A Matter of Choice

I remember someone telling me, “You always have a choice.” I’m sure it was probably after I’d done something wrong and had made an unwise decision that had gotten me into trouble, and it was probably my mum who said it. It’s true to some degree. We’re faced with choices every minute of every day from the moment we wake. Get out of bed or sleep a little longer, skip breakfast or bacon and eggs, pancakes perhaps? Bus or take the train? And so it goes throughout the day. Some psychologists estimate that the average adult makes upwards of 35,000 conscious choices per day.

Photo by Edward Lich

Some decisions are easier than others and some are so important that they’re life-changing. Decisions are usually behind those sliding door moments when our lives take a turn that we didn’t envision, like deciding to take a lunch break at the exact time a leggy blonde passes the door to the shop in which we work, saying hello and asking her out on a date. The choices we make can have consequences throughout our lives; they accumulate so that the impact has a knock-on effect, causing further decisions to be made as a result. They inevitably affect others and their choices. Sometimes we don’t even realise that we’ve made a monumental choice until later, and the next thing we know is we’re standing in front of the registrar with that same leggy blonde saying, “I do.” (50 years on and it’s still the best decision of my life)

Photo by Michael Bußmann

We weren’t always faced with such a vast number of decisions each day. Life in medieval times would certainly have been far simpler when it came to choices. I can imagine a Monty Python like scene: “What will we eat today, dear? How about oats? Or should we live dangerously and have some turnip broth? And what shall I wear to the pillaging, sheepskin or sackcloth? I think the sackcloth makes me look slimmer, don’t you?” Perhaps a return to simple would be easier on our anxiety levels, though our dress sense may suffer. Just choosing a coffee now comes with a certain degree of mental gymnastics. Flat white, latte, short black, mocha, cappuccino, skimmed or full-cream, sugar, sweetener or a sprinkling of cocoa? And would you like a donut with your coffee? Krispy Kreme has 25 varieties to choose from. It’s easy to see how decisions become so overwhelming because of the sheer number of choices we face during our modern daily routines. 

Photo by Nico Bhlr

So, what happens when we can’t choose, when the choices we face are too overwhelming? How do we cope when the decisions we’re about to make are so critical they’ll have an impact on our entire future? Choosing a career, a house, a move to a foreign country, these and others like them are complex choices and can’t be taken lightly, but they’re the type of choices we all confront at sometime in our lives. The experts tell us there are decision making strategies like writing out a list of pros and cons. Imagining and evaluating the consequences of each choice is also recommended by some as a decision making strategy, or looking at the problem more objectively in the third person in order to get a better perspective. Sounds easy enough in theory, but I reckon anxiety over choice comes from our emotional instincts rather than rationality; mostly we’re afraid of making the wrong choices.

Photo by Jan Vasek

I’ve always had an issue with choices; I’m cursed with liking everything (A bit of an exaggeration) and I don’t want to have to choose between stuff I like. It comes from a need to experience as many different things as I can possibly cram into my life while time allows. Take my career as an example. When I was young I wanted to be a vet, then a chef, then a merchant seaman or an artist; I’d have been happy with any of them had they materialized. Instead I’ve played at being a butcher, a civil engineer’s labourer, a fashion designer, a boatbuilder, a salesman and a company director to name just a few. There’s a huge gulf between designing women’s fashion and manning a jackhammer deep in a muddy underground shaft, but I enjoyed each job as much as the next. The same eclectic alternatives apply to other aspects of my life. I like modern houses, log houses, thatched cottages, old barn conversions; I’d live near the beach or high in the mountains; I could live on a boat or a farm. We’ve moved houses and countries so many times that home is where I hang my hat and I’ve loved every one. 

Photo by Alexas Photos

How do I make my choices then? Well, I don’t so much choose as go with the moment and the opportunities; I let the choice choose me. The point is, I find that I can’t easily rationalise my choices because, often, there’s not a clear-cut favorite to choose from. I go with my gut and roll the dice when it comes to making decisions. You’d think that this trait would make me indecisive but I find it has quite the opposite effect. I’ve always been quick to make decisions (some might say too quick) because most times I don’t see the downside. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I never look back with regret, except to say I’d change any decisions that might have hurt others. 

Photo by Esa Riutta

Despite my mum’s words, there’s not always a choice. We don’t choose where we’re born nor the environment in which we grow. Spare a thought for those born in conflict zones, children who face hunger and poverty, those born to abuse. In the end, choice is a privilege, one we should never take for granted. We all make good choices and bad ones, but ultimately we’re shaped by them. They define us, and as we grow older, we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives.

we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives