Paralyzed by Choice

I’ve been living and teaching in Japan for over two and a half years now, and it appears the time has come to end this journey. I’ve checked off most of my bucket list items, including: climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji, seeing sumo in Tokyo, and eating all kinds of slimy, raw, delicious animals. This coming spring, I’ll hit the three-year mark, and it seems like an appropriate time to uproot the life I’ve planted here in Yokohama. I use “planted” because moving to any new place, is like is like planting a seed. 

The first year is spent, as a seed, incubating in the soil.

This involves getting used to the new surroundings, and getting comfortable with a new environment.

The second year is spent slowly sprouting.

This involves coming out of your shell, meeting more people who surround you -- your neighbors, and your new friends.

The third year, and each subsequent year thereafter, is dedicated to growth.

This is when you begin to put down roots, grow stronger, and expand.

I’m happy that I have been growing upward and outward but I’ve decided Japan is not where I want to put down my roots. Consequently, I am faced with a choice. Where will I next germinate? This decision of where to move, is not a sudden one, I’ve been contemplating it for a while now. So you think I’d be proactive in scouting my next location. You’d think I’d be researching destinations, hunting for jobs, weighing my options.

I am not.

The truth is, I am paralyzed.  I am paralyzed. I am inactive. I am overwhelmed.  I had no explanation as to why I was procrastinating as such, until recently. I was listening to a podcast on the Tokaido line train bound for Yokohama when I stumbled upon my answer. I am paralyzed, because I have too much choice.

If moving to Japan has taught me anything, it’s taught me that I can do whatever I want. The world is not so big. Not only can I live anywhere I choose, but I know I will succeed in that place.  I guess they call that feeling, “confidence.” Japan has given me the confidence to pack up and move anywhere in the world. I can choose whatever country, whatever city I want, and just go there. I have unlimited choice. The problem is, when people believe they have unlimited choice, or, choice with NO restrictions, they feel paralyzed.

In his TED talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz cites examples of how too much choice leaves modern humans indecisive and miserable. He uses an example from a study of employees who worked at companies that offered retirement plans in the form of mutual funds. Employees who were offered ample retirement plan options, were less likely to take them. The higher the number of options, the lower the participation rate in the retirement plan program. Those employees who did in fact overcome the daunting task of choosing a fund, and actually picked some options, often ended up less satisfied if these funds didn’t do well.  In short, the more options a person has, the easier it is to become paralyzed and not choose at all. If you do end up choosing, it is easy to regret your decision, wondering if you chose the right one after all.  

There is evidence of this phenomenon everywhere from the array in blue jean cuts, to numerous salad dressing flavors at the store. I remember walking into In-N-Out for the first time in college and being unexpectedly pleased to see such a sparse menu. Maybe part of the high customer satisfaction rate of that classic California burger joint is due to the fact that there are not a lot of choices. How can you feel like you didn’t choose the right burger, when there are only three to choose from?

Schwartz sums it up conveniently with two sentences:

  • Choice within constraint is essential.
  • Choice without constraint is paralyzing.

Everybody needs some constraint in their life, when it comes to making decisions. In my case, choosing one of the almost two hundred countries to move to, is unconstrained, overwhelming and paralyzing. What I need to do is give myself a set of restrictions. I’ve decided that these restrictions will come in the form of a top-three list.

  1. Good
  2. Better
  3. Best

In my case, I’ll insert three countries into this list. Which country is the best choice, which one is better than good, and which one is a good choice. From there I can do some research on these countries and my options within them. With my new top-three list, all of a sudden I don't feel so overwhelmed. Anybody faced with a tough or crucial decision can use this list and in it, insert whatever need be. If you find yourself paralyzed by choice, give yourself some restraints and then see how you paralyzed you feel. 

Guest Author Peter Thoene is a graduate of the University of San Francisco, and is currently an English instructor at a public school in Yokohama, Japan. 

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