Bear Necessities: Reflections on The Paradox of Choice

 

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Photo credit: Christopher Burns

My mind is buzzing.

I have no idea what my life will look like next week, next month, next year. At this point, I have been unemployed for over a month. My mornings brim with excitement, broadcasting scenes from unfolding narratives, each depicting a potential life waiting for me on the other side of a job application. Typically at some point in the afternoons, after I check my inbox for the sixteenth time and it still reads “0 new messages,” after my daily Idealist job search returns nothing close to ideal, and after I have exhausted all the plausible explanations for why I have not yet heard back from the organization I interviewed with last week, the wave of anxiety hits. Hard.  My optimism is replaced with negative self-talk and doubt. “I’m not good enough” and “nothing is going to work out for me” become my mantras. I distract myself by cleaning and organizing the kitchen for the third time that week to feel some semblance of productivity. It helps me sleep at night knowing each tupperware container has a corresponding lid and a secure home within the bottom drawer by the sink.

When I am seeking clarity and support, I go to the woods.  Since these needs are constant at this current stage of my life, I spend almost every day in the Pennsylvania forests trail running, hiking, or wandering.

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Pennsylvania in all of her fall glory.

On a sunny fall afternoon, I arrive at the top of a climb up the Indian Steps. One of my favorite trails in central PA, this hike is my go-to when I need to release the tension and relax my mind. After ascending the jagged rocky staircase, I take the trail that leads to a vista overlooking the valley. There I sit contemplating the mysteries of the universe, human existence, and the current state of my life, as is typically the case when I settle my eyes on one of Mother Nature’s works of art. Sometimes these thoughts feel cliche and forced, as if they are there because I expect them to be, but most times they feel natural and simple. I am always amazed by the way climbing mountains can create openings in me previously buried by judgements, doubts, and fears. The word vista comes from the Latin videre, or “to see.” Perhaps vistas help me to see myself and the world around me more clearly.

My mind wanders back to the present as I wrap up the simple thought process of considering what I should do with my life. I start to run, continuing on the trail that now hugs the ridgeline. Once I reach a clearing and the road, I run into a group that has driven to the top of the mountain to watch the sunset.

“You’re running up here all by yourself, little lady? That’s brave! You see any bears?”

I laugh, “Nope, no bears here today.”

Unbeknownst to myself and my skeptical trail companions, a quarter mile down the mountain, I narrowly avoid stepping on a large pile of bear scat. As soon as I see it, I know a bear is nearby. Obviously fresh, this surprise starts to feel like a flashing neon arrow exclaiming, “This way for the bear!”

I am faced with a decision: either follow the crap down the trail or turn around and start walking on the gravel road, despite being unsure where it may take me. I figure the bear is going down the trail, so conclude my best bet is to hit the road and hope it loops me back to my car. Bad call. About a half mile down the road, a large black bur catches my eye 50 yards away. I watch timidly for a few moments as an imposing black bear saunters across the road. Ironically, this is my second bear encounter in two weeks after never seeing a bear in the wild. I start to feel like I am in a Charmin commercial.

Once again, I am faced with two options: continue down the road in the direction of the bear or turn around and go back on the trail where I initially spotted the droppings.  Despite concerns of whether the scat does indeed belong to my sighted bear (could there be two bears?!), the latter soon becomes the obvious choice.  So I start following the trail of shit back to my car. I am nervous and apprehensive, treading slowly and lightly, aware of my immediate environment. After every few steps, I slow to a halt to soak in the effects my presence has on my surroundings and listen for any rustling nearby.

When I experience physical anxiety, my shoulders tense up and a soreness surfaces in my neck and upper back. In the woods I shared with the bear, those areas of my body were completely relaxed.  In retrospect, I am not surprised that I made it out of the woods unscathed. Yet I will admit, I was a bit afraid during my decision making process. I was hyper aware of my fear, but confused by how little physical anxiety I was feeling as a result of this fear.

This jaunt into the woods left me with some substantial questions.  How is it that I experience more anxiety when choosing a type of yogurt, what to watch on Netflix, and how I want to spend my Saturday than I did when choosing how to navigate a potentially dangerous, fear inducing, mentally taxing encounter with a black bear? Why does waiting for job offers feel more life threatening than waiting to run into a large mammal with claws and teeth?

 

——-

When these types of questions pop into my brain, I like to hear what the researchers (you may know them as “they”) are saying about the topic or theme I am exploring. Weaving together story and science helps me understand how my anecdotes fit into the larger context of the human experience.

My questions that surfaced from my experience in the forest all center around the concept of choice and the decision making process. Barry Schwartz is an author and psychologist who studies a concept he calls the “paradox of choice,” which argues that more consumer choices can lead to higher anxiety levels for shoppers. Schwartz decided to write a book on the topic of choice when confronted with the difficult decision of deciding what kind of jeans to buy.

“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”

                                                              -from The Paradox of Choice (2004) by Barry Schwartz

 

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Barry Schwartz

In his 2005 TED talk, Schwartz gives two main reasons why he believes that an increase in options may not always be a good thing.

 

  1. Too many choices produce paralysis rather than liberation.  With so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose an option at all.
  2. If we overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with our choice than when there are fewer options.  It becomes easy to imagine making a different choice that could have been better. Imagined alternatives (aka opportunity costs) can induce regret of a decision. This regret subtracts from the decision made even if it was a good decision. Even more so, it becomes easier to regret a decision when it comes with any negative experiences.

Not just relevant to trivial matters like Oreos and jeans, this theory is applicable to the types of decisions that can alter the course of our lives. As children, so many choices are exhilarating and lend themselves well to dreams, curiosity, and exploration. Yet, over time, the question “What do you want to do?” starts to become more anxiety producing than exciting, especially when the answer is not known quite yet.  Will I pick the right college? Right major? Right internship? Right community? Right job? Right partner?

We place expectations on ourselves and each other to have the answers to these big life questions. As Schwartz explains in an interview with Paul Hiebert, “I don’t think having a lot of choice is what creates sadness and depression; I think sadness and depression happen when you combine all this choice with incredibly high standards.” More choices and freedom to decide what we want to do with our lives also breeds higher standards. More emphasis is placed on choosing what we want to do rather than how we want to live. Having answers is celebrated more than asking questions.

——-

When I was younger, I wanted to be the sixth Spice Girl, aka Popular Spice.

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My third grade (very realistic) dream.

My values have shifted. Drastically. Now I want to work with individuals who value personal growth. I want to help companies create work environments where employees feel autonomous, validated, and comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. I want to develop a curriculum that teaches people how to communicate directly, listen deeply, and interact intentionally. I want to utilize the wilderness as a platform for this work as I strongly believe in its value and ability to facilitate reflection, learning, and growth. My experiences in the wilderness have helped me to know myself better and see my world more clearly. I want to provide others with the opportunity to learn about themselves without the distractions the front country often presents.

Understanding these desires did not happen overnight. For the past several years, I have intentionally chosen opportunities that will expose me to different work, organizational cultures, and lifestyles. Along the way, I experienced unemployment, failure, anxiety, and depression. I learned about what I did not want so I could more clearly understand what I do. My vision is still loose. I am not attached to outcomes and still consider my path an experiment, but my explorations have helped me envision the destination my path is leading to more clearly.

The period of unemployment I referenced earlier was over a year ago. At that time, there were several professional routes I was considering. I applied for jobs in all of them and received no job offers. I ended up piecing together odd jobs to get by until I decided to commit to a temporary job I was not thrilled about. During that time, I was reflecting on the question “What do I want?” My process led me to seek out my current job in wilderness therapy because of the skills I hoped this line of work would help me develop. I am about to enter the space of the unknown again soon, completely aware this may mean I will face unemployment for round two. Yet now, that space does not feel as scary because the number of possible paths I could see myself taking has dwindled. For me, fewer possibilities means less anxiety.

If I followed a more direct career path, I might have had a steady job by now with all the stable comforts I currently desire. I am also fairly certain I would be miserable. There is no way I could have known at age 18, when I was picking a major and imagining my future, what I know now. At that time, I felt that I had to pick something, because if I didn’t, I would be viewed as a helpless and confused college student who was not taking advantage of her education. Ironically, making the decision to not follow a specific path was the best decision I have made. Iterating, pivoting, and changing my mind was and will continue to be essential as I navigate my professional jungle gym.

———

Deciding what I want to do with my life has been a process brimming with anxiety. Perhaps I felt less anxious making a decision with the bear because I only had two options that were clear to me. It was black or white. Go down the trail or down the road.

So is having more options actually a good thing? Is maximizing choice the way to maximize freedom?

The reality is big life decisions are not always black or white. As a result, more options mixed with high standards and expectations can potentially lead to anxiety. The paradox of choice can take its toll pretty quickly.

I don’t have the answers, only the questions. Sometimes choice is paralyzing and sometimes it is liberating.  Our relationships with choice vary and depend on how we were raised, our personalities, and the multitude of ways the decision making process has manifested in our lives. For many of you, having multiple options to choose from is comforting and exciting. Personally, the endless choices the society I live in presents me with are often overwhelming. The noise can distract me from understanding what I really want.

When I am in the wilderness, those distractions melt away and all I am left with is myself and my own thoughts. And sometimes a furry friend to help me realize making decisions does not always have to be as hard as I make them out to be.

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