Where’s the Sandbar?

I was standing on a sandbar, in chest-high seawater. I decided to swim over the sandbar. After a few yards, decided to stand again, as I was uneasy with swimming.

Oops! Where was that sandbar?

Time to panic and deploy my safety net: elementary backstroke. After what seemed an eternity, I did reach the shore.

I was lucky that beautiful summer day years ago.

Lucky because there was no rip-tide or even gentler current that would whisk me away.

Lucky because there was no wave to enter my nostrils during my backstroke.

I was also foolish that day. What was I thinking? Swimming in the ocean after learning to swim just a few months prior!

“Luck is for fools. It’s all they have to hope for.” — Stephen King

I haven’t swum in the ocean since. Even fools can learn!

Freedom can be a problem

A simple mindset is your solution

Freedom is to not feel like this guy.

Freedom is our ability to roam where we like, when we like, how we like.

Freedom is our ability to do what we like.

Freedom is our ability to choose what we experience.

Is this choice, the freedom of choice, the absolute best you can have?

Say, you go shopping. Grocery shopping. With a cart full of stuff, you approach the check stand. If your grocery store is like mine, what do you find? Several checkout lines and a choice for you to make. Perfect, right?

But if you are like me, the pressure builds…you take a quick look at the length of each line…perhaps even how many items are ahead of you in each line. After a fast calculation in real-time, you make a quick decision and before someone else beats you to it, join a line of your choice.

Perfect, right? If you are like me, I can guarantee you that one of the lines you rejected will move faster and you just kick yourself for your poor choice!

I want to contrast this with another store we used to have in our area, Fry’s Electronics, which I found refreshingly unique in their approach. When you are ready, you join a single line, sometimes long, and wait your turn. With several cashiers serving, the line moves fast and you feel good about the first-in-first-out service.

Did you notice that you had zero choices in the second scenario? Yet you felt properly served; at least I always did.

What’s this paradox?

How can choice be bad? What does this say about freedom of choice?

In the supermarket scenario, I have, at times, observed gleefully that I did better than people in the other lines; I got through well before people who were already in the lines I had rejected. When that happens, it gives me a cheap thrill for having enjoyed an unfair advantage. So, it’s not always bad; just chancy. Still seems less desirable than having a fair process that serves people in order.

What’s the real story here?

The solution

I turn to the serenity prayer to put things in perspective:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

 — Serenity Prayer

In the Fry’s Electronics example, I have no choice. No freedom to change anything. So, I accept whatever comes my way and practice serenity by taking solace in the first-in-first-out justice. I ignore the lack of freedom to engineer any unfair advantage in my favor.

In the supermarket, I try my best to make my choice — it takes courage to make the choice because I can easily be wrong if I care about the first-in-first-out service. Look at the benefits choice offers: I may choose a line because I like the cashier working that line. Or that the line is not in a high traffic location. Choice opens new doors.

There’s more

When I first moved to the USA, I was pursuing graduate study and went through the usual application process to gain acceptance in graduate programs. I applied to 10 different universities to increase my chances of success.

Guess what, I got into exactly one program and struck out with the other nine! Talk about lack of choice. This actually was a blessing because there was zero pressure. No chance of any remorse for a wrong choice made in choosing the program. Everything has worked out and I have thrived.

I know of a different scenario unfolding just now. There is an instance of someone having a job offer in hand and holding out for a better offer that may be coming through in a matter of days. By choosing to wait beyond Sept 30, he loses one of the incentives in the first offer worth thousands of dollars! If the second offer doesn’t come through, what heartache! If the second offer does come through, he will have the truly difficult choice of turning down one of the two stellar offers. This is not anything out of the ordinary; millions of people have faced similar predicaments.

While the choices are tough in the short term, the loss of the incentive bonus can be offset in the future with the advantages realized by the second job offer, should it come through.

What’s the lesson here?

In both pairs of scenarios above, lack of choice comes through as a ‘blessing’. But we need to look deeper and ponder the case with the choice to understand its benefits. Its core benefit of providing desirable choices should not be overlooked by giving too much importance to the ‘problem’.

Freedom of choice is, indeed, a blessing. It just tests our character at times and keeps us on our toes to keep making rational decisions. 

Once in a while, when we are faced with the lack of freedom to choose, we just need to see the opportunity to be serene!

The above is my response to a writing prompt.

I am beginning a new project — responding to the “Writehere” writing prompts from the Creators Hub, a Medium publication (you may recall that I am a Medium member).

I am collecting these prompts here and plan to work my way through them at my own pace.

In this post, I offer my response to the prompt that started it all:

Week 1, prompt 1: What does “freedom” mean to you?