Consider the Alternative

Human beings are irrational.  I believe I’ve touched on this point once or twice before.  Good thing for me, there’s enough material on this topic to write an entirely separate blog which could be actively updated for as long as the pro-life/pro-choice debate has been ongoing (which is scheduled to conclude on 2012 when everyone, minus John Cusack, will be dead.  Whatever his personal belief is will be the answer.)

The particular example of irrationality that I’m referring to has to do with decision making.  More specifically, the lack of analysis prior to making a decision. Thoughtful analysis when making a decision with any degree of importance seems like an obvious step, but you’d be surprised how often it’s bypassed.  Let’s dig a bit deeper…

How many times have you been presented with an option, quickly diagnosed it to be less than appealing, and promptly written it off.  Some common examples: writing a 10 page paper weeks before it’s due, getting your taxes done early, going for a run, reaching out to a long lost relative or friend, starting your own business or pursuing a new career path, alphabetizing the spice rack, mastering karate, employing deadly karate moves to evil doers, writing your ninja memoirs…I could go on and on….

The point is, you evaluate the task at hand, your brain says, “thanks, but no thanks” and you proceed with your normal afternoon of watching Divorce Court (this example works best when unemployment is above 10%).  The problem with choosing daytime television over going for a run is that you really haven’t considered your options.  On the surface any rational human being would naturally choose Oprah over going an extended jog (she has the uncanny ability to combine a sweet, soft, motherly nature, with a ferocious, tenacity which can only be accurately compared to that of a lion’s), but Oprah isn’t really the opposition to going for a run.  The opposition to running, is not running.

Bear with me.

Let’s be honest, when we put off a task, it’s not because the alternative option is so appealing that we can’t help but engage ourselves in it.  We simply need to preoccupy our time with anything that will take our mind off of the real chore in front of us.  That’s a recipe for a destructive lifestyle.

When you consider the option of going on a run, you mentally place yourself in the act of running.  When you compare this to your current state of pure vegetation on the couch, the idea of raising your heart rate and breaking a sweat becomes even less compelling.  But that’s where the decision process ends for many people.  If you take the time to consider the real alternative, not running, you are able to analyze all of the components that come along with that decision as well: not being able to stick to a goal, being unhealthy, lazy, fat, or a plausible understudy for Kirstie Alley.  When comparing yourself to the current state of the former star of Look Who’s Talking Too, the option to go for a light jog suddenly feels less laborious.

In a simple sense, this is why the idea of goal setting is so vastly important.  It takes advantage of your brain in a lucid, motivated state, to direct your decisions in future scenarios where this same sense of determination might not be as prevalent.  When you set a goal, more likely than not, you’ve already come up with all of the reasons why you want to accomplish this goal.  Much like going for a run, you mentally place yourself in the state of achieving your particular goal.  Now, when given the opportunity to go for a run, you can evaluate all of the consequences associated with not running. In other words you’re giving up on all of the reasons why you wanted to achieve the goal in the first place.

Another example: let’s look at a desired career path.  Often times, people will take the first job offered to them out of college.  Who can blame them (in this economy, no one)?  The list of external pressures to start making money out of school is extensive.  Most people are willing to sacrifice their dream job for a momentary sense of certainty and stability.  However, human beings are creatures of habit.  We learn to acknowledge, adapt, and accept our immediate environments in most situations, whether they’re ideal or not.  Before you know it, you’re 40, and deeply entrenched into a corporate environment in which you never really wanted to be a part of.  You’re living within 45 minutes of the house that you grew up in and hang out with the same people that you didn’t like in high school.  You’re one trip down memory lane away from having a catastrophic episode of mid-life crisis.

(Quick disclaimer: I’m not stating that staying close to home or working in a corporate job is inherently a bad thing. Some people make this a goal to strive towards and their happiness in doing so is every bit as real as anyone’s.  But in all honesty, there are plenty of people who have way different aspirations who get sucked into this lifestyle for the exact reasons presented above.)

It’s a good thing to make some money out of college.  That’s a wikipedia-able fact.  It’s a bad thing to stay in a position, company, or career in which you’re anything less than happy participating in for an extended period of time.  This is also a factual statement.  The reason some people fall into the trap of becoming a corporate droid, sticking to a career path in which they were forced to decide upon after being in college for approximately 15 minutes, is that they don’t really consider their alternative.  The alternative to working hard to move towards their dream job, is, as you might have guessed, not working hard to move towards their dream job.  For many of us, the idea of “hard work” is an immediate red flag to give up and continue down the current path of least resistance.  Well, take a second, and consider the alternative…

You’re 60 years old.  You’ve just spent the last 40 years of your life working in a career where for 40+ hours every week, you were doing a continuous “chore”.  The momentary stints of bliss occurred in very fleeting vacations in which the last day of your trip was more bitter than sweet because your looming job was only right around the corner.  You live in constant regret of the person that you could, and should, have been.  Your happiness is likely entirely dependent upon the relationships that surround you, and, odds are, with current divorce rates being coin flip odds, you’re making a riskier bet than you even know.  Either way, you spend the majority of your week, looking forward to the fraction of time you get away from this “chore”.

A pretty bleak picture isn’t it?  Well, unplug the toaster and turn off the bath, because this doesn’t have to be you.  This is a simple, albeit depressing, example of what really evaluating your alternatives should look like.  At first, the effort towards working your desired career path might seem like more of a challenge than it’s worth.  Now, the idea of “hard work” towards your dream job doesn’t seem so insurmountable, does it?  In fact, if you really envisioned yourself becoming this person, the idea of hard work might seem borderline pleasurable.

Taking the time to really consider your alternatives is at it’s highest value when presented with life’s most difficult choices.  The next time you’re presented with an unappealing option, do yourself and take the time to consider the alternative before writing it off.

  • I felt too sleepy to post a response to this great, thoughtful post but I truly considered the alternative. Thanks for reminding us to reconsider the stories we tell ourselves about the imagined outcomes of our decisions. You’re right on!

  • jim

    I was going to read this, but I’m too busy setting goals.. I will however set a goal to read this if I haven’t prioritized other goals to take its place.

    Got to go. Where’s my list?


  • good badger — what a phenomenal post. i swear you were writing TO me (with both running and the career path). i think one thing we can’t ignore, however, is fear. fear of failing. if someone runs for 2 months and doesnt see the results they want…they’ll feel unaccomplished and let down, and will probably wallow in their own self pity and most likely never run again (well, the weaker folks haha). on the latter example — if one is in a “good” career that isn’t necessarily their passion but still enjoyable, and then they leave their stability to follow their passion (something that isn’t a certain success)…the failure could drop them lower, much lower than where they were in their mediocre career path…what advice do you have for someone considering a change in career or wanting to to start yogging?

  • zachrd99

    You hit the nail on the head. Fear and pleasure are what dictate our actions and run our lives- but much more so fear. The key, is to leverage it to work to your advantage.

    If someone’s fear of starting a new running regimen is that they’ll put in all that effort with no guaranteed results, they’re focus is misguided (not to mention using an illogical defense, but that’s neither here nor there). Instead of using the fear of what could go wrong if you do start running, focus on the fear of what will go wrong if you don’t start running. It’s objectively a good thing to feel healthier, have stronger lung capacity, reduce the risk of heart issues, and lose weight (at least for 95% of America). The alternative to these options should be the sort of fear that drives you.

    Same story for someone’s career. I realize nothing is entirely black and white, life is a giant shade of gray that we attach our own meanings to, but you have to ask yourself, would you be happy doing that job 15, 25, 40 years down the road? If yes, then keep pursuing, you always have the option to change your mind. If not, then the correct frame of mind is to look at working a job you don’t like for the rest of your days as being the risk, and pursuing your passion as an adventure. It sounds cliche, but determination and passion are the two greatest predictors to success in any field (with a minimum threshold of an innate attribute set). As long as you love what you do, and don’t mind working harder than those around you in doing it, you’ll get to where you need to be.

    Too many people work jobs they hate. They need to stop doing that.

    “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

  • Pingback: The New Resume | The Good Badger()

  • Pingback: How To: Move to San Diego | The Good Badger()