I don't actually make a choice (which is often) and I feel like my head is going to explode.
If Trevor had not blocked my path out of the store I probably would have bolted.  But instead, he provided me with a quick model I can use for both simple and complex goals. 

As I continue my soul work, I will add this to my tool box as a framework for helping me move through some decisions when I find myself stuck in that loop of "what if..." or "what about..."

Life would be a bit easier if we approached everything using this sort of goal setting model.  Suddenly what to have for dinner, how to clean my closet and how to deliver a multimillion dollar capital project on time and under budget at work seems much more simple. 

But we are human, and we have emotions and our life experiences color how we face this world full of choice.  It is not as simple as having a plan all the time.  However, I would suggest that this model offers a life line when you feel you are drowning or paralyzed by anxiety, depression and indecision. 

I will certainly go back to the coffee place.   I now live in the comfort zone --thanks to Trevor.

Next time you are faced with choice.  Take a moment to really feel what is happening in your body.  Be aware that we live in a time of overwhelming choice and cut yourself some slack. 

Get your favorite coffee, take a breath, find a friend, find an "expert", talk it out, write it down, whatever works.  Take back the power of choice. 


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