Decision Paralysis

July 19, 2021

When I was in high school, I took all the sciences and math courses as electives, not because I loved science or math, nor because I was particularly good at them.

I took them because they gave me the most optionality when it came to choosing a university program later on - I could do an history degree having taken physics and calculus, but I couldn't do an engineering degree haven taken history courses.

When it came time to choose what to take in university, I actually took a year off because I wasn't sure what direction was right for me. At the end of the year off, I again optimized for optionality - I chose a program that was a double degree in computer science and business, two fairly broad categories in their own right that were highly employable, and in theory would allow me to discover something that I loved.

In internships it was more of the same, I chose jobs at startups and organizations that allowed me to wear as many hats as possible. I took on roles in operations, in marketing, as a software developer, and a product manager, all in search of that elusive "passion". I feared putting myself in one specific area, lest I find out that I didn't enjoy it as much as I once did and regretted putting all my eggs in one basket. I gained a set of diverse, yet shallow skills.

Optimizing your Statistics

I always like to think of this akin to the video game NBA 2K's create-a-player mode, where you're given a limited number of stat points to distribute amongst a number of skill categories. Most people will choose to level up a few key areas in order to become superstars in their specific domain. I always felt that if I committed too many of my skill points to one area, I'd end up regretting it. This led to me distributing my skill points evenly across all the different fields, becoming the embodiment of "jack of all trades, master of none". This optimization for breadth is great if you're trying to win a trivia night, but it's generally not what employers, grad schools, or clients look for.

Decision Paralysis

This leads me to the crux of what I want to talk about, or rather rant about today - the inability to commit your time and effort to a subset of your talents in order to reap the benefits, simply because you are unsure if thats what you should be focusing your time on. This is the concept is referred to as decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis occurs at a crossroads in your life, and instead of choosing to go left or right, you sit there and try to make a decision. You take a step to the left, but then see all the great things down the right path. Then you take a step to the right, but can't bear to live knowing that you gave up the left path. You end up sitting at the crossroads, watching as your friends and peers choose to go right or left. You witness them succeeding and enjoying their lives having made it past this part of the road, while you sit here and wonder, "I was ahead of these people on the path, how is it that they've passed me?"

By standing idly by and being noncommittal in your choices, you've given up any early lead you might have had. Your inability to choose has resulted in you realizing you're behind your peers on either path. The question is, what can you do to avoid this, and what should you do now?

Choosing Breadth

The choice is not for the faint of heart, but it is the one that many of the greats from history choose: we shall walk both paths of the crossroads, one during the day, and one at night while the others are asleep. It's choosing to forgo comfort, ignoring those who tell you that one path is a waste of time, and being more intentional with the things you choose to spend your time on. This is the lawyer who spends his weekends working on a startup idea with friends. This is the chef who is also playing the drums and touring a couple months of the year. And for me, it's the computer scientist who wants to build marketing skills; it's the rugby player who wants to be a photographer.

Breadth doesn't have to be a mark of failure, it can be your greatest asset. You just need to understand that decision paralysis will be a far more frequent threat to your success. You need to be able to prioritize ruthlessly, and not look back. There will be times where one opportunity will squash another. But you need to be hard with yourself, and force decisions on these matters.

In my own life, this has changed how I approach school vs. opportunities. I used to be terrible with decision paralysis surrounding school deadlines and unique events in other areas of my life. I turned down training full time with the national rugby development team in order to focus on studies. I turned down trips with friends because I was worried I wouldn't get essays done in time. I look back on these events and realize that I stood at the crossroads, and I didn't make a decision. I told myself I'd go down the path towards school, but I didn't attack it with any sort of conviction. I learned pretty late in my undergrad degree that assignments and essays will morph to fit the amount of time that you have given them, meaning I had the opportunity to go down both paths, and I chose to just leisurely stroll down one of them instead.

In my final year of school, I changed this. I took opportunities when they presented themselves. I went down to Denver to play rugby against some Olympic gold medallists. I took a trip in the middle of the semester to hike some mountains with my girlfriend. I worked on a startup idea while I was in school. The result? My GPA stayed nearly identical, and my overall quality of life skyrocketed.

Life isn't exactly like NBA 2K, the skill points you have are a lot more flexible. Most of us don't really realize how many points we have, and that it's possible to build yourself into a generalist who still excels in multiple areas. I've chosen to ignore the crossroads, and run down as many paths as I can. Life is short, and I can rest when I'm old.

Book Recommendation

If you read this and felt as though this in some way applied to your life. I would highly suggest you read David Epstein's book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. It helps build the case as to how some of the greatest breakthroughs in history have occurred not because of some specialists deep knowledge, but through the generalist's ability to apply theories from one area of interest to another. You'll come out of the book feeling better about your lack of interest in specializing, and more interested in seeing how you can use your knowledge from other areas of your life to improve one another.

Matt Fish
Matt is a product manager and photographer based out of Waterloo, Canada