the downside of choice

the downside of choice - man thinking with arrows over head - The Best Advice So Far

Choice is a wonderful thing.

The advice from the very first chapter of my book, The Best Advice So Far – and, in fact, the central theme of both the book and blog – is this: “You always have a choice.” Here’s a quick snippet from Chapter 1:

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.

If you don’t accept this truth — that you always have a choice — if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice — now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person — you — can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we can not change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

best advice so far - you always have a choice - tweetable

This truth is, in fact, at the center of everything I write and speak about. I believe it to the core of my being. And I live out the practical ramifications of it in daily life.

As I say, choice – the awareness that, at every turn, we can choose – is a wonderful thing.

But it can also be a real pain in the neck.

There are some who bill themselves as motivational speakers and manage to make a pretty good living by carefully crafting presentations spoken in progressively louder tones that get audiences feeling all tingly and emotional, until everyone is bouncing on tiptoes, reaching toward the ceiling with spirit fingers and ecstatically chanting some pretty platitude that rhymes. There’s a real rock-and-roll atmosphere, like at a concert. And people cry and hug each other and exclaim how beautiful it all was.

And then those people drive home, feeling comfortably satiated with good vibes and that haze that comes over you when you’ve expended too much emotion at once. And when they get back, family and friends ask how the seminar was, and they smile and sigh and well up and use words like “amazing” and say things like, “It’s just too hard to explain.”

But then the next day comes.

And suddenly, that rhyme they chanted the day before has lost its ring and doesn’t quite sound like it did when they were crammed in elbow to elbow with hundreds of other strangers, shouting it out together as background music swelled. Today’s reality is feeling very real, while the magical mantras from yesterday are feeling … well, rather unreal.

I never want to be the type of writer or speaker or mentor who doles out snappy sound bites that give people momentary tingles – and yet which don’t make a difference in people’s everyday reality.

See, it’s all well and good to say, “You always have a choice.” But if that only works when the sun is shining and it’s 72 degrees and there’s a gentle breeze blowing and life is peachy keen – that is, if it only rings true when the choices at hand are easy – what good is it?

The reality is that, as wonderful and true as it may be, accepting that you always have a choice … comes with some potential downsides.

First, let’s face it – there can be a sense of something very close to comfort in believing I don’t have any choices. That things just are the way they are, and I can’t change them. C’est la vie (that is to say, “Life” is in control, I’m not).

So I have the job I have, right? I get up, brush my teeth, take a shower, get dressed, drive to work, do the job, head home, watch some TV, go to bed. And I do that every day – until the choice gets made for me otherwise. I get laid off. The company goes out of business. Then I apply to every place hiring and wait for someone else to make the choice to hire me. And when they do, I fall back into the daily routine. No thinking involved really. Perhaps a small stretch of worry, hoping that the universe does me right – or at least doesn’t entirely screw me over.  But that’s it. It’s easy.

Enter choice.

Well, now, I have to actually assess my life and my daily work. When I allow myself to believe that I always have a choice, then the reality now exists that every day, I am choosing to stay with this job.

This boss.

This unfulfilling work.

This departure from dreams and goals that used to excite me.

The word “responsible” suddenly takes on new meaning. It no longer refers simply to “doing what I am supposed to do” (i.e., fulfilling a choice that others have made for me). No, now the word “responsible” blows the lid off Pandora’s Box. Whereas before, the only thought was what I needed to do each day, I now begin to have to face the question of why.  And the matter of <why I do> takes much more brain space to consider than merely <what I do>.

Moreover, without an acceptance that we always have a choice, we allow ourselves free passes for bad behavior. In the book excerpt I included above, I talk about choice freeing us from victim mentality. But it also does away with “innocent perpetrator” mentality. You see, if I’m mean or I let my anger boil over and hurt someone, it’s easy to blame dead people somewhere back in my genealogy by laughing it off and saying, “What can I say, I come from an Italian family” or “I can’t help it, I’m Irish.”

The Best Advice So Far - Without an acceptance that we always have a choice, we allow ourselves free passes for bad behavior.

On the other hand, when I accept the notion of personal choice, then I have to consider personal responsibility, as well.

I have to consider the validity of others’ feelings and perceptions about me.

I have to consider, maybe for the first time, things like how to give a real apology.

I have to consider the hard work and potentially long road necessary in order for me to change my attitudes and behaviors.

The acceptance or denial of the existence of choice affects every area of life, really. I could never outline them all in a single post, but allow me one more example. When we ignore the reality of choice, the mentality of “Keep your head down and do what you have to do” makes complete sense. It’s reasonable. It’s an uncomplicated existence for the most part. And it applies to more than just work.

For instance, let’s say I’m at the gym. And let’s assume that I’ve accepted that going to the gym is routine, just part of “what I have to do.” I show up. I do my sets. My interactions are pragmatic, limited to perhaps asking people how much longer they’ll be using equipment I need. And then I go home.

But when I accept that I always have a choice, well, now things aren’t so cut and dry. It’s no longer “pick things up and put them down.” No, now every person around me represents a choice. And it’s not that I need to make the choice to talk to them all. Quite to the contrary, I don’t need to make any particular choice. But the awareness that I could – well, it changes things.

Just last night, I was at the gym quite late, as usual. I saw a guy I’d never seen there before, wearing a T-shirt that said “Muddy Waters” and bore a picture of the blues icon. In a world where awareness of choice isn’t involved – where you just “just keep your head down and do what you have to do” – I may not have even noticed his shirt. And if I did, it’d have been none of my business – no more than a vague thought like I know of that artist. It’s very me-centered. And me-centered living is easy.

But in my world, recognition of the little-known artist represented a choice: do I connect over this rare thing we have in common, or do I just keep working out? Neither choice would have been wrong; but the awareness of the choice definitely “interrupts life.”

I was mere minutes from being done with my workout. It was 1:30 in the morning. I could have been home by 2:00. In this instance, I chose to engage. “Hey, I’m Erik,” I said, reaching out my hand. “Muddy Waters, eh? Do you actually know his music, or is it just a graphic thing?”

Well, this serious-looking guy was suddenly all smiles. Yes, he did listen to Muddy Waters. And had I seen Cadillac Records? And did I know of Howlin’ Wolf? And somehow, somewhere along the way, this turned a corner into Charlie’s opening up to me about an unhealthy relationship he’d ended, and how he’d been hurt by it, and how he had trust issues, and how he had just had an argument with his new girlfriend before hitting the gym, and how he was really working hard to make this new relationship work.  And at every turn, that initial choice to say hello branched into new choices I needed to consider. Do I cut him off with, “Dude, that sucks, but I hope things’ll get better, see you around”? Or do I stay, listen, let him hash it out, ask solid questions and offer some insight that might help him make healthy changes? Tick-tock-tick-tock … 2:00 A.M … 2:30 …

Again, no choice would have been right or wrong here. But one thing’s for sure: that acceptance that you always have a choice comes with a lot more personal responsibility and potential for “life interruption” than an existence where all I have to do is “keep my head down and do what I have to do.”  Life’s no longer neat and compartmentalized. It gets messy. But it’s rarely boring.

It gets real. And a reality full of choices can be difficult. But it’s also ultimately fulfilling. There is no longer “the way it’s supposed to be” – only the way I choose to make it. It reminds me of a quote my phenomenal friend Chad added to his voicemail message: “There is no world, only six billion understandings of it.” ~ Drew Dudley

The Best Advice So Far - There is no world, only six billion understandings of it. - Drew Dudley

Speaking of quotes, Eleanor Roosevelt is famous for having said that “with freedom comes responsibility.”

But could it be that with acceptance of responsibility comes freedom? My experience thus far has led me to believe that the truth lies in both.

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