How Shall I Choose?

In a comment on my last post, Matt asked several exceedingly thought-provoking questions. I was going to respond there, but I had too many thoughts for a single comment. I had to take off my hat because I was getting too warm while thinking about this…

Ah, but what to pick, Mr. Panozzo? The road less taken? The thing that you love? The thing that really could work? The thing you can make a living at? The thing you’re rather disinclined toward but you’re good at and know will have the greatest impact?

Knowing you can pick a couple, sure, but you yourself admitted to 500 possibilities. Maybe one of each, or something that answers more than one question?

What’d you pick?

These deeply resonated with me, as I have thought along similar lines. As an example, in October in some personal notes I wrote the question “What is the highest good man can accomplish?” It seems like some of the questions were along these lines, asking what is the best or highest thing that one can aim for. Can you make the best impact doing something that you are especially predisposed to do, or something that you really just want to do?

As far as “what’d you pick”, I’m not sure if this should expand to “what would you pick” or “what did you pick.” Either way, haven’t quite gotten there yet. :) I’m still exploring these questions myself. With that said, I don’t have answers, but here are some thoughts.

Viewing the questions and possible answers through the lens of existentialism applies almost perfectly here. There is the knowledge that you have limited time and that ideas cannot be implemented without using some of it. There is uncertainty in the value of a decision. What will it will be worth to you, and what will it be worth to other people? What are your weights for these values? There is angst because you realize that you are absolutely free to choose.

Glancing through the Wikipedia article on existentialism, I saw this quote by Kierkegaard, who is generally considered the father of that branch of philosophy. He is a religious existentialist, so you can read it through that filter. In an early writing to another thinker, he writes:

What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. … I certainly do not deny that I still recognize an imperative of knowledge and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognize as the most important thing.

I see this as an extremely pertinent comment. Essentially he is saying that he can have knowledge of anything that he desires, but the real challenge is to ascertain is the highest value, ideal, or idea that he can live for. It’s not what he wants to know, but rather what he wants to do with his life. If he knew what to do, he could quite easily figure out what he needed to know to do this. However, only by knowing himself can he know how to live, and only by living can he know himself. Hence the paradox, as I see it. He says that whatever he recognizes as true knowledge must be taken up into his life, which is to say that he must live it.

I came across this gem about existential thoughts. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Several things that I have previously thought about were contained in it. It’s pretty short and understandable, but one thing that really home with me were the following paragraphs:

When gifted children try to share [existential] concerns with others, they are usually met with reactions ranging from puzzlement to hostility. They discover that others, particularly of their age, clearly do not share these concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others’ expectations. Often by even first grade, these youngsters, particularly the more highly gifted ones, feel isolated from their peers and perhaps from their families as they find that others are not prepared to discuss such weighty concerns.

When their intensity is combined with multi-potentiality, these youngsters become particularly frustrated with the existential limitations of space and time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to develop all of the talents that many of these children have. Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no “ultimately right” choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.


It seems like picking “something that answers more than one question” is probably the best choice. There is a continuum here, that anything that you do will satisfy some of the criteria for perceived happiness, but nothing is right or wrong. I think that understanding and leveraging your strengths is a good rough compass of how you can make the highest impact. Your happiness mostly comes from your expectations after your basic needs are met. Maslow suggests that humans need many things to reach highest potential, so ignoring any of the needs is likely to result in suboptimal performance. You might have a noble mission, but if you can’t eat, you won’t be at peak performance.

It seems to me that the highest potential for doing something great comes when you are fully engaged in a pretty challenging activity that has actual meaning, and one especially that you connect with at a deeper level. Flow.

I suppose things depend quite a bit on your priorities or preferences. If you value stability or are risk-averse, a steady job is something that is probably important to you. If you value spontaneity or risk taking, perhaps being a freelancer or entrepreneur is a better fit. Some of the questions are somewhat or exclusively orthogonal. It’s pretty tough to make an impact like Gandhi and hold a steady job. Perhaps your greatest impact on others is your ability to have a wonderful family life, to come up with a new scientific theory, to run a business, or to travel the world and report your findings. Maybe you can do all of these. People certainly differ in abilities, interests, and energy levels.

At some point, you should make a decision. The original intent of the previous article (or at least as it can be applied now) was to say that not making a decision is still making a decision. It is a decision, whether conscious or not, to do nothing or take no action, or take action with something else. Sometimes this is a good decision. Sometimes you will regret it. But you won’t find out what you can do until you try.

There are certainly escape clauses. You can start doing something and realize that it’s already been done sufficiently, or you’re really not learning anything, or it’s really not as neat as you originally thought. I think there’s an analogy that’s apt. A man spends his whole life climbing a ladder and then realizes it’s leaning against the wrong building. If you keep your head down and work hard, you might be going in the wrong direction. I think this is where introspection is key.

Thanks for the comment. I greatly enjoyed reading it and responding. Still don’t have the answers, but thought this was interesting. Note that some of this is written to myself a couple of years ago. :)

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