January 4, 2004

To Choose or Not to Choose

The absence of posts the past two months are not the result of a hectic schedule (though I’ve had one), a lack of topics to write about (my list is long), or a desire to share my thoughts (that intention is always present). No, the lack of posts has been due to the simple fact that I’ve been perplexed at how to put into words all the thinking going on inside my head.

In reflecting on recent conversations with clients, colleagues, and friends as well as taking a look back at 2003 as a whole, it seems many people have been doing a lot of writing … but only in their heads. More than I can recall, almost everyone I bump into seems burdened by the issues of the day, all the people and projects clamoring for their attention and energy, all of the ideas and ambitions they have yet to sort out in their minds.

People are just plain overwhelmed.

It’s no wonder than that in a time when we seem to have unlimited options and choices available to us that the number one coping mechanism is to select none, to simply not choose. It’s not even a case of being embroiled in the proverbial analysis-paralysis, it’s simply not choosing as a preferred option.

It’s not just because of the challenging global issues of the day: conflicts in other countries, uncertain economic conditions, international flights and terror alerts, countries being ravished by AIDS, and many more. It hits home in far less significant daily choices like Atkins or South Beach? Thin or thick crust? Tall, grande, or venti?

We are asked to make choice after choice all day long in almost every single component of our daily routine. Doing so seems to be exhausting our capacity to make the more important or more compelling choices, the ones with potentially more significant consequences attached.

So we don’t choose … or perhaps we let others choose for us. Letting others decide can be a fun surprise if in the form of allowing a waiter to select an entrée he thinks you will enjoy after you describe some of your likes and dislikes. It’s a more insidious option when we let journalists, consultants, and elected officials decide what we should be thinking about issues that are integral to what it means to be a democracy, a sustainable community, an association committed to a greater good, etc.

I’m sure others have said it before far more eloquently than I am putting it here, but we can’t allow ourselves to outsource our capacity to think … and ultimately to act … on whatever matters most to us. At both the individual and organizational level, we are always going to be works-in-progress, so it’s perfectly acceptable (and probably even desirable) that we get stuff out of our heads and on to the Web, into our meetings and conversations, as a part of our relationships with others, etc. It’s a lesson I thought I had learned long ago during my collegiate English major days. Just write something. Or for the subject at hand here, just choose something.

So over the holidays, I’ve done this on two levels. On a personal note, it found me in my annual “clean out the closets” effort which resulted in an inordinate number of boxed items finding their way to the local Goodwill store. It always amazes me how much more appealing your existing clothes and possessions appear when they have enough room to breathe among each other and not be smashed in so tightly that they can hardly be seen.

Also on a personal note, I took some initial steps forward on a living room redesign initiated some 18 months ago when I bought two wonderful paintings that totally did not fit with the room’s existing look. For more than 550 days these two pieces of art have stood leaned alongside walls in my living room, patiently waiting for the day when I would finally act on all the thinking in my head about what the new room would look like.

I still don’t have a finished vision for the room, and I have refused to outsource my thinking to an interior design friend. What I did instead during the past few weeks was to buy a lamp at Overstock.com, a table at Crate and Barrel, and an antique modernist bench from a local antique store. Putting these three very different pieces into play with my existing furnishings has started to suggest to me what the room should finally look like. Encountering two totally different design schemes simultaneously has been quite interesting for holiday guests stopping by, but it has been freeing for me.

These three items may or may not “belong together” according to the design Gods, but I like them and as a result, they work for me. Many of the choices we make about our personal or professional lives similarly may not seem to “belong together” in others’ eyes, but if they work for you, so be it.

And on the professional level, I did a Goodwill equivalent of “cleaning out all the thoughts running around in my head.” Instead of sending them to Goodwill, however, some were shared with clients or colleagues as ideas they might find useful in their own efforts, some were translated into action items for client work I’ll be doing in the weeks ahead, a few have found there way into program proposals for upcoming conferences, a few have been noted as future topics for this blog, and a good handful were simply transcribed and saved for later contemplation.

Nothing helps you make choices any better than simply getting involved in the act of choosing. Your choosing to choose will model the way for others to do the same.