On the Surfeit of Choice

One of my college degrees was for a program known by the enigmatic label of Management Engineering (or ME for short). I chose it both for the opacity of its name and for the allure of its promise. According to its graduates, ME “opens doors.” Many university applicants have succumbed to this vision of endless portals leading onto horizonless vistas of unimaginable meaning and fulfillment that hopefully, just hopefully, will contain a BMW or two.

What the brochures fail to mention is the possible confusion that can arise after the ME graduate has opened a number of doors and a number of optional windows besides. (In ME, one of the most commonly quoted pieces of advice is: Always have a backup plan.)

In my batch and in several others, people collected second degrees as a hobby in the same way that other people collected stamps. Unlike the genuine hobbyist, however, it was done in the spirit of a business transaction. It was understood to be an investment—insurance in the event that one would encounter the very rare door that could not be opened by an ME degree (like lumberjacking, for instance).

And so my friends and I planted our options, carefully cultivated them, and weeded out those that didn’t meet our evolving life optimization criteria or failed our shortest path tests.  (We were very earnest this way.) The ideal careers were the ones that would give our lives meaning, fulfill our deepest desires, leave a tangible difference in the world, and of course, make us fabulously, obscenely rich. We were young and our intelligence was exceeded only by our naïveté.

Occasionally, prudent voices would warn us: You can’t have everything. Nonsense! We snorted. We are about opening doors. Besides, we survived the Super Accountant test of EG183 and life cannot possibly be harder than a long exam that flustered even certified public accountants.

And then we graduated, and our exits were accompanied by the metaphysical sound of hundreds of carefully cultivated doors slamming open. It hit us then that optimization algorithms and cost-benefit analyses function only in cases where the weights of the variables are clear and immutable. Neither condition held in real life.

Now, nine years and three careers (in the non-profit, for-profit and academic sectors) later, I’ve arrived at the sneaking suspicion that perhaps having too many doors open is not such a very good thing. Wherever I’ve placed myself, it’s always seemed as if the optimal choice lay elsewhere, through some other door, maybe even in lumberjacking.

So my life today is about closing doors. Seductive as they’ve been, the endless panoramas and countless possibilities have left me terminally unsure and perennially discontent.  I frankly do not know whether what I do now provides the best possible use of my life. I only know the dangers of trying to determine it as if it were the absolute max of a continuous function in a closed interval (especially since I only scored a C+ in MA22).

In any case, if all else fails, there’s always lumberjacking.


2 thoughts on “On the Surfeit of Choice

  1. Helloise says:

    “So my life today is about closing doors.” Rarely do we hear that kind of sentiment in a context of freedom and ease. I love it. 🙂

    I admit I indulge in useless retrospective speculation about my choice of college course. If I hadn’t done philosophy and had instead chosen something less amorphous, like development studies or something—would I be surer of myself, and less uncomfortable with my lack of tangible (socially mandated) achievement? Sa madaling salita, would I be making more money than I am right now?

    The answer is probably yes. Then again, the yes-ness doesn’t have any real weight in the here and now because: (1) 11 years is way too late, and (2) I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the choices I made and consequently am. Better to close the door on that too. 🙂


    • Eileen says:

      Thank you, Jelinee, not just for your response, but for the inspiration and stimulation your blog has provided. Reading it is one of the quickest ways for me to get past the occasional block!


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