An Ode to Small Choices

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?” “What do you want to do with your life?”

We constantly ask ourselves these questions. More frequently, others ask us. Friends, family, interviewers, colleagues, just about everyone wants to know what our lives have in store. They want to not only know which direction we are sailing in but which destination we have chosen. Because at some point we are supposed to know these things, to arrive exactly where we’ve charted our course.

Reading Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, I encountered another opinion entirely. Fittingly, the opinion comes from someone who knew a thing or two about how our minds work. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life”, psychologist Amos Tversky once said in an interview.

“The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet…On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The more I thought about this the more it made sense. Most people I know got into their long term careers by chance.”If you would have told me I would be selling insurance, I would’ve called you crazy”, said a former biology teacher.

The same could be said for many other life altering decisions: getting married, changing location, starting a business. When people describe such seismic shifts, there is always a touch of serendipity. They were in the right place at the right time. Does that mean we should let the wind take us wherever it may lead?

That is where small choices come in.

For Tversky, the small choices are our identity. What small choices we make in a field reflect ourselves more deeply than the big choice of field. This flies in the face of where my headspace has been, focusing on what field I want to be in. It got overwhelming because I felt like I needed to prepare on a massive scale. My identity seemed wrapped around the big choice.

What’s worse, I damned my current state, called myself a failure. Why haven’t I made it to ‘x’? Why are you still a barista when you should be at ‘x’ by now? You feel as though you should have made your big choice by now. 

But again, this is where the small choices come in. This is where we have the most power in our lives. Wherever we are at, we can define ourselves by the small choices we make. What kind of barista am I? What kind of intern am I? What kind of job searcher am I? 

What kind of person am I? That is where our focus needs to lie.

Wendell Berry wrote about the big choice question of “finding yourself” in “The Body and the Earth”. In the essay, much like Tversky, he too calls for a focus on the small choices. His poignance begets a fitting end to my rambling:

“Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work.”

Whatever work that may be now, whatever work that may be in the future, we can’t forget to ask one simple question:

How do I do this work?