Like many kids growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was fortunate enough to have parents who were able to provide all the modern luxuries a kid could want. I was always fed, clothed, and loved. I never lived without a home, color TV, car and good education. Not that everything was great, but overall I never struggled.
Growing up in this easy(ish) world, my parents always told me that I could do anything with my life, be whatever I wanted, and do what made me happy. On the whole they meant well, and on the whole they believed what they told me, until what I wanted to do was diametrically opposite to what they thought was best for me… but that’s for another day.
I believed that I was special and that the world should treat me as such. If I wanted to do something that interested me, the path should open up before me and I should be able to walk into any job I wanted. Oh, how I can laugh at myself now!
Sadly, this type of irrational thinking seems to be even more prevalent in today’s generation.
This is one of the major reasons why more and more young people are becoming depressed: They have even more choices than I did. Many will be led to believe they have a free pass to an extraordinary life — but more doesn’t necessarily mean better.
For example, have you ever sat in a restaurant where you were handed a menu that’s about 10 pages long? I hate that. I sit there looking at all these choices and don’t know what I want because the Cowboy Burger looks good, but if I have that, I can’t have the Mahi-Mahi Tacos or the Spaghetti and Spicy Meatballs, which both look great. On and on the problem goes until I’m forced into making a decision, but even then I’m ever so slightly disappointed because I’m sure one of the other choices would have been even more amazing.
It’s been shown that having too much choice can be demotivating for people, and people are generally more satisfied with their decision when they have fewer choices rather than more (Iyengar & Lepper, 2000).
So why are we still buying into the idea that more choice is better? Having a thousand TV channels gives us what we want. The Internet gives us nearly infinite choice, and that’s better for us. Universities offer hundreds of courses, which is great, isn’t it? Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case. How many TV channels do you really watch? How many websites do you actually use? How many courses can you take?
This, I think, is the problem facing many people today. If the message we’re given is that you can do anything, be anything, and live an extraordinary life, then there are going to be many frustrated, lost and ultimately depressed people, because too much choice is a double-edged sword.
I will always applaud somebody who wants to excel at something, but for most of us, excelling at something takes time and work. So if somebody thinks they are special and must have an extraordinary life, well, when things get tough they’re often not prepared to wait it out and work through the problems.
Their thinking might be based on irrational thoughts such as how they shouldn’t have to suffer frustration, or struggle at all, or should have reached some career pinnacle by now.
Giving up and jumping from one job or relationship to another can become easy and habitual. If somebody isn’t used to being frustrated by life, and they’re not used to putting in the time and effort before reaping rewards, they may never find the ‘thing’ that will lead to their extraordinary life.
On the flipside, people are becoming paralyzed by not knowing which choice to make — such as with the menu problem. If your idea of living an extraordinary life means having lots of money and all that goes with that, what career do you choose: lawyer, doctor, financial guru? All seem like good choices. But when you consider how much time and effort goes into the early stages of those careers maybe it’s easier to become a scientist, an Internet billionaire or famous actor… no wait… maybe a top chef, TV anchor, or professor. Too many choices lead to indecision and to you standing at the crossroads as life moves on.
If you want to live an extraordinary life, first you need to realize and embrace that all life is extraordinary. Your journey could take far more time and effort if you want more. There will be ups and downs, good times and bad, in all areas of life. Manage your expectations and be realistic. If something is worth having, it’s worth putting in the time and work, be it your career, friendships or love.
Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.