Right Choices

Last week I took a standardized civil service exam and was reminded how much I dislike the tests. Specifically I dislike the instructions that direct examinees to “choose the best answer.” Sometimes that means none of the answers are right and you have to guess which one the Test thinks is best. Or maybe worse, sometimes multiple answers are correct, but you again have to choose the one you think the Test prefers. Effectively this means you can be penalized for choosing correct responses, if they aren’t also the best. I wonder if part of my current compulsion to make perfect choices can be traced back to these tests that were so prevalent in my developmental years.

testtrailsAs frustrating as they may be though, those bad questions may be a better representation of real life. Life is not simple enough to always have four clear options with one obvious best answer. On the positive side, there are many times when more than one acceptable solution exists, but you’ll rarely be punished as long as the one you choose works. There are also times when no options seem like a good choice and we have to choose what we think is best. Just like most tests, ignoring the problem completely is often graded the same as the worst answer.

Trying to successfully navigate situations that have no apparent way out can feel impossible, especially for a perfectionist. While reading The Black Prism by Brent Weeks, I found a simple family mantra that might help me move when I feel paralyzed by tough situations. “When you don’t know what to do, do what’s right and do what’s in front of you. But not necessarily what’s right in front of you.” It’s short, simple and has a catchy ending that helps you remember the whole thing.rightchoicestext

Do what’s right: I don’t think this means make the correct choice, but the one that is in line with your morals. I wear an engineer’s ring that reminds me of the Obligation I took that includes such phrases as “I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect,” and “I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.” It’s a daily reminder that ethical choices matter. So when you don’t know what to do, choose the path that leads to truth, honor, and justice. Commit to pure and commendable endeavors. Take actions that will support those things you find that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Do what’s in front of you: This is even simpler to explain, but not always easier. Remember that Robert Frost poem about the fork in the road? He stood a long time, looking down both paths to where they bent. He couldn’t tell where either would lead, but eventually he had to choose to leave the fork. It’s easy sometimes to try to see several steps ahead and map out consequences and contingencies, but eventually we have to move. We move from where we are now, not from where we might be later. Focus on the opportunities actually available to you. You can’t do what you can’t do.

Not necessarily what’s right in front of phil4.8you: Choosing a thing just because it is the easiest or most apparent option usually isn’t the best.  Tests and life alike will include tricks and traps to distract you from more rewarding alternatives. Check your perspective to make sure you’ve seen all of the possible opportunities. Take the necessary time to assess the rightness of the paths before you. Then do what you think and feel is best.

The truth is that  correct and  right are not always the same.

Perfect Choices

I have found the silver lining of job searches. So far no job to show for it, but working through lists of sample interview questions has increased my self-awareness and allowed for growth that might not have otherwise happened. One question that appears frequently on these lists is “What is your greatest weakness.” This is supposed to give the interviewers an idea of both your weakness and steps you’ve taken to overcome it. Saying things like “I’m a perfectionist”, or “I work too hard” may be even worse than admitting to alcoholism because those don’t show any depth and can appear dishonest and braggy.

But my greatest weakness actually is related to trailmarkerperfectionism, so this has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to cope with, and talk about, it. For me, perfectionism manifests as a compulsion to be right. That means making the right choices and knowing the right answers. I’m not sure why, but I find it nearly impossible to separate being wrong with the feelings of failure and shame. To protect myself, I will prepare as much as I can before committing to any action or answer. Actually, practicing interview questions is a real example of me trying to be prepared for every possible scenario so that I don’t say something wrong and ruin another opportunity.

This is healthy, in moderation. It is good to be prepared. It is not good to spend so much time preparing that you miss other opportunities. Early in my marriage, I would sometimes spend hours trying to come up with the perfect words to say, but that isn’t what was needed. My wife needed a fluid conversation, not just one or two well-crafted sentences. In writing my dissertation and this blog, I have wasted weeks trying to make perfection where it wasn’t needed. Even things as small as getting a new pair of shoes has stretched over the course of months as I tried to find just the right pair. Looking back, they seem insane, but I also know that they could happen again.

I have gained some control over this by establishing deadlines for myself, hopefully with consequences that also tie into my pride. This lets me gather information to make a decision, but forces me to act in a reasonable amount of time. This is also helping me accept that sometimes there might not be a singular best answer. As one friend recently said “There are wrong choices but there is also more than one right choice.” I don’t always feel as confident, but actively making any choice usually feels better than none, especially in conversations.

riverAnother aspect of this is displayed in The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. An early scene describes a boy floating down a river on his back. The river is slow enough that he can steer himself, but he has decided to let the water direct his path for now. Ahead he sees something that interests him and he has to make a choice quickly. Will he get out here or wait for somewhere else to get out. As the current carries him, he wisely recognizes “No decision was a decision.” By not deciding to get out here, he was deciding to get out later. The same is true for our lives. We can choose to let the river of life guide us, or we can try to steer ourselves against the current. Right or wrong, both are choices.

The truth is that waiting to make the perfect choice can make us miss perfectly good options.

Tis But A Scratch

The New Year is supposed to bring new things. It should be a time to start fresh and embrace new opportunities. It’s a time to look ahead and refresh your outlook on life. Except it doesn’t always do those things. This New Year, I was really looking forward to a new career. That would also mean better insurance, a car that actually runs, a more regular schedule, and plenty of other benefits.

But so far that hasn’t happened. I thought it might a few weeks ago. I had an interview with an engineering company that did a lot of things I’m interested in. I thought the interview was going really well, but then halfway through the interview, the group told me they weren’t actually hiring yet.

disappointedI was crushed. Another opportunity ripped away from me, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Or anything I could have done differently to prevent it. On top of a lot of other situations (that the job would have helped mitigate), it seemed like there was no possible way to get a win.

A week later I was reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Near the end, some of the characters are starting to feel like I did. They are still running from the evil that has been chasing them for 500 pages. They are exhausted from their travels, and are beginning to doubt how much further they can go. That’s when one of the leaders gives tIt's only a flesh wound.his message to his companions. “We are alive at this moment, and before us is the hope of remaining alive. Do not surrender before you are beaten.”

As I reflected on those words later, I was encouraged. Lan, the warrior who spoke those words, was right. We have to keep pressing on, even if our actions seem futile at the time. Even if we’re not sure what’s coming next. As long as we keep striving, there is hope for improvement. We must not give up, no matter how bleak our situation appears. There are obstacles, and it is wise to acknowledge them because we may be able to learn from them. But we must not give in to them. There is hope ahead.

And, as my wife kindly reminds me, there is hope here. Despite all of the setbacks now, it is still not an impossible situation. We are not beaten, even if it feels that way some days. So I will not surrender to the feeling of futility that haunts me. I will keep pressing forward and look for new opportunities. Somewhere ahead I still believe there is a career for me. I just have to keep moving long enough to get there.

The truth is that defeats do not equal death, so no amount of setbacks can prevent all future possibilities.

When Should Isn’t Good

If I were a hobbit, I would not be considered an adult until I turned 33. I do not live in a fantasy world though, so I have to face the realities of being an adult. Many aren’t nearly as fun as Second Breakfast sounds. I recently saw an article posted by Business Insider that listed some of those realities and tried to explain why people in my age group might be miserable. One could reasonably summarize the article using the formula: eq1When reality doesn’t measure up to our expectations, we are left feeling like things aren’t the way they should be. The article says that many of these higher-than-reality expectations come from social media where successful people present an inflated version of their success, and struggling people often stay silent. This causes a bias in what we see others our age doing, and it is easy to feel like we should be doing the same. Additionally, new television shows portray themselves as reflecting the struggles of regular people, even if they aren’t. As we absorb more of these images, we may start to believe that they are living life the way it should be, and we are not.

spiralIt’s less frequent than a few years ago, but I still worry sometimes if I’m being an adult right. A few weeks ago my wife and I had nachos for dinner. They were quick and tasty after a hard day, but the experience was tainted a little by a voice in my head that said “this isn’t what real adults do.” And then immediately, “those aren’t the kinds of thoughts you should have.”Then that spirals out of control until no thought seems good.

The scholar Jasnah touches on this in one lesson to her apprentice in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. She says that aging, wisdom, and wondering are all synonymous. Part of growing up is being free to question the things you’ve been taught, and then being able to accept the reality that they might be wrong. “There is no greater indication of youth, perhaps, than the desire for everything to be as it should.” In her view, my desire for a “mature meal” would actually be evidence of immaturity.

C.S. Lewis shares a similar thought in one of his essays. “To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in mod1 Corinthians 13:11eration, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” To him, there is seldom a real difference between the tastes of adults and children.

Both authors teach us to worry less about the way things should be, and to live more in the real moments of our lives. Especially when it comes to being a proper adult. When we use that process with the happiness formula above, we may be able to enjoy more of our lives. Adopting this advice may not be what we should do, but it is what I think I want to do.

The truth is that we can miss moments of joy when we focus on what we think should be instead of what is.

Ordinary Heroes

When I was in high school, my band director took some of the older kids to a band leadership conference. This was the first of several times hearing one of Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser’s talks on being an effective leader. Much of his delivery seemed over-the-top, and frankly distracting from his message, but one lesson did manage to make it through to me that day. He told a story about how when he was new to high school band, he aspired to be like the cool, senior drummer. The older boy was a great musician and had lots of friends, so young Tim started doing everything he could to emulate him. Everything. When he saw that his role model was skipping class to smoke, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. I think it turned out that years later the older guy regretted leading him into that habit, but I may have made that part up. What I do remember clearly are the questions he asked after that story. Who are your role models? Do they know it? And perhaps most importantly, are you someone’s role model right now?

So for the last half-of-my-life years, I have tried to live as though anyone may be following my lead whether I know it or not. As I write I’m now realizing that this precept may have contributed to my overly-conservative nature and tendency of avoiding risks as often as possible. After all, if you know someone is looking up to you, shouldn’t you do your best to not let them down? But I started to write this for a different surprise. radarpotterI got a letter in the mail this week that contained these words: “You have always been my biggest hero and role model.” I’ve tried to live my life as though someone was looking to me for guidance, but I never expected to get a letter telling me someone was. Especially from the person who sent it, since I know they’ve  seen some of my faults.

This surprise is mirrored in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. David Charleston had spent years gathering information about the villains who have taken over his city. When the rebel team known as the Reckoners came to town, David fought to join them. He had idolized them since his youth, and now he was able to be a part of their team. It isn’t exactly what he expected though. “It was bizarre to see them as people. A part of me was actually disappointed. My gods were regular humans who squabbled, laughed, got on one another’s nerves, and snored when they slept.” It turned out that the Reckoners are actually like me, and most of us probably(whether we know or not). At their core, they are just ordinary people.

The truth is that your flaws don’t disqualify, or exempt, you from being a role model.

Sober Thrills

A few years ago I gave a speech to my fraternity about the importance of knowing what you wanted. As an example I used the basketball star and senator Bill Bradley. As a child, Bradley created and stuck to a rigorous practice schedule, leading him to be ranked as the top high school player in the country and receive scholarship offers from 75 schools. After rewriting the record books at Princeton, he delayed his entry into the NBA to study in England courtesy of BillBradleyStatuea Rhodes scholarship. When he returned to the NBA, he helped lead the Knicks to their first and second championships in franchise history. His skills also let him travel to both Tokyo and Budapest as part of the Olympic team. After 10 years in the league, his number was retired and he was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame. While he played, Bradley used his basketball fame to start exploring a variety of social and political issues, which he later used as a starting point for his three successful Senate campaigns.

Last week I wrote about how self-discipline can lead to more meaningful freedom. Without a preformed structure, it is easy to become a captive of desires and spend resources on temporary pleasures. C.S. Lewis put this another way in Mere Christianity. “People who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to sober interest are the most likely to meet new thrills.” He explains that thrills almost always come at the beginning of a new experience and fade over time. If we try to artificially prolong the feel of the thrill, it will still gradually grow weaker. But if we instead let that feeling go, and accept in its place a quieter, more sober interest, we open ourselves to a world of surprising new experiences and thrills.

I think Bradley’s painstaking practice schedule that allowed him to go to Oxford, the Olympics, and Capitol Hill is an excellent example of this. I’ve happily seen this happen for some of my friends, too. One man recently celebrated six months being sober from alcohol. Instead of getting blackout drunk to celebrate like he might have a few years ago, he used the money he’s saved to buy himself a fancy new Mac. Another friend gave up the delights of chips and candy for healthier options like nuts and vegetables. Now he’s running races that he didn’t have the ability to even imagine doing a year ago. The beer and the sweets were enjoyable, but both friends decided they wanted something more out of their lives. By setting up a disciplined structure and giving up the fleeting pleasures they’ve created new opportunities for freedom in their lives.

The truth is that achieving joy sometimes includes sacrificing temporary pleasures.

 

Captive of Desires

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to do. I lay in bed awake for hours considering which tasks I should do the next day. I want to be better at creating content for this page. I have to keep reading or I’ll soon run out of things to write about. Gifting season quickly approaches and I already have several projects in mind that will require substantial amounts of my time. New TV shows come out every week and I’m still trying to finish an old series as well. There are assignments to grade for the class I’m teaching. My own graduate research is always looming. Dishes and laundry never cease and I try to help with them, sometimes. With so many things to do, it’s hard to know which one is right. Being averse to choosing the wrong thing to work on, I sometimes end up not working on anything. At the end of the day, I’m left laying in bed trying to figure out how to catch up the next day.

There’s an elegant solution to this problem; making a schedule. I say elegant because conceptually it’s simple, but it isn’t always easy. It amazes me how reducing my options somehow allows me to accomplish more within a day. I almost always fall asleep faster when I do manage to schedule my days because my mind is free of anxiety. This counterintuitive idea is mirrored in one of the religious orders of Frank Herbert’s Dune. “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” When we have no structure, our whims control us and we are LongleatMazeswept away by circumstances and are unable to focus on the things we find valuable. Conversely, developing some method of organization reduces the influence of emotions and allows us to make more meaningful decisions about our time.

I don’t think Hebert was writing about time-management specifically, but the idea of discipline definitely applies to it. But it also applies to far more than time management. Many lottery winners often are poor again a few years later because they don’t have the restraint to manage their new money. A lottery winner should be able to buy anything, but too many try to buy everything and quickly deplete their resources. As someone I recently met said, “If you don’t tell your money where to go, it will run away from you.” Just like a schedule, it takes discipline to make and stick to a budget, but by doing so you are able to buy more of the things that are most important to you.

The truth is that instead of limiting freedom, self-discipline allows for more of it.