Friday, September 17, 2010

Choice and Trajectory

Now that I'm back to my regularly scheduled brain programming, I've got a bit to throw at you. I'm going to try to put it into words, but bear with me because sometimes this brain to fingers things doesn't work so well and I just spit out jibberish. But at least I know its jibberish that is trying to get somewhere and maybe will eventually! Jibberish with a purpose! (if I ever write a book...that's going to be the title!)

We had our wedding. It was great. It wasn't perfect. But it was great, and it was ours. Would I have done things differently? Yes, of course. But looking back... we did things the way we did for a reason. Some reason. Some of those reasons I can remember, some I can't. Some were stupid...some were very thoughtful.

All of this to point out the process. Planning a wedding, we are focused so much on that one day. Not even one day, usually, but a few hours in that one day. But when its all over, that one day is a bright flash and we realize that planning a wedding may be as much about the wedding as it is about the planning. That journey changes us as individuals, couples, families. And at the end of this journey, when you are done with the wedding, you are able to take a step back and look with wide open eyes at what happened.*

I want to run with two topics: choice and trajectory.


In my last post, I included a link to Barry Schwartz's talk about choice.** In one fateful comment section, Jenny posted this video. I watched it and it has since been continuing to blow my mind. Its a really simple talk and concept, but it has forced me to change the way I think about choice. Because I was that person! That paralyzed person in front of the salad dressings or the tooth paste going "WTF!? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY KINDS OF TOOTHPASTE!!!" and then I would read the labels, trying to make the best choice. Because there are so many! And one has to be the best, right!? And of course I want the best! AHH!!!


Phew. Ok, I'm back. Here is a quick summary of his talk (and by quick I kinda long...) in case you can't watch it.

So his talk basically says this: too many choices makes people unhappy. It does this in a few ways. First, with so many choices comes paralysis. When faced with that wall of toothpaste, I freeze! How to pick one tube out of that entire wall?!? Then, when you do choose that one tube, as Schwartz says, "We end up less satisfied than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from."..."The way in which we value things depends on what we compare them to"..."When there are lots of alternatives to consider, it is easy to imagine the attractive features of alternatives that you reject that make you less satisfied with the alternative that you've chosen."

Next, with all these choices, we end up expecting more. If there is one option available, you get what you get. But when so many choices are present, you immediately expect more. Out of all these options of salad dressing, toothpaste, jeans, etc. there better be one that is the perfect option for me! Of course nothing is perfect, but we build up our expectations when we have more choice and those expectations are always let down.

Schwartz says, "The reason everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise." Yes, yes, yes.

His final reason why choices make us miserable (#4 below) is self blame. When there is only one choice and that one choice isn't perfect for you, who do you put the blame on? Whatever company, institution, group or whatever that limited your choice to that one pair of jeans. But when there are many, many options and the one chosen isn't perfect for you, now who do you blame? Yourself. You should have chosen better, should have found the perfect one, should have X, Y, or Z.

This totally rings true in my life. I'm always looking for better. I'm always trying to make the best choice I can. But am realizing that all of this is setting myself up for failure. I can't possible win this game.

On our honeymoon we were traveling around California - a new place for both of us - and I noticed that, while we were having a great time, nothing was a surprise. Nothing was blowing us away. There was no room for "experiences that were a pleasant surprise." I've seen too much on TV or in movies or in magazine that I expect AMAZING. I expect mind blowing.

I've jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet and wasn't blown away. WTF!?

Ok, I'm going to stop here with choices before my head explodes. (even though that would be a mind blowing experience and a definite surprise!)

I had this friend, once upon a time, who was uber critical. Of the world, of himself, of everyone else. He was not very fun to be around at this time because he expected nothing less than saint-like behavior. If you weren't doing everything you possibly could to be a saint citizen, you fail. I got pretty upset with him and his expectations. Yes, people can do better, but no, you cannot expect then to make such sudden changes in their lives with just a little nudge.

We are all on our own paths. These paths are the cumulation of our choices and our past. And we will generally keep going in the same direction. That is our trajectory. It takes more than a little nudge, a little critical thought, to change this trajectory. It has to be a shift from one direction to another - not a jump to a whole new track.

Angie sent me a story the other night which is a perfect compliment to the thought about choice and a great example of trajectory. It describes how we naturally think about the story of our lives and are continually adjusting how we think the story is going to end.

We've reached a new chapter - marriage - and now I don't know what the end of the story is going to look like. There are so many choices and so many possibilities and I'm not sure how to proceed and where to go. I definitely have to let go and stop feeling responsible for making the 'perfect' choice. Its not about the destination, its about the journey, right?

But where do I want to journey to?

What story do I want my life to tell?

How do I make such big choices without freaking the F out!?!?

*note that I try to keep the wedding theme with this post but then never pull through with it! choice and trajectory would definitely be neat to explore in explicit wedding planning terms, but I'm going to go with the broad 'life choices' for this post. Now lets go tangent, shall we? **little plug for TED. With its hours of thought provoking videos, its like etsy for my brain.


  1. This is such a great post, Jen.
    With choices: You can't "unknow" how many choices there are for EVERYTHING. You can't convince yourself that you have fewer choices because you're an intelligent girl.

    All you can do is choose. Do your best to know what there is out there for options and live with the "meh" of it all after.

    Have you read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell? Great book that suggests we make just as good of a choice in the blink of an eye as we do after agonizing over all of the options available.

    I wish the questions of life still had yes or no answers. I understand where you're coming from, but you know you'll make the right choice. The good news is, unlike the whole "There are no 'right' answers.." There are no wrong answers. The choices you make can't be bad/good because they make up your life. Luckily, the choices that can be bad/good (Buying a terrible tasting toothpaste that stains your teeth a light, decaying brown color all over) objectively, are tiny decisions in your life.

    I hope that helped/made sense/didn't sound completely off-the-wall.

    Sorry for the novel.

  2. One thing to always keep in mind is that you can always change your life's trajectory. I feel like there is so much pressure on us to choose a path early in life and stick to it. By the time we are 30 we should have a clearly laid out road map. But that's society's expectations, and we don't have to follow it. If we ever decide, this isn't the direction for me, we can veer in another way.

    Hopefully this perspective might take off some of the pressure to pick a trajectory. If you remember you can always go somewhere different, it lightens the stress.

    But it is important that whenever you decide to take a new path, to communicate with your partner. That way both of you are walking the same direction. Because if one person changes course, and the other continues straight, that's when marriages fall apart.

  3. Interesting thoughts about choice and trajectory. Our pre-marital counselor told me something when I was all freaked about about "The Right Choice." She said I should re-frame that idea in my head and instead think of choices as just choices, each one with various consequences. You make a choice and then deal with the effects of that choice. She realized the idea of a Right Choice and a Wrong Choice were making me feel unable to make a choice at all (which of course ends up being a choice eventually!), out of fear of making the wrong one. This idea has helped me a lot. (Though I would still say some things are a wrong know morally or legally bad choices or whatever.) :)

  4. You are so right about too many choices being completely overwhelming.

    P.s. Sorry I've been away. I've gone and missed everything!