What is life’s greatest gift? It is free will or the power of choice. Free will is the ability to select one course of action from a set of alternatives to achieve a goal. What is so great about choice? It transforms us from dumb animals into artists. Each of us becomes another Michelangelo, for choice is nothing other than the chisel we use to sculpt our life. The chisel doesn’t come free, however, for the price of choice is responsibility. But when we accept and carry out our responsibility, the reward is great. The reward is happiness.
Life is not static, it flows. Every choice we make leads us closer to or further from our goals. We constantly need to monitor where we are on our journey. We need to ask questions: “Am I moving closer to my goals? If not, what corrective measures can I take? What action will I take now to realign myself with my goals?” Choice is power. Choice is at the heart of life; it is the creative power of life.
You make choices every day, and your life becomes easier because of them. For example, you decide which stores to shop at and which gas station to patronize. But the decisions we make that sculpt our lives are far more important than deciding where to shop or fill up our car with gas. The more we appreciate the difference between minor and major decisions, the greater the likelihood that we will experience happiness and fulfillment.
Do We Have Freedom of Choice?
Although it may seem strange, some philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists argue that we do not have free will. It is an illusion, they argue. Is that what they really believe? I don’t think so. You see, why would they write books trying to convince us that they are right unless they believed that we could change our opinion to theirs? If they could persuade us to change our minds, that means we have free will. Moreover, if they are right, they will be unable to change the minds of others, thereby making their books meaningless.
Also, whenever these same scholars receive awards and praise from their peers, they proudly display the honors they have received. But if there is no free will, what are they proud of? The reason they are proud is because they know how hard they worked, the sacrifices they made, and the self-discipline they applied. They could have acted differently, but they chose to work hard. Their pride in their work betrays their belief that we can freely choose our path in life. Yes, a little reflection and deductive reasoning reveals that we have free will.
But are we completely free? Well, yes and no. You see, when making a choice, we take two steps. The first is to consider our available options. The second is to choose an option and act on it. In the first step, we have limited choice, and in the second step we are completely free.
The first step, considering our available options, is limited by our life experiences, skills, and connections. Should a high school graduate, for example, go to work, to college, join the military, stay at home and do nothing, or stay at home and develop an online business? In my case, I was raised by poor Italian immigrants that had a 5th and 6th grade education, spoke broken English, and could barely write. They offered me the most important thing in life: love. But they were unable to teach me about options such as going to college. So, after graduating high school, I found my known options severely limited.
However, no matter how meager our selection of options may be, we are completely free to act on or ignore them. I chose to act. So, I went to work, learned a lot then joined the military. Learned still more then went to the university. Learned even more, then joined a company. Learned much more and started my own business. Now, let’s move from my example to examining the power of choice more closely.
The Power of Choice
The American Lawyer and Politician William Jennings Bryan (1860~1925) wrote, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” By “destiny” he meant our future. In other words, our future doesn’t come about by chance and isn’t something that merely ‘happens’ to us.
It doesn’t merely happen to us because we create it. We do so with the choices we make. Each choice leads to a consequence. And each consequence is one strand in the fabric of our life. Since I am the weaver of the fabric that makes up my life, I cannot blame others or events for what ‘happens’ to me. Some find it difficult to grasp the idea that we are responsible for what ‘happens’ to us.
“Look,” Barbara says, “I didn’t choose to be poor.” “And I didn’t choose to be sick,” adds Christopher. “Neither did I choose to be lonely,” chimes in Neil. Yes, I’m sure Barbara didn’t want to be poor, but she chose to spend more than she earns; she chose not to set aside some money for emergencies; she also chose to waste money on frivolities.
True, Christopher didn’t want to be sick, but he chose to eat junk food; he chose to avoid exercise, and he chose to spend time with friends until the wee hours of the morning instead of getting a good night’s sleep. And what about Neil? No, he didn’t want to be lonely, but he chose to criticize others, become argumentative, and spread gossip. Is it any wonder he has no friends?
Admittedly, it may be difficult to recognize that we create what happens to us by the choices we make, but if we wish to make the most of life, we must understand this truth. Once we accept it, we become empowered. We wake up each day with the realization that what happens during the day is the result of the choices we make. It is empowering to know that at any moment we can continue doing things as we always have, resulting in more of the same, or we can choose to act differently. We can choose to be grateful instead of resentful, kind instead of nasty, and helpful instead of painful. As we change our ways for the better, our lives will improve immeasurably.
Another fact many find difficult to accept is that happiness, too, is a choice. Yes, no one chooses to be unhappy, but they do choose to do what makes them unhappy. For example, no one chooses to become obese, but many choose to eat too much fatty food. Since it is impossible to escape the consequences of our actions, choosing the means to an end is the same as choosing the end itself.
Happiness is a state of well-being in which we are free from fear, resentment, anger, hostility, or any form of suffering. So, if we refuse to live courageously and choose to live in fear, we are also choosing to be unhappy. Likewise, if we insist on being angry, we are also insisting on being unhappy. When we choose to suffer, we are rejecting happiness.
Does it seem strange to say we choose to suffer? Well, suffering is nonexistent in the material world. It is not part of objective reality. It is purely subjective. That is, it exists only in our mind. It is a choice we make. When I speak about suffering, I’m not speaking about pain. Pain and suffering are different. Pain is the result of something that occurred. For example if I step on a nail, I will be in pain.
On the other hand, suffering is a reaction, a response to something that occurred. So, if two neighbors had their homes swept away by a storm, one of them may choose the path of self-pity: “Woe is me! Everything that I have worked hard to accumulate was lost. All my precious belongings are gone!” Yet, his neighbor may see things differently: “How lucky I am! The lives of my wife and children have been spared!”
One of the neighbors chose to look at the bright side; the other chose to focus on the negative. One chose to be happy, the other, to be miserable. “Wait a minute! That’s not fair to blame the man who is suffering,” someone may be tempted to say. “After all, perhaps he is a pessimist by nature. That isn’t his fault, is it?”
Well, please understand that our nature is to be what we repeatedly think, do, and believe. So, if that man repeatedly thought and acted as a pessimist would, he would then become a pessimist. However, he is the one who chose to have negative thoughts, so he is responsible for what he becomes. When pessimists react to a challenge, such as job loss, they may have an automatic negative reaction. They may act without thinking. However, their automatic reactions are based on past choices, so they remain responsible.
Besides, those who are unhappy, always have the option of asking themselves, “What am I going to do about it?” Those who choose to look for a way to solve their difficulty will find a solution. Those who refuse to ask themselves that question have also made a choice. By deciding not to act, they choose to live in denial and choose to believe they are powerless to help themselves.
If we choose to live in awareness, we will realize that no matter how great our burden may be, there is always someone else with a far heavier load to carry. Therefore, we will always have a reason to be cheerful. All we have to do is be grateful for what we have.
Yet, if you try to explain this to a friend that is whining about their personal problems, his or her response will probably be something like, “Oh, that’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what it feels like to be in my shoes.” Yes, it’s true, you don’t know what it’s like for your friend, but neither does your friend know what it is like for someone with a far greater burden. That is the problem. Your friend can feel his or her pain, but cannot feel the pain of another.
Suppose you had a magical device and said to your friend, “I am going to rotate this dial, and as I do so, you pain will increase to the level of that man who is living in circumstances 10X worse than yours. Although he lives with his pain all day, I will force you to endue his pain for only five minutes.” How do you think your friend would feel five minutes later, after lowering the pain to its previous level? Wouldn’t they finally feel thankful that things are not worse than they already are?
I haven’t written this story for you to share with your friend. Actually, I wrote it to share with YOU. It’s just a reminder that if you ever find yourself tempted to feel sorry for yourself, look for someone with a burden far greater than yours. Carefully note what you see and take in as much detail as possible. Then, when you have a quiet moment alone, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and picture what it would be to live as that other person. Think of everything you do during the day and imagine how much more difficult it would be for you as the other person. Place yourself in their body. Try to feel their pain. Finally, after doing so, open your eyes and be thankful for what you have.
Making the Right Choices
Each day, we make countless choices. How can we be sure we are making the right decisions? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Be aware of where the road leads. Choose intelligence. Not every decision we make is a moral choice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of choosing between stupidity and intelligence. For example, if you are a young nonsmoker and your friend offers you a cigarette, don’t take it. That would be stupid. If you’re looking for the path to happiness, it is easy to find. Just avoid the paths with signs that say STUPID and follow those that say SMART. Easy enough to do, but you have to remember to check the signs before you start down a path. As Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to.”
Whenever we are at a fork in the road, we will find that one of the paths is easier to take, but that may be the only thing good about it. So, look carefully. You may find that one path tempts you and the other ennobles you. Choose the one that ennobles you. Learn how to withdraw from temptation. For as it says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.”
Besides the paths of SMART and STUPID or GOOD and BAD, there is yet another road, and it leads nowhere. It is the road of non-action. It is the path of no-choice. Whenever we face choices and refuse to decide, that refusal is our decision. By refusing, we turn over control to the tides of fate, and instead of shaping our lives; we decide to drift wherever the tides and currents will take us.
2. Do what you can. Decide what you can do, not what you want to do. Our wants are insatiable. We want to do everything. But how can we become anything if we want to become everything? Choose worthwhile goals that you have time for. Set priorities and focus on the important issues. If you run out of time before getting to the minor tasks, at least you would have done the important ones.
Choose to carry out your responsibilities not because you have to, but because you want to. Tasks that you have to do create pressure and stress. Actions that you want to do, lead to the joy of accomplishment and freedom from inner conflict. Choose to learn how to want to do those tasks that you should be doing. For in the end, you will do only what you want to do. Similarly, when you can’t have what you want, choose to want what you have.
3. Look for the good. Some of us may be undergoing great hardships. But no life is so difficult that it cannot be made better by improving our attitude. No matter how dire the circumstances, if you look for some good, you will find it. But how can we find anything good if we occupy our time complaining? The rule to remember is that we are certain to find what we look for. If we search for good, we will find it. If we search for something to complain about, we will surely find it. Choose to search for good. And choose to believe something good can and will happen. Choose to live with hope, rather than despair. Don’t be a dope. Learn to cope. Live with hope.
4. If you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself. We cannot choose what will happen to us, but we can choose what happens in us. That is, we can choose to have the right attitude, one in which we view challenges as opportunities instead of problems. Choose to be positive. For example, although he became confined to a wheelchair after his accident, W. Mitchell (author, TV host, and businessman) said, “Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do; now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I’ve lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left.”
5. Be aware of your choices. When we act out of habit rather than conscious choice, the path we’re traveling on is a rut, perhaps even a slippery slope. If we don’t want to end up at the wrong place, we have to be awake. We have to be aware and make our choices consciously. The best way to do this is to develop the habit of always looking for opportunities. Scout Cloud Lee also writes about conscious choice: “When we acknowledge that all of life is sacred and that each act is an act of choice and therefore sacred, then life is a sacred dance lived consciously each moment. When we live at this level, we participate in the creation of a better world.”
6. Listen to your emotions. Emotions are messengers. They are not just for feeling, but are meant to be listened to. Negative emotions make you feel bad and are delivering the message, “Caution! You’re doing something wrong!” So, when you’re feeling bad, it isn’t time to whine, but time to ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong? What am I doing that causes me to feel this way? What should I be doing? Why am I not doing what I should be? What can I do now to feel better?”
7. If you’re overwhelmed, take baby steps. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the solution isn’t to do nothing, but to take baby steps. No matter how big or overpowering a job may be, there is always some part of it that is small enough to do. Don’t let a big job frighten you; rather, break it down into small manageable pieces.
8. Develop your power of choice by making conscious choices throughout the day. Resist the habit of acting automatically, without thought. You are the captain of your destiny; don’t fall asleep at the wheel!
9. Monitor your actions for each choice you make leads you closer to or further from your goals, dreams, and desires. Keep a journal that you may want to entitle, “My Life. My Choices. My Way.” Record the choices you make and the results of your actions. It will keep you focused, provide valuable insights, and keep you motivated.
10. Remember, we become what we repeatedly do. If we repeatedly procrastinate, we become a procrastinator. If we repeatedly work hard, we become a hard worker. Since the outcome of procrastination and hard work are completely different (failure or success), we have to carefully choose what we do.
11. Don’t give in to temptation. Instead control your feelings and desires. Heed these words of wisdom found in the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu scripture, c. 400 BE), “Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.” Here is more good advice, “Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.” (Tryon Edwards, 1809~1894).
12. You probably can relate to these words of author Sondra Anice Barnes: “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.” The lesson here is use empowering language. Don’t use words like have to, must, should, ought to, or have got to because they create resistance. No one wants to do what they have to, but everyone is willing to do what they want to. So, don’t say “I have to study.” Instead say, “I want to study because the material will be helpful for my career and is interesting.” In a word, choose to use empowering language.
13. Self-discipline. Sometimes, even if you use empowering language, you still won’t feel like doing anything. If so, welcome it because if you really want to be successful you will need to develop self-discipline. Doing things you don’t feel like doing should be part of your daily routine. Remember, self-discipline is nothing less than the power to be, do or have whatever you want in life. We need discipline not only to do what needs to be done, but also to avoid doing what mustn’t be done, such as procrastinate. In this regard, here is a teaching of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi Meng-tse, c.370~300 BCE): “Only when someone refuses to do certain things will he be capable of doing great things.”
14. Focus on the important things because you will not get anything if you try to get everything.
15. Ponder these words of Brian Tracy: “It is not what you say or hope, wish or intend, but only what you do that counts. Your choices tell you unerringly who you really are.”
16. Don’t limit your choices to what only seems reasonable and possible. Stretch yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Ask again, “What do I really want?” Finally, ask, “What else is possible?”
17. Increase your odds of making the best choice among many options. A single option means no choice; two options could pose a dilemma, and three or more options are more likely to offer an acceptable solution. But what do you do when there are so many choices you become confused and are afraid of making the wrong decision? At such a time, you can increase your chances of making the best choice and minimize the chance of making the worst by following Colley’s Rule. What is the rule? Simply this:
a) Among the many choices you have, look for a good one.
b) After selecting one, now look for a better one.
c) Discard the first choice (a) and go with the second (b).
That’s it. Just by taking those three steps you will guarantee that you do not take the worst choice and will take a better than average choice.
Finally, look around you. There are great people everywhere, champions and winners. And they’re all rooting for you. They are voting for you because they want you to win. Unfortunately, you are also surrounded by unsuccessful people who want to drag you down. They are voting against you. Half are for you. Half are against you. How will this closely contested drama turn out? It all depends on you because you will be casting the deciding vote. The ballot is the choices you make. Be careful how you choose!
All chess lovers realize that it isn’t necessary to win to enjoy the game. The pleasure is in the playing. Life is like a chess game. Make the best moves (choices) you can under the circumstances. If you live by this rule, you will always enjoy the game of life, regardless of its outcome.
THE PARADOX OF CHOICE: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
DECISIVE: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice
Sheena Iyengar: The Art of Choosing
Stephen Covey: Power of Choice