Having no Choice in a World of Choices, is also a Choice

One of my favorite ice cream shops in Italy is Gelateria Venchi. On my last trip to Rome I still remember the overwhelming experience of walking into this world-famous chocolate and ice cream shop to grab a gelato on a hot summer day.

The shop’s interior is very ornate, and gold trimmings abound the shelves filled with opulent stashes of thick chocolate bars and creamy chocolate truffles. There are all kinds of flavors to choose from: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, with hazelnut, pistachio, caramel, liquor, fruit filling, plus other exotic flavors. And that’s just the chocolate portion of this sweet shop.

Having too many options can feel debilitating

On the other side is where they sell their renowned ice cream. An extensive glass partition divides the salivating customers, as they try to decide what two scoops to choose out of at least 40 creamy flavors bursting out of their canisters.

In the back of the ice cream counter, you see a rich chocolate fountain streaming down the wall that stretches about 15 feet long. It’s an impressive display. All senses are engaged and the experience for someone like me, who goes nuts for desserts, is out of this world. If I could, I would just park my bed here and indulge in all this sugar and cocoa deliciousness until chocolate would run through my veins.

But since I can’t live in an ice cream shop, and I read enough about diabetes to know better about the harmful effects of sugar, I controlled my inner beast, and limited my indulgence to two scoops.

After a tough inner struggle, I finally managed to pick out two flavors for my cone: hazelnut and straciatella. The classic flavors that most Venchi fans appreciate. The process took half an hour just to be able to walk out with my ice cream cone onto Via del Corso.

Anyone serious about ice cream would understand that you can’t rush through such an experience. After all, we’re talking about indulging in some of the best ice cream in the world.

When we face too many options, it can be difficult to find the option that is right for us

Choices can be debilitating, indeed. If I only had three flavors to pick from, such as vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry, I would probably be eating my ice cream within 2 minutes of walking into the store. But faced with 40 flavors, I had difficulty choosing the one that would bring me satisfaction. And even after all that self-negotiation, I was still second-guessing my decision and wondered if indeed by picking straciattella and hazelnut, I made the right selection.

The dilemma of too many choices, too little time, and not enough experience

I think it’s similar to what many face in our western middle-class society today. An abundance of choices, and often too little time and experience to choose what’s right for us. It’s like giving a seven-year old a 20-page wine menu to pick out a bottle of wine that compliments a beef tenderloin and mushroom cream dish.

Given that the child probably hasn’t had a chance to sample any wine before, barring the legal ramifications if they did, and as such have not developed a palette for the settle aromas and tastes of a quality wine, their selection would probably be a shot in the dark. As an alternative, they could simply turn to the adult sitting next to them and have them make a selection.

Are you living a life based on your choices or the choices others made for you?

And that’s exactly what often happens when many of us face an important decision; we turn to our parents, family, friends, teachers, even governments or social media, to help us make the choice, and consequently tell us what to do.

The trouble with allowing others to influence our choices is that we give them the power to choose for us, but in the end we are the ones stuck with the consequences of these choices, not them.

They are not the ones stuck in a career you feel numb about. They are not the ones trapped in a loveless or destructive marriage. Nor, do they lose another night of sleep because of a crying child. You are the one living with the consequences of those choices, no one else will live them for you.

So before giving someone the power to choose for you, ask yourself if you are willing to live with the consequences of the choices you allowed others to make for you.

How relevant is past experience for a world of the future?

Certainly, asking the advice of someone who has experience, can be very helpful. But experience is based on the past, and that means it can be outdated in the present or the future.

Twenty years ago, my friend’s parents insisted that he study engineering. He was hesitant to go into that field because his passion was computers and he wanted to study programming. Nonetheless, he was good with math and listened to his parent’s advice, and spent five years learning engineering. Upon graduating, he ended up working in a cubicle for a big corporation, being paid the same wage as a dental assistant.

After three years of feeling stuck and miserable, he ended up quitting his job. And in 2004 my friend decided to start developing apps for smartphones. His parents were devastated, complaining that he was wasting his life on some silly computer games.

Now, his parents weren’t wrong for being concerned about his son’s decision to quit a stable job in order to develop apps. In their experience, a career in engineering was a safe and stable way of making a living. Meanwhile, developing apps was a complete gamble.

In my friend’s world, new developments in technology opened a whole new universe of opportunities, many of which his parents were not aware of in the year 2004.

In any case, my friend ended up running a very profitable company and today works from all corners of the world, rather than being stuck in a cubicle, like he probably still would be today if he made a decision based on his parents’ advice.

Having more choices can be more daunting than not having them

But making choices is not always easy. Especially today. To a generation or two before us, access to options was limited. About 60 years ago, if you needed to buy toothpaste, and walked over to a local pharmacy, you might have had one or two brands to choose from. Now, if you walk into most pharmacies, you have an entire isle of toothpaste brands and flavors to sift through. Similarly, if you were living in the 50s and were a woman, your choices were either to get married, stay at home and raise your children or become a school teacher, nurse, possibly a secretary. While becoming a CEO of a big corporation for a woman then was as likely as going to Mars. Today those options have changed, and many women have the opportunity of becoming a CEO if they want to. Marry if they want to, have a child or not, get a degree or go into the space program. An abundance of choices have been made possible for this generation, not just of women, but of men too.

But having access to a vast amount of options, doesn’t necessairly mean its easier to be a woman, or a man in today’s world. Having choices requires knowing how to choose right. And that’s not always easy.

When we’re presented with an abundance of options and don’t have a whole lot of experience in knowing how to choose, it can be difficult to make the selection that’s right for us. It doesn’t help either when cultural and social media pressures, paired with persuasive advertisements, clutter the path to a choice that’s best for us.

So if we don’t have enough experience to make the right choice, and we are faced with a debilitating amount of options, how do we choose? We can go with our gut. The trouble is that many of us have stopped listening to that gut feeling. And we ignore or dismiss our instincts because of doubt. Doubt that’s generated by cultural or religious pressures, communities, social media, politics, our own families even. And when we doubt our own instincts, we doubt ourselves, and therefore our choices.

Not having a choice is also our own choice

Making choice in a sea of choices is difficult, and making the right choice can be even tougher. But this is why more than ever we need to listen to our instincts when making a decision that will impact our life. And I am not referring to picking out toothpaste or an ice cream flavor; I am referring to making choices that shape our life and who we are. You want to have a big family, go right ahead. You want to be a bachelor and explore your sexual fantasies, have a blast. You want to travel the world or help build a school in Africa, make it happen. Today, more than ever we have lots of options to live the life we want to live. Don’t limit your options by giving others the power to choose for you.

Make choices based on your instincts.

Listen to your instincts. Feel comfortable with your selection. Accept it, carry on, and be at peace with the decision you made. And don’t compare the choices you made with other people’s choices, because that leads to self-doubt and eventually to fear of living the life you want to live. Remember that the choices others made are right for them, but don’t necessarily suit you. And that’s ok! They are not you, and you are not them.

Make your own choices and be happy with them.

Playing with leaves

About the illustration: Playing with Falling Leafs

In this picture I wanted to capture the feeling of joy while doing something as simple as playing with the falling leafs. I also wanted to show the richness and the abundance of the fall season as it relates to choices.

The different colors and shapes of leafs falling above the two excited boys, symbolize options. There are so many leafs, so many options, but so difficult to choose or to capture them all. Many leafs will fall by the wayside and won’t be captured. This symbolizes that we can’t have everything. We have limited time and resources, and space in which to choose from the pool of options presented to us. Every choice carries a different consequence, just like every leaf is different and unique.

And just like the wind blowing the leafs in the boys’ direction, so does chance bring different set of choices to different people. What is key is knowing how to choose from what is offered to us, and choose that which will make us happy. At the same time, it’s also important to learn how to let go of the options we didn’t choose.

Just like the two boys are looking up at the leafs falling from the bountiful canopies of the trees, so should we look at the opportunities and choices still ahead, rather than look at the fallen leafs. Let go of the regret about our past choices. Because by looking down at the leafs on the ground, or the options we did not select, we might miss the many wonderful opportunities still ahead of us.


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