We all want to pursue meaningful, thriving careers. We want to be successful, and we want to make an impact, in our own way. Ultimately, we want to be in a position where we can do what we want.
So we tell ourselves, and we tell each other, to keep our options open.
The advice is well-intended. We presume that the more options we have, the more freedom we’ll have to make the choices that we want.
It sounds great on paper. But the problem is that it often doesn’t turn out that way in reality.
We do what we can to keep our options open. Relentlessly. We go to the best schools so that we can keep our options open. We strive for the best grades because they will give us the most options for the future. We aim for the most prestigious job we can get because it will give us plenty of options for our next step.
The problem? This can all become an endless cycle of collecting options…for the mere sake of collecting options. We’re left with piles of options, but we never use them. We hoard options instead of taking advantage of them.
In an attempt to give ourselves the freedom of choice, we end up constraining ourselves. In a pursuit toward opening future possibilities, we create paralysis instead.
Options, in an of themselves, are good. Optionality is power, and it should encourage risk-taking. But an incessant collection of options without ever using them is pointless. The sad irony is that if we keep our options open for too long, we don’t make any real choices at all.
Collecting options without using them is like going to a brunch buffet without eating anything. You go for the buffet because you want a wide selection of options to choose from. But if you don’t eat anything—if you don’t choose something—you’ll go home empty-handed, despite the smorgasbord of options you had in front of you.
The loss and grief of choosing and committing
Choice implies a loss. We feel like we lose our flexibility when we make a choice. We feel like we lose out on all the other wonderful opportunities out there.
And you know what? You do. That is the cost of choosing. When you choose a partner to commit to, you’re saying no to all other potential partners. When you choose a career to devote yourself to, you’re saying no to all other career paths for the time being.
Making a choice is saying yes to one thing, and no to everything else. Choosing isn’t free.
But once you commit, then the world opens up. Your vision narrows. Your energy gets focused. Priorities become clearer, and decisions become easier to make.
Making an impact on the world is not a result of keeping all your options open. It’s the result, as they say in finance, of exercising options. It’s the result of choosing, and setting one clear direction.
That doesn’t mean that you’re confined to that path forever. You can always course correct, based on the prevailing winds. But it’s hard to course correct without having set a course in the first place.
If you don’t know what you want, keeping your options open can be a good initial strategy—as long as it doesn’t evolve into option-collecting for its own sake. But if you know what you want and how to get there, collecting options is silly. “The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line,” says professor and author Mihir Desai. “If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them.”
Discipline equals freedom
Saying yes to a new job, a new venture, or even a new coach is difficult. You might feel less free and more constrained. But it will give you more freedom, not less. “In many areas of life,” says Timothy Keller, “freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones.”
Making choices and commitments is actually liberating. It also shifts one’s definition of freedom. You leave behind the notion of “freedom from” (e.g. freedom from terrible bosses) and you move toward “freedom to” (e.g. freedom to do what you want).
This type of freedom demands saying no to things. It requires throwing away some of your options. “You have to chain yourself to years of piano practice to have the freedom to really play,” says David Brooks. “You go from a life of open options to a life of sweet compulsions.”
So instead of keeping your options open, experiment and find the areas that are important to you. Do the hard work of setting a course, and then start closing options. Create those liberating restrictions and those sweet compulsions. Start choosing the constraints that give you the freedom to really play.