As we enter our final year of college, we’re often faced with the question, “So, what are you gonna do next?” from well-meaning friends and family members. Many people know exactly what they want to do from an early age and can answer this question easily. However, if you’re confused with no real idea of the direction you’d like to go in, this question can be anxiety-inducing.
And it’s no wonder, especially considering this abundance of choice is still relatively new. Historically, our futures were decided for us, and often it was generational. Sons of carpenters would be carpenters themselves, for example. Thankfully, today we have more control over our own destinies.
However, this control over our future is both a blessing and a curse. For open-minded people, in particular, the sheer amount of choice can become paralyzing. In fact, it’s a paradox.
The Paradox of Choice
The jam experiment perfectly displays how an abundance of choice actually makes it harder to make a decision. The experiment was conducted by Sheena Lyengar and involved two tables of jam. On one sampling table outside a local grocery store, there were six flavors of jam for tasting. On another, there were 24 flavors of jam. For both tables, customers who tasted the jam could then use a coupon to buy a jar at a lower cost.
The study found that although the table with 24 flavors attracted more attention, it actually resulted in fewer buyers. Despite being excited by the array of jams, most customers became overwhelmed and didn’t buy any jam at all. Only 3% of people who visited the 24-flavor jam table went on to buy jam. However, those who visited the six-flavor jam table found it easier to find the right jam for them, and subsequently, around 30% ended up buying a jar of jam.
Psychologist Dr. Meg Jay writes about how paralyzing making choices in our twenties can be in her book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter - And How to Make the Most of Them Now, especially considering it can feel like we have an abundance of options. However, Dr. Jay writes about how this isn’t actually true: “Twentysomethings hear they are standing in front of a boundless array of choices. Being told you can do anything or go anywhere is like being in the ocean [...] It’s like standing in front of the 24-flavor table. But I have yet to meet a twentysomething who has 24 truly viable options. Each person is choosing from his or her own 6-flavor table, at best.”
She goes on to describe how, by the time we’re 20, we’ve spent two decades shaping who we are. We have experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, diplomas, and priorities. Everything isn’t an option, but rather, we have six flavors of jam in front of us, and we do know something about which flavor we’d prefer. Dr. Jay says, “The question twentysomethings need to ask themselves is what they would do with their lives if they didn’t win the lottery. What might you be able to do well enough to support the life you want? And what might you enjoy enough that you won’t mind working at it in some form or another for years to come?”
One of her clients describes the paradox of choice as “feel[ing] like I’m in the middle of the ocean. Like I could swim in any direction, but I can’t see land on any side, so I don’t know which way to go.” Twentysomethings often tread water in the middle of the ocean, not wanting to swim in one direction and realize they made the “wrong” choice. However, it’s better to just pick something, and if it’s not right for you, you still have plenty of time to redirect yourself.
Simply treading water in the ocean, not making a decision, only makes life harder later on down the line. You’ll have less time to experiment with your career if you keep on putting off a decision and stay working in a job that you’re most likely overqualified for.
Imagine the Future You Could Have
Although thinking about the future can be anxiety-inducing, taking the time to sit and imagine the life you could have may take away some of that anxiety and create a feeling of excitement. As Jordan Peterson says, “The other thing that’s so interesting about being alive is that you’re all in. No matter what you do, you’re all in. This is gonna kill you. So I think you might as well play the most magnificent game you can while you’re waiting. Why not pick the best thing possible you could do?”
No matter what we do, or how much we stall making a decision, the future will always come, so we may as well embrace it. Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring Program is a series of online writing programs that collectively help people explore their past, present, and future. As part of the future authoring program, participants are asked to take a moment to close their eyes, daydream, and imagine their ideal future. The task asks participants to “Be ambitious. Imagine a life that you would regard as honorable, exciting, productive, creative, and decent.”
Use these prompts to help imagine your best future:
What would your ideal family be like? This could be your parents and siblings or your own plans for your own spouse and children.
What kind of partner would be good for you?
Who do you want to be?
What do you want to do?
Why do you want to do these things?
After imagining your ideal future and what you’d like to achieve, the program then asks participants to break down their future into eight goals. Describe the goals in detail, put them in an order of priority, then write a plan of action as to how you’re going to achieve them.
It’s important to choose goals that you want to pursue for your own private reasons and not for someone else. It’s your life, not theirs. Anything else will only make you unhappy in the long run.
After imagining your ideal future, and identifying a career you think you may enjoy and thrive in, you can create your five-year plan. Map out where you want to be in six months, two years, and five years. Remember, it’s not set in stone. So, if you pick a path and realize it’s not right for you, you can always change course. The trick is to just get started so you can make connections and gain experience.
Before I went to university, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life – and when I finished, I still wasn’t sure. I found the prospect of making a five-year plan incredibly daunting, as I had no clue which direction to go in. But I knew I could write, so after graduating, I applied for jobs as a copywriter. I landed a role at a world-leading agency and worked with an incredible team of copywriters who I’m still friends with today.
However, I soon realized copywriting wasn’t for me. Now, six years later, I work as a marketing executive for a leading medico-legal company, and I’m a freelance writer. Although copywriting wasn’t the right career for me, I worked it out along the way, gained valuable experience in the workplace, and I had a lot of fun working in agencies while I did that. I’m so glad I took the leap and just picked something. Otherwise, I may have ended up stuck working in customer service for years. I’m not a good waitress, so it would’ve been awful for both me and the customers.
Think about what you like and what you’re good at, and just pick something. Dithering only wastes time. Even if you have no idea what you want to do, you can make a five-year plan and trust that it'll work out as it should along the way!
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