Season 2,
60 min

Episode 64: The Road Not Taken – how we are shaped by our choices

July 31, 2017

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both… Here in lies our dilemma. With every choice we make, we also say goodbye to other opportunities, possibilities. And knowing how way leads on to way… each choice we make leads us down a path with new possibilities, but usually not the ones we left behind.

This week, Clay and Sarah ask: How do we think about those ‘Roads Not Taken’? And how is our life shaped by the choices we make?

In this episode:

* the dual impact of choice and chance in shaping our lives

* parallel lives, possibilities and the fear of missing out

* Its a Wonderful Life – imagined alternative lives

* how our imagined alternative lives reveal more about what we feel we are missing in our real lives

* the negative impact of too much choice

* cultural differences in perceiving choice

* reducing choice as a way of facing life decisions


“If the unexamined life is not worth living,” said Parker Palmer in a commencement address, “it is equally true that the unloved life is not worth examining.”

How much time to we spend dwelling on our past decisions, wondering if we made the right choice, or where we would be today if…if…?   “We refer to them as our unlived lives,” explains Adam Phillips in his book Missing Out – the value of our Unlived Lives, “because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible.  And what was not possible all to easily becomes the story of our lives.  In deed our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for…the lives we were unable to live.  But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

Maria Popova of Brainpickings puts it like this: “Perhaps our most acute awareness of the lacuna between the one life we do have and all the lives we could have had comes in the grips of our fear of missing out — those sudden and disorienting illuminations in which we recognise that parallel possibilities exist alongside our present choices.”

However, as Phillips explains, examining our Roads Not Taken and the choices we made can actually help reveal what we feel we are missing in our current Lived Lives.

And we should recognise that, often when we come to a crossroads in life we are not making the decision in that moment.  The decision has already been made by us and the very fact of the person we have become.  As the oracle in The Matrix Reloaded explains, “You didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it.  You’re here to try to understand why you’ve made it.”

Another intriguing aspect of the whole ‘choice’ dilemma is the fact that, while we might believe more choices give us more freedom, in actual fact the explosion of choice in western society can lead to paralysis, decreased satisfaction and self-blame when our choice doesn’t yield a perfect result.

Barry Schwartz’s TED talk ‘The Paradox of Choice” reveals that, “This ‘imagined alternative’ induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from your satisfaction with the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”  In times past, when there were only a few options to choose from, if you couldn’t find a perfect option it was easy to blame the world.  However, now that we have literally hundreds of options for every small choice we make, if what you choose turns out to be disappointing, we turn the blame on ourselves and imagine there was a better, more perfect option we missed out on.

So what should we do? Contemplate the Road Not Taken? Or ignore those nagging ‘what ifs’? Reveal in our current vast array of choices? Or try to limit our choices to a more manageable number?

As Morpheus would say, “The Choice is Yours”…

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