The Illusion of Choice


Coffee shops today offer five different coffee beans in six styles, three sizes and four different types of milk -  what’s your favourite coffee? Couriers will deliver from any restaurant in town - so, what would you like to eat? Dating apps provide you with an endless stream of potential partners - now, what’s your type? LinkedIn sends you a daily email highlighting the ‘109,000 jobs which are available for your skillset’ - now, what do you want to do with your life? We often don’t know the answer to these questions - it's dependant on what's presented to us in the moment, rather than any overarching preference or desire.

We live in a world of near-infinite choice. We tell children they can do anything they want, and given the right combination of drive, forethought and circumstance they probably can. “Can I go to space?” - “Sure, go get ‘em slogger!”. “Can I do a masters in Biotechnology?”-  “Put the work in and you can do anything”. This hopeful attitude doesn't stop at childhood either. At 30 years old I could ask those very same questions, and be faced with similar responses from my family and friends. 

However, once we pass childhood, not all of the choices we make are equal. I’m becoming increasingly aware that choices can be separated into two pools - the tangible and the ethereal. When faced with any option, it might help to clarify which type of choice it actually is you're about to make.

I’m conscious that I just used the word ‘ethereal’ so am probably about to lose a few of you. Just to be clear, I’m not about to talk about spirit animals or divine intervention! Tangible vs ethereal, as I see it, is Netflix Vs Amazon Prime. 

The Tangible: Netflix is a sea of choice. Let’s face it, part of the fun of Netflix is the choosing, the happenchance, wonderful accidents, and the discovery. Everything on here is a possibility, and as result, these are all tangible choices. The sheer amount of options can often still cloud our thought process. But at least they’re real, numerous and available to us...whether we actually get around to choosing one or not.

The Ethereal: Amazon Prime presents us with the same overwhelming amount of tangible choices, but cleverly mixes in something else - the glamorous, the new and the intriguing. The ethereal choices. The things which at first glance we didn’t think were available to us at all... but, wow, there they are! These are the choices that are there to entice us. Yes, they’re seemingly within reach, poised for the taking but aren’t actually part of your existing plan. These choices come with some sort of sacrifice (in Amazon’s case - a financial one, when you have to shell out to rent the latest film).

Parents work their whole lives to ensure that their children are able to make the choices they want. But are we now being presented with too many to make any lasting decisions? 

When I was a child the biggest decision I ever faced was standing in the local Blockbuster on a Saturday night trying my damnedest to choose a video to rent (I felt sorry for my Dad… It genuinley took hours). Netflix and Amazon provide a fitting analogy for how I have begun to see my adult life, too. I’m still a boy in one big video shop, and it’s no easier to see past all of the colourful options and distractions and find what I actually went in for - only this time I don't have my Dad badgering me to make a decision.

Don’t get me wrong - Choice is a good thing, and I’m personally glad I have some available to me. People around the world have fought for years for the freedom of choice. Parents work their whole lives to ensure that their children are able to make the choices they want. But are we now being presented with too many to make any lasting decisions? 

Is the reason we're unable to commit to anything because we're becoming exhausted from constant daily menial decision making of which coffee / food / clothes to by? Or is it just that we're reluctant to commit to a tangible option because of the chance that another, more glamourous, ethereal option might present itself. When we do eventually choose to make plans, they are so fleeting, changeable and non-committal that oftentimes they don’t even stick. The vast amount of ‘choices’ we have available seem to overwhelm us to the point where we never settle on anything concrete. All the while we occupy ourselves with the illusion of progression by constantly flitting from one job / relationship / home to another, just because we can, without any fear of the oppotunities ever drying up. After all, there’ll always be options, right?

I live in London. I could do so much stuff! But a lot of the time I do nothing. Take me out of London and I get itchy-feet because that choice has been taken away from me. I live in a city of options - my choice is to do none of it. This makes me believe that it’s only the illusion of choice that is comforting to us. Maybe, for our own sake, we need to pull back the curtain and remove the comfort that the illusion brings.

 The actual tangible pool of choice is nothing in comparison to the illusion you’re presented with at the beginning.

Breaking my choices down into the tangible and ethereal goes some way to help me narrow the pool and understand which are actual choices to be made, and which are nothing more than distractions.

A perfect example is the modern dating climate (my main point of reference, and the part of my life that brought about this whole idea). If one date doesn’t work out for one reason or another it’s not a problem as there’s 1,000,000 more just a swipe away. Ok, that feels comforting...But how many of these 1,000,000 are actually tangible options? Well, I might match with 1000 of them over time. How many of those tangible 1000 will you actually have a conversation with? Let’s say, 500 (internet dating is a fickle place). How many of those conversations will lead to a date? Let’s say 200 (so, so fickle). How many of those dates will lead to a second date? 100?  Now the numbers are still high, and completely made-up, but you get the idea. The actual tangible pool of choice is nothing in comparison to the illusion you’re presented with at the beginning. I’ve been burning through these numbers over the last few years with that initial figure in the back of my mind - Never willing to commit to anything, because of the constant temptation of the ethereal supermodel I just swiped right on.

I made a choice about three years ago to start a business. This choice seemed a tangible choice at the time, but in hindsight, it was an ethereal one. It was a spontaneous decision, fueled by desire, arrogance, ignorance and because “Why the hell couldn’t I?”. Since that point, I’ve had an incredibly impacted social life (or lack of), ungodly working hours, exhaustion and financial destitution. I’ve missed opportunities to see family, missed parent’s 60th parties, sibling’s 30ths, my own birthdays, weddings, stag dos and holidays. On top of that, I've been perpetually single - with the exception of some fleeting and some not-so-fleeting (but still fleeting) ‘engagements’ - and never been able to commit to planning anything further than a couple of weeks in advance. Thankfully, the business is doing better than I am. 

As a working class northerner the choice to move to London and start a business was theoretically open to me, but as with the latest Amazon films, there was an extra cost. Once I'd chosen to start the business I'd already inadvertently chosen to miss those friends birthdays and weddings - these were no longer on the table the moment I chose an option that wasn't in my wheelhouse...

Now, the big question - would I have followed through and grabbed the ethereal choice with both hands had I known the sacrifices I would have to make along the way? The answer is yes, of course. But my opinion is skewed as I’m hardened to my lifestyle at this point, so, who can really say? 

It’s not to say that occasionally an ethereal choice might be worth taking. They shouldn't be disregarded. Often times they could be the best decisions you’ll ever make, a ‘smash the glass ceiling moment’. Before stepping in blind we should be able to identify it as a stretch and question the worth of the inevitable sacrifice that's associated. By investigating our choices maybe we can thin the pack a little and make it less overwhelming. As we start to see the wood instead of the trees, maybe the meaningful choices will become clearer, easier to make and, god forbid, we might even start committing to them for a change.