A Box of our own Creation

It’s been said that it’s impossible to fully appreciate a situation while you’re in the middle of it – only in hindsight can we look back and tear an experience apart, measure and weigh what was said and done, shred the memories and feelings, kick our way through the rubble of what we perceived. 

Of course, this is too simple. We’re complex creatures, and our lives are more than wonderful or terrible, tragic, canonical, inspiring, or harrowing. We enjoy a color gradient. Hair Stylists of the world rejoice: it’s an ombré life.

Our negative experiences can leave a shadow. Immediately after graduating from college, I moved to a new state, away from everyone I knew, and began a professional school program. On its face, it seemed like a good idea – in line with my interests and (still novice) skill set, good long term prospects, the hope of opportunity and career stability, and even a hint of notoriety. I’d shadowed a friend at another school in the same type of program. My pro/con list was complete and unassailable. I did my research, right? What was there to lose?

Time, tens of thousands in loans, a long distance relationship put to the test, hurt pride, the unknown. I withdrew from the program one year later. 

I never regretted my decision to withdraw, but I’ve also never regretted attending in the first place. It was a terrible year; I was alone in a strange city wondering who I was. But the hurdles made me resilient and more thoughtful. Afterward I glanced down, but dove into the mission of unearthing my passion project. And when uncovered, I attacked it fitfully, hungrily.

I wonder if today, with a family to think about, I’d be able to upend my life in the same way. 

It’s ironic to learn that despite all our experiences, we as humans are terrible at making decisions. Our emotions are inextricably linked to our decision-making, when making choices we experience reduced self-control (meaning less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations), we rely on our beliefs and expectations about social norms to make decisions, we put too much in others’ opinions and sacrifice our own instincts, and the longer we mull over our options the less satisfied we are with our choice.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is LessBarry Schwartz called our modern dilemma “choice overload,” and it makes us question our decisions, set our expectations too high, and blame ourselves for our mistakes. Schwartz talks about “maximizers” and “satisficers.” You can guess who lives happily ever after.

As people have contact with items of high quality, they begin to suffer from “the curse of discernment.” The lower quality items that used to be perfectly acceptable are no longer good enough. The hedonic zero point keeps rising, and expectations and aspirations rise with it. As a result, the rising quality of experience is met with rising expectations, and people are just running in place. As long as expectations keep pace with realizations, people may live better, but they won’t feel better about how they live.

I wonder if this is especially true for nurses. We take new grads who start out fearful.. of doing the wrong thing, of losing his or her license, not catching something, not being able to keep up, unsure how to coordinate with others, and on and on. We work closely with them to grow their skills and increase their comfort level. Then the day finally comes when they feel competent, and they’re ready for the next thing. Nurses have a smorgasbord of options for that “next thing” – ICU versus med/surg (and vice versa), pediatrics versus adults, labor and delivery versus NICU, doctor’s office, hospital, travel RN, Nurse Manager, Educator, Care Coordinator, Wound/Ostomy/Continence Specialist, Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Informaticist, and on and on.

The choices are limitless, and there’s no one who can assure us that we’re making the right call. Maybe we’re young and unencumbered and can rapid-fire send out 50 resumes to competing spots. Maybe we’re a sensitive soul and perseverate about our options by shadowing, making pro/con lists, having informational interviews, and having the same circular conversation over and over with a spouse.

It’s dizzying. And people seem to regret a flurry of contradictory actions and inactions when reviewing a life. They wish they’d achieved something a little more in their careers and taken more risks, but they also wish they’d had more kids.. spent more time with their kids when they were young.. and more time with their parents.. and generally put more focus on themselves to be happy. They say to worry less about money, but they wanted to travel more. Total strangers approach me when I’m out with my kids and beg me to “cherish every moment” and warn that it “goes by so fast.”

I’m thinking back to a previous post now: “Maybe what’s special about being human is our ability to make ourselves crazy.”

Let Barry Schwartz free us of this spin cycle. We’re not going to achieve life’s perfect brew – 1 cup of career advancement, a dash of parents, two tablespoons of children. Even if we did create a recipe for happiness, the minute we’ve tasted it our expectations rise and we’ll want more (please pass the travel).

My husband can be maddening in this way but perhaps he has it right (don’t tell him I said so). In the rare moments we get to have an extended, uninterrupted conversation, I want to play favorites or hypotheticals – “what are your all-time favorite movies?” “what would you do if you could have any job at all?” “where would you want to live if you could go anywhere?”

These questions that seem harmless and fun to me, seem fruitless to him. He’s just not interested. Why indulge? It’s choice overload, it’s maximizing. It’s chasing a white rabbit. Let’s talk about right now. Why is that so hard?

Over the course of a life, we’ll make hundreds of decisions. We’ll come from a place of rational truth, of heart, or both. We’ll pine over choices, or we won’t. We’ll feel good about the outcome, but maybe we’ll question the path. All of this is good if it gets us to a better sense of who we are and what we truly value (goodbye, should).

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Shakespeare, Hamlet


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