Endless Options and the Hopelessness of Getting it Right

Schitt’s Creek . . . The Great British Baking Show . . . Peaky Blinders . . . El Camino . . . Surf’s Up . . . Ancient Aliens . . . Mary Poppins Returns . . .

You’re going to watch Netflix. Easy decision.

Which show? Not so easy.

How much time, on average, do you spend scrolling through Netflix options before settling on the show you’re actually going to watch? There are the “Popular on Netflix” titles like above. You also have “New This Week” to explore. “Critically Acclaimed Movies.” “Goofy Comedies.” Even “Binge-worthy Supernatural TV Horror.”

In the end, of course, the endless options become so overwhelming that you scroll back up to the “Continue Watching for Peter” section and click on “The Office.”

 

Life constantly presents choices for us to make–tons of them. Too many of them. And for each choice, there are a thousand options. More.

The endless options presented frequently leave us experiencing a strange phenomenon, termed “Overchoice” by the writer Alvin Toffler: We become overwhelmed. Maybe paralyzed. Certainly stressed. Disappointed or dissatisfied. What if we’re making the wrong choice? What are the risks in that other choice? What might happen if I pick that one? What might happen if I don’t?

 

Life hands us some pretty insignificant dilemmas: What should I wear today?

But life also hands us some pretty consequential dilemmas, too: Who should I date? What should I study?

And if you’re in business or in management, it seems like every day throws you a hundred of those consequential decisions, each with its own set up endless options: Who should lead this project? Which design to pick? Which candidates should be hired? How should this process be ordered? How should the surplus be used?

Trying to figure out which choice to make is a great idea. This blog post is not about how to do that.

This blog post is about when you’re ready to bang your head against the wall because there are too many “right” choices and too many “wrong” choices. When you’re at your wits’ end, because if you choose A, then B will happen, but if you choose B, then C will happen, and if you choose A and B, then OMG what if XYZ happens?! You can think of a hundred reasons for each option and a hundred reasons against each option, and you’ve already exhausted a hundred options.

Then what?

Well it’s a consequential matter, so you’d better figure out the best option. Right?

Wrong.

 

I think one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about decision making–particularly when it comes to management and business, but I think in other areas of life as well–is this:

Choosing the “right” option isn’t THAT important.

Ew, that sentence doesn’t feel right.

Sure, in some situations, you’ll have several options and after a little research be pretty confident about which option will lead to the best results. And when you can figure that out, great!

But really, in lots and lots of situations, you’ll have an endless number of options, and “getting it right” is absolutely hopeless. Or at least, so unlikely and so messy that it’s probably healthier in the long run to just go with a GOOD choice (instead of THE RIGHT choice) and then focus all your energy on executing that choice like a pro.

When you spend hours and hours, days and days, on one decision, you might find yourself no closer to figuring it out. No more confident. Worse, you might have finally settled on the exact right option only to have a sudden new thought knock your decision right off balance again. Back to the drawing board.

You can put so much unrealistic pressure on yourself, responsibility to somehow determine each potential outcome, to know each risk inside and out. You can lose sleep over whether you’re making the right or wrong choice, because you just can’t be quite sure.

And goodness knows, no matter how right your choice, it will turn out to be wrong. Something bad WILL happen because of the option you picked, no matter what. If you pick A, you’ll realize that it cost you B. And if you pick B, you’ll realize that it cost you A.

So maybe there isn’t one “right” option. And even if there is, maybe you have no way of discovering it. Maybe it makes better sense to flip through fifty options, pick your ten favorites to analyze, and flip a coin over the two that “feel” the most right after a while.

 

Honestly, you’re not going to be successful–at business, at management, at life–because you somehow put your finger on the absolutely right choice. You’re going to be successful because you kicked butt when you executed on the choice that was made. You’re going to be successful because when an option was finally chosen, you embraced it, you didn’t look back, you made the best of its weaknesses, and you pushed full steam ahead to explore and capitalize on its strengths. You didn’t lose too much sleep. You didn’t drive yourself nuts. You’re not wallowing in guilt for what your decision might have cost. You’re not wasting loads of time and energy examining endless options. You’re not giving up completely and ignoring the decision to be made. You’re just leading and executing like a bad-ass.

 

So when you find yourself unsure of what to pick, afraid you’ll make the wrong choice, sometimes it’s all going to go better if you just go for it!

After all, no matter which option you pick, right before you commit, you’re definitely going to think, “Oh man, that wasn’t the right decision, was it?”

So stop aiming at perfection. Just aim at something great and then move past the deciding stage to the stage where actual Stuff happens.

 

I think I’ve noticed these two things about great leaders:

First, they know that the one option THEY select out of the endless options isn’t really the most important thing. They don’t get paralyzed wondering and second-guessing. They do a little analyzing and then make their best educated guess. Then they focus fully and powerfully on executing it.

Second, they often really don’t care which one option their FOLLOWERS select out of the endless options. They won’t hold your hand, they won’t give you the answer, they won’t tell you which decision they think you should make. They say, “I know you’ll make a good decision” and then they support you and have your back.

Because there will always be endless options and “getting it right” can be hopeless.

So “getting it right” must not always be the part that matters.

 

All that being said, I know there are some decisions so consequential that maybe all the soul-searching and analyzing are worth it. I just think we way overestimate how many of those decisions we see in a day. Or in a lifetime.

Good luck flipping coins!

 

And no, I haven’t really applied this lesson very well in my personal life. I still browse Netflix for an inordinate amount of time, and my show-picking hasn’t really improved. Although, maybe watching The Office for the 20th time really was the best choice all along.

Robert K Greenleaf - overchoice

I Think, But I Don’t Know

I grew up very smart, confident, and passionate. I thought very deeply, came to the right conclusions, and cared so much about everyone in my life that I had to help them see my conclusions, too. I never genuinely considered I might be getting stuff wrong until I had a big enough crush on a girl to listen when she told me I didn’t have all the answers.

What’s funny is that years later, the majority of big things I so confidently knew and so passionately tried to help other people understand–I no longer see the same way.

We all have our perspectives and our perceptions. We can’t help that they are very limited. And we can’t help but act according to them.

 

Seeing my own illusion

I remember one time I flew to another state to visit my recently married sister and brother-in-law. My sister and I had been extremely close friends for a long time and cared deeply for each other, so we were excited. But I was also there, more importantly, to visit the girl I was dating. The schedule was lopsided significantly in favor of girlfriend time. Later, my sister expressed that she was a little hurt by how the visit played out, and I just couldn’t understand. She supported my priorities but felt frustrated that it was very different than she expected. She had the impression that I was there to spend a few days with them, too. But I spent less time than expected with them, and when I was there I wasn’t exactly present. Again–and to my sister’s credit–she didn’t think my priorities were wrong. She just wished I had decided and communicated initially that I wouldn’t be spending much time with them. It would have saved her some disappointment. TO me, her feelings seemed a little selfish and unreasonable.

It wasn’t until years later when I experienced similar scenarios, but with roles reversed–I was the one with expectations too high, missing out on people I loved–that I finally understood that my sister was completely right. I wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t either. I was so sure she was seeing things inaccurately, but she wasn’t. And I just was not in a place with my focus and priorities at the time where I could truly see her perspective. But years later, when I was in her position, I also felt a little ignored, mislead, and taken for granted. And it didn’t feel good.

I was so sure. Saw things so clearly. And I was thinking very deeply and had the best intentions. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a completely different way to look at it. And this is just one example. There are a hundred more, and I’m sure you have plenty as well. Times you took a dogmatic stand, only to look back some time later in embarrassment.

Do you see the old lady? Or the young lady? Which one is the right one?

The problem is not that I took a stand or believed what I believed. The problem is not that I acted on my perceptions. The problem was what happens when I don’t recognize that there may be other perspectives–just as valid, just as clear.

This idea gives a deeper meaning to the term “Self-Centered.”

Sometimes we do what seem to us to be the greatest, kindest, most caring thing. But because it’s born out of our narrow perspective, because our focus is completely on our own Self’s perception, without attention to another’s interpretation, we can leave a path of hurt and confusion. We can act passionately in one direction, completely missing the collateral damage we’re doing in another direction.

 

Why do we see many things so clearly, but so differently?

For one very simple reason: We’re different people. I’m not you and you’re not me. I grew up in an extremely black-and-white home, preoccupied with ethics and judging whether we’re getting things right or wrong. Maybe you grew up in a similar home, but experienced so much hurt that you threw out all standards as causing dysfunction and depression.

Or maybe you grew up in a very chill home where good intentions were assumed, self-esteem was encouraged, and time and energy were devoted to free creativity and expression of individuality. Maybe this was a positive thing. Or maybe there was too much obsession with freedom, and you couldn’t hold your siblings responsible for just being honest and treating you with respect.

I’ve had a quarter of a century of experiences, shaping my focus and my understanding–my perspectives and perceptions. I’ve had very unique experiences leaving me with unique needs and unique sensitivities, unique priorities and unique comfort zones.

Consider this example: Two people look at the same religious organization. The organization does a lot of good for people and gives a lot of hope, but there are a number of people involved in leading it for selfish reasons. One person sees it as a breeding ground for judgement, hurt, and disappointment. Another person sees it as a vehicle to bring hope to unfortunate and hurting people in the community. Both people are completely correct, but both people will think, speak, and act completely differently towards the organization.

 

This CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be avoided.

A simple solution is opening up your mind and starting to see everything through your neighbors’ lenses. Problem is, you’re not going to get their lens quite right, either. And even if you could, there’s another neighbor whose perspective you won’t have the time to consider as well.

Refusing to take a stand for anything just because you don’t know everything just results in a crippled world, a world where nobody can help each other. Maybe my help isn’t quite right.

Imagine a world where nobody stood up to slavery or persecution because there’s a chance the “other side” might see something you can’t see.

 

So what SHOULD be done?

What if we tried living every single day with a deep awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for the huge variation in yours and my perspectives? What if I always kept in mind that you may have just as clear a perception of something as I do, but you may be seeing it differently?

A few things may result…

  • When it seems like I hurt you, but I know I wasn’t wrong, I’ll try to take the time to figure out why you’re hurting and see if we can fix it together.
  • When you see that I’ve latched onto an idea that is bringing weakness and sadness into my daily life, like a self-defeating attitude about myself, you may be able to help me, because I may actually grant that you see a real thing in me that I’m not seeing.
  • When I could do with a change of mind about a big subject, a respectful, constructive discussion can take place where we both come out better educated and appreciating each other.
  • I don’t have a subconscious need to control everything, to make sure people are doing what I need or want them to do, to get you to live life my way, because I realize your way includes some strong and helpful perspectives I can’t give you.
  • I can let you do you, with the peace of mind that all my solutions for you probably aren’t the right ones anyway.
  • I can freely and happily admit that I am just doing my best and don’t have all the answers, instead of feeling like a fraud, trying to hide all my doubts and insecurities.
  • I can ask for help because not having it all together is only a weakness to those who think they can have it all together.

 

At your funeral, people are going to remember you–people who have their own lenses.

Will they remember someone arrogant, who was sure they knew best, always focused on getting their own way, and always trying to fix other people?

Or will they remember someone humble, compassionate, and open-minded–someone who instead of judging whether others’ feelings were valid or invalid, just honored their feelings and beliefs as theirs? Someone who instead of trying to control the people they cared about just made sure to be there for them?