I think there are two kinds of choices. Those with known outcomes and those with unknown outcomes. For example, if I choose to drink red wine, I know I will suffer a migraine because I know there is some ingredient in red wine that causes them. If I choose to give in to my child every time she demands something I know the short term consequence will be peace but the long term consequence will be dire. If I choose to drive carelessly, there’s a pretty good chance I will get caught or do some damage so (generally) I choose not to. There are many examples of choices whose consequences are known, I’m sure you can think of some for yourself. We can weigh up the consequences of these choices, decide which consequences we prefer and we make a choice. Frequently we make these choices with very little effort or thought. By habit I now decide before my son asks whether or not I will buy him a treat at the supermarket. I decide to accept the consequences of his displeasure if I decide not to, and decide how to deal with his displeasure if it should escalate. Being consistent in my decisions means my son knows what to expect and now he is six years old he still gets stroppy when I say no, but it rarely escalates. He also knows that sometimes I will say yes and I stick to that as firmly as I stick to no. My three-year-old daughter is yet to learn the lesson and still thinks a screaming tantrum will get her what she wants, but she’s learning all the time.
There are some choices whose consequences are so completely unacceptable to me that there really is no choice. For example, I have to take my children to school, there is no option there. I have to wash and clean, I have to care for them. I cannot choose to steal or hurt another person. Even if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could literally get away with murder I would not do it, because even if society did not catch me I would have to look at myself in the mirror every morning and I would know what kind of a person I had become. So some choices are not really choices at all, especially if you know the consequences.
There are some choices whose consequences are unforeseen, indeed, unforeseeable, yet we make these choices with the same blithe attitude as the way we approach more direct choices. Eat a Mars Bar, yes or no? Move to another country, yes or no? Pursue that relationship? Turn that corner? Start that business? Close that door? Drink that alcohol and drive…
Some people spend a great deal of time reflecting on their choices and the unforeseen circumstances that arose as a consequence of their decision. They’ll talk it over with friends or family. Some write a blog or a book. Some might just replay the choice in a myriad of ways in dreams that last for years. They will look for 20-20 vision with hindsight. Here’s a clue, there’s an indicator, that’s what could have told me what was going to happen if only I’d noticed. They think if they can identify the clues from the past they will be quicker to see something similar developing in the future and will be quicker to act on it. They will read books by people they admire and if they’re really clever they’ll try to implement some of their choices.
Other people play the situation out in their imagination before making the choice. They’ll imagine themselves in the room, in their mind. They’ll say this, they’ll say that, one thing will happen and then the next and the next until the choice reaches its conclusion. Then they’ll do it again, imagining a different outcome, and again, and again. They will say they’ve been to every possible outcome in their imagination and they can choose the course of action that takes them to the desired outcome. But to what end? Chances are the thing that actually ends up occurring is the one thing you never even considered.
Why don’t we spend as much time considering the consequences of our choices before we make them as we do reflecting on them after they’re made? You might say that there are times when a quick decision needs to be made, but really, when is that? When was the last time you were in a life or death situation? It’s the human habit to make choices quickly and worry about consequences later. We like to think we’re in control of our lives. We maintain this illusion by analysing what went before and applying it to the present. We fool ourselves into thinking we can predict the future because it gives us the illusion of having control over that future.
No-one likes to imagine they’re on a raft adrift on an ocean with every comfort in the world and no way of controlling where you end up. But really, does it matter how much control you have over your life?
Is success the journey or the destination?
“Everything that has happened to you is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to growing. You get to choose.” Unknown