When I launched a newsletter accompanying this blog, I named it: ‘Unrestricted’. I came up with this name on the basis of the organizational purpose of the company I ran for two years called Infloat. Recently, the company has stopped operations, but I find that its organizational purpose is more relevant than ever. Specifically, our company’s purpose was “to activate people in making unrestricted choices“.
As an entrepreneur in Europe, that was a lofty goal for a 2-man startup, but it was something we wanted to strive for. After all, my co-founder and I felt that people around us made too many choices on the basis of the wrong reasons. Choices about relationships, careers, housing, or other important life issues.
People often do not see the other options available, or are restricted in their decision-making by certain expectations, biases and other limitations. That is something I still feel — that people are too restricted in decision-making. But what do I mean with this ‘restrictedness’? Who or what restricts us from making a specific choice or decision? And even if we can define what ‘unrestricted’ means, how can we make sure to make lift these limitations — and make decisions entirely without restrictions?
What do Unrestricted Choices or Unbiased Decisions mean?
What unrestricted choices mean in this context — the context of decision-making — is partly personal. However, to me it means making choices without limitations. To make decisions without bias. To let go of preconceived notions of what you should do. To not being limited by what other people think, by what is expected from you by society, your parents, friends, partners or the world at large. To think beyond existing patterns and see additional options or choices that you did not see before, or that did not seem like an option at all.
Perhaps that’s still a rather vague concept. But we can clarify this by zooming in, and looking at what or who may sometimes restrict us in our decision-making.
By what are we biased?
So what restricts us? What biases us in making certain choices or decisions in life — whether it comes to our relationships, work, finances, happiness, or something else entirely? Aren’t our lives un-scripted? Don’t we all believe in free will?
While there is a lot to say about free will — and we won’t get too philosophical here — I do believe that restrictions, limitations, censorship, obstacles, biases and blockades exist for many of us. We can think of countless examples, but here are a few that I want to mention.
Societal Restrictions on Decision-Making
However you call it, when making a decision, we often ‘feel’ the expectations from society — or ‘the way things should be’. Consider for instance the way we approach our career or family life. We’re supposed to get a job after graduating, we’re supposed to work a few years for the same company, and we’re suppposed to slowly but surely work our way up. We’re supposed to get a partner sometime in our twenties, marry that person, and get kids soon after.
Certainly, there are some local differences depending on which country or city you live in. But by and large, such expectations really pervade our culture. And we feel these expectations particularly when we want to make a choice that goes against a pre-existing norm. Let’s say for instance you want to move abroad, or take a 3-year sabbatical in your twenties. There’s a fair chance that people around you will discourage you, because it goes against existing norms. “Why would you? No one does that in their twenties! And it will hurt your long-term career prospects!”
Value-Based Restrictions from Friends and Family
Similarly, we can be restricted by our family and friends. Take some time and think about what your friends and family members have in common, and the values they share. Whatever these values are — from frugality to honesty — it is very likely that sometimes somehow they influence your decision-making.
In my personal case, a majority of my family members have studied for a particular career; they studied medicine to become a doctor, or studied law to become a lawyer. In contrast, I studied politics and economics, but did not become a politician or economist. Because this was uncommon in our family, it was sometimes difficult to follow a different path. And even in cases when your parents (or others) support you in making a choice that goes against what is seen as ‘normal’, you still have to face your own doubts and the (often assumed) opinions of others.
Our Cognitive Biases (Kahneman & Tversky)
And then there are the most elusive decision-restricting viarables of them all: cognitive (or psychological) biases. Anyone who has read Thinking Fast and Slow or has heard about the term ‘behavioral economics’, will have heard of this concept before.
Popularized by Kahneman and Tversky (who started publishing their research back in the 70s!), we are all restricted somehow by specific biases. Specifically, we encounter a cognitive bias when we’re prone to take a certain action that would otherwise be illogical to take.
Examples of such biases are the confirmation bias (you actively look for information and evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs), anchoring (you relate the options to a decision to the first option you’ve received), false consensus effect (you overestimate the amount of people that agree with you), and many more.
Just listing these biases is not enough. To really show you how they restrict our decision-making, it is imperative to give an example. Take for instance the availability heuristic. In essence, this means that we attach greater importance to information that comes to mind quickly.
Now let’s say you think about moving. You either want to go to the United States, or someplace in South America. South America is a big place. But with stories about drugs and gang violence and Netflix shows like Narcos, the first image that comes to mind when thinking about South America is not too positive. So instead, you choose to move to the USA: “the land of the free and home of the brave”.
Here, we see the availability heuristic in action. You haven’t actually considered both options on their merits — rather, you’ve based your decision on information that was most easily available (i.e. that in South America drugs and crime run rampant). Obviously, this is just one example of a bias, but there are many more that can influence our decision-making.
Limiting Our Decisions by Self-Censorship
Above, I briefly mentioned the assumed opinions of others. Another highly important way we often feel restricted in our decision-making is by self-censorship. What do I mean with this?
Literally, self-censorship is “the exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid criticism”. In other words, we often specifically NOT go for a specific option, because we’re afraid of what others might think of us — even if we didn’t actually ask or verify this opinion of others.
Suppose you’re at the Starbucks and want to order some coffee. You walk up to the counter, glance at the display, and suddenly you see this massive piece of red velvet cake with Oreo toppings and extra pieces of chocolate. Sounds amazing, right? If you were by yourself, there would’ve been no doubt in your mind to “have your cake and eat it too”. That Red Velvet would be gone in no-time.
You see this massive piece of red velvet cake with Oreo toppings and extra pieces of chocolate. Sounds amazing, right?
But in this particular case, the Starbucks is packed. It’s filled with people who you expect to have a particular opinion of you when buying and eating that piece of cake, all for yourself. So if it was just up to your desires, the choice would be clear. But in this case, you want to avoid criticism (even though this criticism is assumed and only exists inside your head!), so you choose not to buy that delicious piece of heaven after all.
This is just a (perhaps somewhat odd) example, but self-censorship happens all the time. And it’s not necessarily bad, but when we’re making important decisions, it’s good to know when you’re restricted, and when you’re censoring yourself. To ask yourself: What assumptions am I making here? And is this what I really want?
The Goal: Not Unrestricted Decision-Making, but Accepting the Consequences
Considering all of these ways in which our unrestricted choices are in fact limited by what society thinks, the values of the people around us, specific biases and our self-censoring beliefs, may lead us to question everything around us. After all, if we accept that we’ve been heavily influenced in our decision-making, how do we know that we’ve ended up here because of our own personal volition?
That may be a frightening thought, but my goal with this article is not to make you rethink your life choices. If you’ve followed a traditional career or life — and if you have a house, a dog, a wife or husband, children and a job as a teacher, doctor or lawyer, then that’s fine with me. But what’s even finer with me, is if you’ve accepted this.
Let me ask you this: Have you accepted that the choices you made, brought you to where you are today? If you decide to go to work tomorrow, just like any other day, have you accepted that decision and are you happy with it? Illustrating that question is the goal of this article. It’s to show you that there are often other options, even though I don’t urge you to take these. I simply want to show them to you.
Like Morpheus said in one of my all-time favorite movies, the Matrix:
I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.
But in contrast to the Matrix, there is no right or wrong here. Walking through the door or not walking through the door — it’s all the same to me. But knowing that the door exists, knowing that there are other doors out there, doors that you might have not considered in the first place, or doors you might not have seen because they were hidden or because you thought they weren’t meant for you to open, that is the point of this article — and more generally, of my newsletter. To have you realize that a decision, and especially big life decisions, have more options than you think. And perhaps also to try and care less about what other people think of your decisions.
As always, it’s easier to give advice than to follow it. So even though I have taken a slightly different route (in terms of my career) than others, I’m certain that my choices aren’t unrestricted; that many of my decisions are heavily influenced by a variety of variables. And to be fully honest with you, depending on how I feel, I have or haven’t fully accepted that.