Why We Can't Commit to Anything

Modern life has become one giant paradox of choices

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We have endless options for things to do

Having been living in New York City for a few weeks now, I’m beginning to notice a common theme: there is no shortage of things to do here, and everyone is constantly busy.

It seems like people have 5 different events they could attend on any given night, but in a city with so much going on, there’s a chance that something even better might come up, so people rarely fully commit to anything.

This is the geographic center of abundance – the largest city in the country of abundance – and we’re living at the peak of mass production, mass distribution, and mass opportunity.

Maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as too much.

Freedom and the Paradox of Choice

A core value of living in the United States is freedom – freedom to do what we want, to believe what we want to believe, and to spend our time and energy on what we deem most important.

This sense of freedom runs so deep that now, especially among Gen Z, we are detaching from the bounds that traditionally “tied us down” – family, relationships, place, a particular job or career.

“Traditional” values like loyalty, duty to one’s country, and honesty have waned as a result.

It seems like, as a reaction to feeling like they live in a society in which the cards are stacked against them, Gen Z is breaking all ties to traditional cultural groups or institutions that require commitment, and distrust for those institutions is growing.

This third point is so true that Gen Z has a term for a relationship that exists, but is not a committed one — situationship(believe me, I don’t understand it either). Rather than actually define a real relationship, a semi-committed one is a lot easier, right?

At the same time, we live in a world where literally everything is abundant, and this is only becoming more and more true. We have unlimited choices when it comes to all of the ways we spend our time:

  • In our leisure — We have endless streams of content at the convenience of our phones, so we can find something to hold our attention no matter where we physically are in the world.

  • At work — Similarly, remote work options and a seemingly unlimited range of job opportunities have provided us with the ability to easily see what’s out there and test the waters.

  • In relationships — The digitization of dating has made our pool of potential partners magnitudes larger than before dating apps existed. Whereas before we were confined to our physical location (we can only be at one place at one time), now there are millions of potential matches quite literally at our fingertips.

In many ways, this growth in abundance has been a good thing. In general, more options means more competition, which often leads to better outcomes and more efficient markets.

Theoretically, with more things to do, more job opportunities, and more potential partners, we should be more likely to find the best in each of those categories.

But it’s not always so simple.

The unlimited number of options all across our lives has created a Paradox of Choice on a grand scale. While it’s commonly assumed that more choices means more control, which means more freedom, which means happiness, studies would show otherwise.

More choice is better to a point, until it’s not.

In a classic example, shoppers were more likely to approach and sample a jam tasting booth that included 24 jams than a booth that included only 6. Similarly, consumers reported more enjoyment from the decision-making process when they had more options to choose from.

But when it came to actually purchasing, 10x the number of people actually purchased from the smaller group of jams.

And it doesn’t stop there — the people from the larger group of jams were actually less satisfied with their choices than individuals who chose from the smaller group.

The classic jams Paradox of Choice example

And this study has been repeated across product categories time and time again.

In fact, it’s one reason why people love Trader Joe’s — no analysis paralysis, just a single private label option without any need to make a decision. Shoppers just trust that Trader Joe’s has given them the best product in the only option presented.

People don’t want more choices, they want to be more confident in the choices presented.

“The biggest mistake we make in marketing is that we believe that choice is a good thing.”

Scott Galloway

When forced to choose amongst a large range of options, we tend to leave the decision wondering “Could I have made a better choice?”

The common feeling of coping with uncertainty is anxiety. And the more options we add, the more uncertainty we add to the equation of “what could have been,” leading to, generally, more anxiety.

We have commitment issues

Put it all together and we have an increasing number of options all across our lives, a rising desire to “live our own lives” and detach from traditional cultural constraints, and rising levels of anxiety that come from wondering what could have been.

So what do we do as humans presented with unlimited options?

We just don’t make a decision at all.

Rather than commit to something and confront the reality that we could have made a better choice, we just don’t commit to anything.

But the problem with not committing to anything is that we no longer live our lives with the long-term future in mind.

  • Instead of building a family, casual dating well into our 30s has become commonplace. We see this in the average age people have children and the number of children we have (see record low replacement rates in the US and western nations).

  • Rather than commit to a long-term career, it’s easier to just float around and push off the decision of what we want to actually do with our lives (see our previous article on hedging, and how optionality for optionality’s sake isn’t always a good thing).

  • On an average Saturday night, rather than commit to making plans, we just toy with the idea of attending an event but never speak in certainties.

    “I’ll try to swing by.”

    Translation: I’m considering attending, but if we’re being honest, I’m hoping something better comes up so I don’t have to go.

    “7pm should work.”

    Translation: I’ll try to meet you at 7, but I don’t really respect your time enough to block you off in my schedule, so I’ll wait until it’s convenient to decide on a time.

But as we spoke about in a previous article, the best things in life are unlocked through the power of compounding. And compounding is only possible with patience – when we commit to something over a long time horizon.

We don’t get this:

Without this:

And I tend to believe that, in general, most of us individually (and society at-large) would be better off if we extended our time horizons.

The case for long-termism

As much as I love big cities, this is one area that many small towns tend to do well. If you live in a small town, you pretty much know everyone there; and, with just about every interaction, you treat people with respect, because you know you’re going to see them many times again.

On the contrary, in a big city, your average interaction is with one of millions of people, and chances are you won’t see that person ever again in your life. So what do you do? Don’t worry about remembering their name, heck, you aren’t even really concerned about what they think of you, so even if you’re not rude, you don’t really give them the time of day.

If you walk in front of a car while crossing the street, they blare their horn and tell you to go to hell. If you go on a few dates with someone and it doesn’t work out, you might just never hear from them again without any discussion.

Whether big cities or small towns are better is besides the point. I think we can all agree a community where people care about one another, regardless of if they know each other, is a community we’d like to live in.

But the universe has a funny way of rewarding kindness and respect, and you hear stories all the time about people whose lives changed when they least expected it, because they just so happened to be in the right place at the right time and met a certain person.

Personally, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for a single (unintended) conversation I had as a sophomore in college while waiting in line for lunch with one of the most well-known bankers on Wall Street.

I was at the end of the buffet line standing next to this guy, and the line was moving slow, so I decided to start chatting with him. To my luck, he just so happened to take a liking to me because we both liked running (we didn’t even talk about finance). Fast forward a year and he ultimately helped me land an investment banking internship at a great bank, which later gave the startup I now work for a reason to even give me a chance to interview, which recently led me to New York, where I’m now typing this blog post.

It’s six sigma events like these that ultimately impact the trajectory of our lives, but the point is that any number of things could have happened that completely derailed the trajectory of my career to this point, and just one conversation with a stranger made a literally life-altering difference.

All of this to say, being nice to strangers because you never know how that person will change your life is generally a good principle to follow.

So back to the point around long-termism — it goes not just for people, but also for our possessions.

Are you more likely to take better care of a house that you own or a house that you rent? Probably the house that you own.

On the internet, many of us hide behind the veil of anonymity. Unfortunately, when we post anonymously, we aren’t responsible for our actions.

The trait of ownership enables us to place extra care for things – whether that be physical possessions, our jobs, or our relationships. Ownership means taking responsibility for outcomes (good or bad) and being empowered to make decisions that can better support those outcomes.

When we don’t commit to anything, we show no ownership, because that would involve taking responsibility for our actions.

This is why I find the trends of Gen Z “checking out” at work troubling. We’re becoming a generation of people afraid to commit to anything.

Out of short attention spans, fear of being wrong, or just plain discomfort around confrontation, I worry that we’re becoming too short-termist in our thinking, lacking any ownership, and not concerned about building long-term families, wealth, or societal contribution.

So what can we do?

In reality, many of these trends are not due to any one person, but the result of the changes to the society we live in at-large. It’s probably no coincidence that the rise in commitment issues has grown in tandem with TikTok, dating apps, Netflix, short attention spans, ADHD, depression, lack of purpose, sedentary lifestyles, and loneliness. These issues are all interconnected.

Technology becoming more pervasive (i.e. social media, TV streaming, and dating apps) has left us with infinite choices.

Infinite choice has led to more fear of missing out or fear of “what could have been,” so we often end up not making any decision at all.

And without committing to anything, we lose our sense of meaning.

I’m as guilty of these behaviors as anyone, and I think the best we can do is to take small actions and be more thoughtful around how we can exhibit more commitment and ownership in our day-to-day.

Actions like:

  • Being kind to every single person we interact with, and assuming we will see them again.

  • “Acting like we own the place.” – figuratively, of course, but we can take responsibility and personal accountability for outcomes at work, regardless of our level of seniority.

  • Putting down our phones and getting out into the real world – that’s where the best relationships are formed & memories are made, but it’s also where we screw up and can learn from where we fall short.

  • When someone invites us to something, we can be more straightforward. An honest “Yes, I’ll be there.” or “No, sorry, not this time.” is better than an ambiguous “I’ll try to make it.”

  • Think about the bigger picture – what will our 80 year old selves wish we would have done? Remembering the power of compounding, and how doing the little things consistently (like investing in relationships, financial wealth, and contributing to a cause bigger than ourselves) will have dramatic impacts on our future selves, as well as the lives of our children and grandchildren to follow.

Building something meaningful requires a long-term perspective, commitment, and ownership.

Whatever it is that we’re building – a career, a friendship, a family, a business, a personal goal, an impact on the world – it will take time. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

Leo Tolstoy

“So yes, I’ll be there at 7.”

Life is too short and too precious to half-commit to things.


Fresh Finds

This week’s fresh find is a little different than usual, but I’ve been having so much fun with it that I thought I’d share. I found this game last week and the tab has been open on my browser since then. Anytime I have 30 seconds or a free few minutes, I’ve been popping in to add a few cities. What’s crazy is I’ve entered 500 different cities across the US, including nearly all major cities, and I’m still only at 30% of the US population covered. Just puts into perspective how massive this country is, and how there’s so much more to America than New York and LA.

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