One of the first steps in your personal emancipation is to realize that the world is full of options, and the few things currently in front of you are not the only from which to choose. But there is a difference between options and opportunities.
Options are theoretical. Opportunities are actual. Options are statistical probabilities. Opportunities are singular, concrete instances. Options can always be added on, and the option set can always grow as an aggregate bundle, so there is no urgency or scarcity in options. Opportunities are temporary and cannot be aggregated. Each is too unique and cannot be replicated.
The finite nature of each individual opportunity can be scary. It feels more comforting to stay in the abstract world of options than to jump in to a real opportunity, which immediately reduces the set of theoretical other options.
Options thinking can be useful to gain some big picture long term perspective, but it’s a dangerous mindset too because it can blind you to opportunities or limit the ways you can gain from them. Here are three of the downsides to thinking about options instead of opportunities.
Too Good for That
Because options are a giant aggregate of all possible activities, the field will always look better than a specific, individual opportunity. When you know that the field is available to you (in theory) real actions always seem a little less glamorous. The problem is that the field is not available to you. Your life isn’t like gambling. You can’t pick the field. You have to settle on specific actions. Grumpiness can result when you do specific things but obsess about keeping your options open. You’ll always think you’re too good for whatever you’re doing and never fully throw yourself behind it. This will, paradoxically, further limit your options as those around you will tire of your attitude of superiority and belief that, if you wanted to, you could be doing something better. It keeps you from entering in to the moment and doing your best work.
Myth of the Perfect Path
The purpose of options is to be able to choose one or more at some point. But after spending a lot of time expanding your theoretical option set towards this end pressure can begin to build. When you finally do choose something specific, you’d better get it right. Options thinking can make you so aware of opportunity cost (or in many cases, imagined, theoretical opportunity cost) of foregone activities that it puts an unbearable burden on whatever you do choose to be perfect. This short-circuits the best of all human learning techniques, trial and error. No trial occurs when error is so feared. The endless keeping of options open in search for the perfect assumes too much about your ability to know all variables – including your own changing desires and interests – and deprives you of one of the best discovery tools, failure. All this stress about choosing the mythical one true path leads to another problem.
Paralysis by Analysis
The ceaseless break-down comparisons, the cost-benefit analyses, the consideration of these seemingly weighty matters can itself become an activity so consuming it prevents you from all others. You can become bogged down in a quagmire of strategic planning and never take the definite actions necessary to achieve anything. The real problem is that inaction is also an action. Not choosing is a choice. Waiting, watching, thinking on the sidelines has a cost that’s even higher than the cost of choosing an imperfect opportunity. When you take opportunity B it means you can no longer take A or C. That’s the cost. But the benefit is you get whatever goodness is to be had from B, and the self-knowledge of how well B suits you. Even if you fail at it you gain something. When you get stuck analyzing all three options you not only miss out on A and C, but you forgo the benefits of B as well.
Expanding your options set can be intoxicating. For a time, it feels so fast paced and exciting. I could do anything! Why would I do this one thing when I could keep entertaining all the possible things I could do in my mind?
It’s alright to play with your options and expand them and think about them from time to time. But you’ve got to put options in their place as subordinate statistical playthings when compared to opportunities. Options don’t change the world or the holder of them. Actions do.