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Tradeoffs and the Paradox of Choice

Tradeoffs imply that to get really great at a few things, you have to accept being mediocre at a lot more.”

I’ve always hated feeling or being mediocre at anything. It is, perhaps, an unfortunate side-effect of being an undisciplined autodidact; discover an interest or passion for something, dive in and try to master it quickly (since, in the past, things have always come easily to me), yet, end up merely dabbling in it; skimming the surface and acquiring some skills or unearthing some talents, while wishing for, or deferring mastery to another day.

The unfortunate, unintended cost of living in this way, is that it creates a frequent undercurrent of stagnation, feelings of inadequacy, perpetuates hypercritical introspection and a near complete lack of confidence. There’s also a resistance to, or avoidance of activities that I may otherwise quite enjoy.

The problem is in trying to avoid making tradeoffs. When we don’t actively (or perhaps consciously) choose what we value the most, the choices will be made for us. It’s disempowering, disorienting and fosters an environment of negativity.

I’ve come to realize that it is quite an arrogance to assume I’d be able to always feel balanced and to be great at everything. There are a finite number of hours in a day and a finite number of ways we can choose to spend our time. In a competitive world, it’s very difficult to let go of the idea that we’re not any good at something, nor would we want to let anyone see it. Conversely, the perfectionist approach — in which being completely satisfied or finished with something simply cannot happen — drives it’s own kind of wedge into our flow of creativity.

The thing is that nobody really cares! They have the exact same concerns, day-to-day, in discerning what’s most important to them, and how best to allocate their resources of time, energy, money, focus and activity. As with a lot of our worries and anxieties in life, they’re complete fiction that exist entirely in our own hearts and minds.

We could try being regimented and structured with our calendars. Maybe that works for some, but it wouldn’t work for me. I prefer a more flexible and open-ended schedule. While that doesn’t always allow me to get done all the work I would have liked to, that conflict is where the tradeoff lies — and my definition of the opportunity cost I choose to consider. Still, an uneasiness remains, and “what if?” lingers in the air all too often.

A paradox of choice is a different variation of this issue. It is simply being unwittingly handicapped by having too many options. As follows, an artist with one paintbrush and one color of paint will quite possibly be more productive (and more innovative) than one with a bag full of brushes and a whole variety of paints. Similarly, a writer can write about anything, thus struggles to pick something to write about — or randomly jumps from one idea to another, never fully engaging and following through on any one direction. Further to that, we don’t require writing software with 3,000 functions and font options, when a basic text editor will more than suffice — and be far less distracting.

I’m sure one can find this kind of paradox in virtually any field or vocation.

For the perfectionist, avoiding a paradox requires setting either arbitrary or hard deadlines. Once the clock runs out, let it go. Publish. See what happens. Move on to something new (or finish something else that’s on the never-ending to-do list). Again, it comes back to desires and values: do you prefer the world gets something of/from you, do you want to sell or give away anything, or do you want to keep it all for/to yourself, never having known the impact on, nor received the necessary feedback of others?

There will be numerous tradeoffs and opportunity costs on the journey of pursuing a productive, happy life. There are going to be paradoxes of choice in amongst those deciding moments — and in many unexpected situations, too. We don’t always make the best or even the right choices, but the gift of choice is ultimately our superpower — and it seems that in general, less is always more.

Solvitur ambulando