The paralysis of choice has long been identified by philosophers as an obstacle to action and contentment. In this post, we discuss the root of this paralysis and how it plays out; the choices that emerge from more honest self-reflection; and a formula for executing these choices, for those intent on mapping their actions to their aspirations.
Self-limitation & the paralysis of choice
A while back, we shared a clip on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and his notion of mauvaise foi – or bad faith. As the School of Life video that heads this post puts it, bad faith occurs when we lie to ourselves in order to spare ourselves short-term pain, but suffer from long-term self-impoverishment as a result. Sartre was dismayed by our readiness to lie to ourselves through the illusion that we don’t have options, particularly on the subject of work. You can read more about it in his landmark piece, Being and Nothingness.
His discussion of bad faith reflects a key theme of existentialist philosophy: the paralysis of choice, which Kierkegaard highlighted as the root of our discontent. One way of looking at it is that we often fail to exercise, or even consider, our options because if we did, their sheer breadth would be overwhelming. We’re paralysed by our own freedom of action, and immobilised by the opportunity cost of pursuing one path over another. This often derives from an extreme fear of failure, made all the more acute in an age where (only) images of success are flaunted online, and personal achievement is expected instantly.
So, in order to avoid the angst of recognising – let alone choosing between – infinite options that may or may not lead to personal success, we engineer our thinking to avoid having to take ownership of that freedom. We subtly narrow our options until we’ve created a logic of self-entrapment, which we can then begrudge whilst living conveniently within it.
This form of self-sabotage leads us to comfort ourselves with stories that don’t quite reflect our reality but give us permission to justify our inertia. They give us reasons to believe we can’t really change careers, or pursue further study, or start/end relationships, or move abroad, or get in good shape, or tame our emotions in favour of reason, because… because… because… *reasons*.
It’s worth stopping for a moment to consider the cost of this approach to life. The (surprisingly many) people willing to discuss this topic with me honestly seem to begrudge the narrowness and relative hollowness this thinking imposes on their existence. They talk of pursuing goals or of operating within environments that aren’t truly those they aspire to, but are ones they’ve talked themselves into seeing as inevitable.
When they finally achieve those goals or rise to prominence within those environments, they’re only momentarily content, because those things aren’t what they truly aspired to. And so begins a cycle of dissatisfaction, where contentment is seen as always lying just beyond the horizon, if only a few more steps forward can be made on their current path. What they don’t want to contemplate is that perhaps it’s not where they are on the path that’s causing their disgruntlement. It’s the path itself.
This post is a summary case study on how I managed to overcome this self-limiting bullshit and work my way towards a path that allows me to do me and, perhaps as a result, feels more successful than the past.
2015 to 2017 was the period in which personal agency finally displaced bad faith as the driving force in my life, particularly professionally. I’d like to share with you what became possible as a result and the formula for progress I applied to myself.
But first, let’s rewind briefly.
In 2015, when Patrick and I decided to turn our backs on the significant salary and status of being commercial lawyers at an élite firm, it was more a rejection of a future we couldn’t support than a positive choice to pursue other work instead. Sure, we committed to The Great Everything because it – or some variant of it – is a passion project for life. But we didn’t have a direct trajectory to income, nor any ready-made employment to glide into.
But, leaving law and starting The Great Everything freed us up to envisage futures that might actually be… dare we use the F word… fulfilling. Only after several months of work and space did we manage to overcome the paralysis of choice and fine-tune our respective ambitions:
For Patrick, a commitment to sharing culture and philosophy as tools for human betterment, with the ambition of one day becoming a respected, socially-engaged thinker – this would initially mean transitioning from the lawyer experience to a Masters degree and Doctorate in Philosophy;
For me, the audacity to completely rebuild my profile and become a social-impact strategy consultant, with the prospect of learning a ton in fields I specifically wanted to learn about, making an impact in areas of need, and creating bridges to my future life aspirations – this would mean devoting a lengthy stint to acquiring relevant experiences on low pay, prolific networking, and preparing for the most demanding interviews I’d ever face.
In both cases, the result was a win, although progress was slow and non-linear.
Here’s the process we followed. While I view it as the theoretical formula for success in a variety of contexts involving personal agency over the paralysis of choice, I’d underline the extreme patience, self-belief and hard work it demands.
A Formula for Progress
1. Define your objectives and believe in their feasability
Self-awareness is fundamental to working out what your true objectives should be.
My approach was to take a very macro-level look at my life and define a few broad pillars I wanted to be able to say I’d lived by, one day when I’m (hopefully) old and wrinkly. From there, I drilled down into the micro-level to determine what kind of professional experience (in this case) would best enable me to fulfill those objectives.
Why did I equate my career with my life goals? Well, work is 50-75% of our waking hours. It’s our best opportunity for creating the impact and meaning we aspire to (unless you’re extremely wealthy). To divorce work entirely from your overarching life goals is to make a major compromise on what you can do with your life. There’s no sugar-coating that.
I worked out a couple of potential end games for myself that, while quite distinct from one another, would allow me to combine what a meaningful life means to me with my own unique skill set.
Look, I won’t lie – this process is pretty daunting. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t want to put themselves through it. Once you really question who you are, what you actually want to strive for and why, it’s scary stuff. The imaginary narratives of I can’t, because… become incredibly powerful. You don’t know where your thinking will end up, nor what implications it might have on your life if you act on it (nor the deflated feeling of failure you’ll have to deal with if you don’t).
And the good news is, it gets worse!
Once you’ve gone through the process of identifying what you wish could happen, the next step is even harder: believing it’s actually possible. Unfortunately, whether you believe it is, or you believe it isn’t, you’ll be right. I don’t know how to advise people on finding faith in themselves – I think I’ve had it since my late teens. But I will say that it becomes a lot easier to believe in your end game if you break down all of the tiny micro-steps that will take you towards it, and tackle them slowly and systematically.
Which brings me to step 2.
2. Identify the path
A large part of the mental hurdle you’ll face is the enormity of your goal. Radical change rarely comes easy, and if it did, the rewards for pulling it off wouldn’t be so enticing.
The key, I find, is to deconstruct your end game into a series of stepping stones that lead there, sometimes requiring a number of years. You can’t go from A to Z directly, but you can trace the road that goes that way, start walking, and course-correct along the way. A major point to realise is that it’s more important to start walking than to identify the perfect path – a classic stumbling block for the risk-averse. Don’t delay doing for the sake of perfecting. It doesn’t work.
Breaking down a long-term plan into many intermediate short-term objectives gives you goals that are within reach, easy wins that build your confidence and give you the boost you need to stick it for the long haul. Learn to value small, incremental progress instead of dwelling on the gap between where you are and where you think you should be (the Canyon of Expectations). The question isn’t where should you be, but rather: given where you are, how can you make the next chapter a little better?
I didn’t walk from law straight into my dream career move. I spent two years accumulating experiences that allowed me to (a) build up the credibility and skills required to eventually apply for my dream job and (b) test out certain ‘compromise’ possibilities along the way which, I felt, all had real potential to emerge as good end-games in themselves. So I went into them both fully committed to the idea of potentially staying in those roles if they worked out, while also thinking strategically about how the skills developed in those roles might cross over to my dream job. If you adopt this mindset, you really can’t lose in the long-run because each experience brings its value.
Once you’ve defined and allowed yourself to believe in your goal, and identified the route to gradually getting there, it’s all on you to make it happen. Your ultimate success or failure depends on how you execute.
The hardest thing about this phase is how lonely it often is. Next to nobody will believe in what you’re doing. Sometimes, you’ll wonder if you even believe in it yourself, and your effort level will slip up as a result. Major hiccups will likely arise. In my case, they took the form of a health scare – several months out with an unexpected dose of illness. Whatever they are, you’ll get frustrated. It’ll feel like crap and you’ll doubt yourself. Stuff can get real dark, real fast.
Whatever happens, don’t stop working. If you’re doing this around your main job, so be it. You need less sleep than you think, and you have more ability to learn and develop than you imagine. If you make excuses not to give it your all, you’ll lose because the current is against you.
Be patient. None of this ever happens fast, unless Daddy knows somebody, or someone with power owes you a huge favour. Don’t obsess over the end game, you have a lifetime to get there. Obsess over the process of getting there. If you live for the chase, substantial progress will follow because you’ll be going all-in on achieving each incremental step and appreciating the value of each step in the process. Love that process.
Allow it time, keep your self-belief and oh, did I mention this: work.
Getting real with yourself
When you choose to identify and believe in your objectives; plan out the broad steps to get yourself there; and then start executing those steps a funny thing happens. The stuff you want to happen, happens.
Or, you get closer to it.
Sure, you can choose to dismiss our cases as exceptions. But given how different our objectives were, yet how similar our method was for getting there… I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to place all your faith in the theory of coincidence. I’d have a little faith in the idea that this formula might just reap results.
I don’t say it comfortably, but I’m immensely proud of what Patrick and I have done. You have no idea how many people warned us against quitting law. Against growing The Great Everything rather than earning instant income. Against betting on ourselves and believing that a radical change of path was feasible. Against investing so much effort in gaining acceptance in our new fields, while everyone else was going to dinner, and parties, and family gatherings, and fitness classes, and flying to Provence and Tuscanny for Instagram moments.
If you can relate to this – and I mean really relate to this – then it’s time.
Take a page out of Sartre’s book and abandon that mauvaise foi. Stop lying to yourself about what you truly desire. Start betting on yourself. Whatever you want: a new career, a better relationship, a change of country, greater mastery of your animal self through all of the tools now at our disposal… Whatever it may be: it, or some variation of it, is all possible. Quit pining for it and start working. The paralysis of choice can be beaten when you do you.
If this call to action chimes with you, we’d love to hear where you’re at in the comments section below, or by email. Are you contemplating major change? What’s the end game? What’s holding you back?
You’ll find other content around the theme of personal agency in the links that appear throughout this article.