Optionality And The Prison Of Choice


Choice is a good thing, right?  I’ve built my entire life around keeping my options open, in the name of “freedom.”  Recently I’ve been reminded that too many options can be as bad – maybe worse – as no choices.  So what brought this insight into sharp awareness?  Mahjong.  So how the heck did an ancient game remind me to recognize that too much choice has some serious limitations?

The point of the game of Mahjong is to build a winning hand with tiles.  What constitutes a winning hand is governed by a prescriptive set of cards (which are difficult to decode – don’t get me started!)  Early in the game, you start deciding which of several hands you want to play. This is where the prison bars start closing around you. The more hands you try to play, the more paralyzing it becomes to sustain those options in order to win. In fact, I’ve lost more hands that I can count (and seen others do the same) by keeping my options open too long. Every time I have won, it was because I committed early to a specific direction –even when it seemed like a long shot.Optionality diffuses commitment – and commitment is what wins the game.

When I first started my business, I had many, many options for the types of clients I would serve and the work I could do.  All were very attractive to me.  So how did I choose which path to follow? I had one client that had a specific set of needs, and built from that.  All the other options fell by the wayside as I became fully committed to meeting this client’s needs. When I further developed my business to broaden my client base, it was from this initial seed. I’m incredibly grateful for the way it unfolded – it allowed me to commit to a specific direction early in the game and that commitment harnessed my energy and attention.When faced with too many choices, you have to recognize when it’s time to fish and when it’s time to cut bait. (An oldie but goodie from my home state of Texas.)  Several times in the course of my business, I’ve found myself at choice points. More than once, I’ve been paralyzed.

What I’ve learned to do is start seeing the choices as the starting point of clarity, not the end goal. 

Once the choices are in front of me, it’s time to go inside and decide. And by inside, I mean get quiet.  Breathe. Feel.  Be grateful. Breathe some more.  Feel some more. What do I really want?  What is more important to me? Breathe.  Feel.  Decide.  Commit.

Clarity is an inside job. Clarity brings the freedom of focus.

So here’s a question for you.  Where have you given yourself choices?  Hurrah!  Choice is a good thing.  And where have you found that your choices are keeping you from fully committing to one path or another? Where are you putting “should” into equation based on someone else’s logic?

Do you have a story about having too much choice? How did you decide – or how are you going to decide?  How has choosing a specific path helped you? Share it on our Facebook page or Twitter.

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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email lcarnes@carnesassociates.com.