The topic of “choice” for this post came to me as a synthesis of two books I have just finished reading: “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olson and “The Little Big Things” by Henry Fraser.
In “The Slight Edge”, Jeff Olson maintains that progress and success can be achieved by the consistent repetition of small, achievable actions over time. The key is in the consistent repetition. It’s about not giving up on those tiny actions to build a cumulative effect. The snag is that easy actions and little habits that are so simple to do on a daily basis are also simple not to do too, so success lies in your choice of behaviour.
Henry Fraser has been tetraplegic, paralysed from the neck down, since a swimming accident when he was 17. “The Little Big Things” is his autobiography, which charts his recovery to become an accomplished public speaker and artist, who uses a mouth stick to paint. It is a fantastic account of determination and strength of character, but there was one quote amongst many that blew me away:
“Being defeated in life is optional.”
In other words, we can choose to be successful or not in life. Just think about that for a moment…
There is always an element of choice available to you, even though it might not be in areas you want or expect. Even if circumstances are tough, you still have a choice in how you respond to them. Do you get angry or do you maintain your integrity and dignity in the face of adversity?
At the risk of turning this post into a book review, Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” describes how he chose to hang onto his humanity and self-respect amidst the barbaric surroundings of Auschwitz. If there is choice even in a concentration camp, then there is certainly choice in our 21st Century lives.
“No matter what the situation, remind yourself, I have a choice.”
Ingredients for choice
In order to make a sound choice, you need several things in place:
- A destination or purpose. Where do you want to get to ultimately? Your desired outcome will influence your decision-making process. After all, a sat nav can’t plot a route if you don’t tell it where you want to go!
- Awareness. You need an honest assessment of your situation and any other relevant factors, such as what skills you possess or your finances, for example.
- Options. What paths are open to you? It’s here that people often sell themselves short. You may have to dig a little, but there are frequently more options available than you might think. Exercise a little blue-sky thinking!
Doesn’t this sound familiar in the coaching context of having a goal, assessing the reality of your current situation and considering what options are open to you?
“Your life changes the moment you make a new, congruent, and committed decision.”
Having the freedom to exercise choice and determine your destiny is liberating and empowering. The pay back for that freedom of choice is responsibility. If you make a choice you have to be willing to accept the consequences. Nobody else told you to do it, you chose that course of action yourself.
Now this may not be such a bad thing. We often seek responsibility, especially in a professional environment. Workers who are given freedom to take decisions for themselves, rather than being told what to do, feel like they have a greater stake in an organisation’s future.
The mathematics of choice
Once you ride the wave of choice-making, the number of options and outcomes presenting themselves to you explode exponentially.
Let’s keep things simple and assume that choice operates in a binary fashion. Each choice only has two possible outcomes, yes or no. If that’s the case, each subsequent choice increases the total number of different results by a power of two.
So, a sequence of three choices has eight (23) possible results:
Adding a fourth decision would mean sixteen (24) possible outcomes, and so on. Of course, in the real world a decision may have more possibilities than just a yes/no outcome, in which case the maths gets far more complicated (and well beyond my capabilities!)
The benefits of choice
OK, so let’s assume we have made our choices, the mathematics has fallen into place and we have shouldered the responsibility. What does exercising choice get for us?
- We have control over our lives and are setting our own course. If we let circumstances develop haphazardly, we have no control over where we’re going and end up drifting at the mercy of the tide. We need to take a proactive view, rather than a reactive one.
- There is the satisfaction of knowing that we are the architects of our own future. All our achievements have come from the sweat off our own brow in a consciously planned way. For those familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs this equates to the self-actualisation stage, fulfilling one’s full potential. It also relates to the notion of accomplishment that is integral to the PERMA model of happiness and flourishing in positive psychology. (See “A Model of Happiness & Wellbeing”)
- Learning to make choices means we are more flexible and able to assess and rise above situations that may challenge us further down the road.
- Life becomes more future-focused. We are drawn to what lies ahead instead of being held back by what happened in the past.
Making a choice involves a certain amount of courage. It makes us responsible for our actions but at the same time brings us freedom and opportunity. Genetics aside, our decisions largely account for where we are in life right now.
“I am who I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”