Making Sense of Infinite Possibilities

You could say that one reason we can make simple decisions each day with relative ease is that we only have a handful of options to choose from, and that makes it easier to make a reasonably good choice.

For instance, if you only have so much food in your home, or so many stores and restaurants within reach, then you may find it easier to decide what to eat each day. You don’t have to consider infinite options. You narrow your focus to what’s most accessible.

But what about making bigger life choices, like what career path to explore next? This is a situation where you may feel like you’re drowning in possibilities. There are so many factors to consider. Many decisions could lead to positive outcomes, but many could lead to undesirable ones. What if you pursue a career you don’t like? How do you know how to make this choice?

What does it mean to have clarity in such a situation? How can you possibly achieve clarity when there are so many options to consider?

The simple answer is that you must collapse the possibility space to make it smaller. You must somehow narrow your options.

How can you do this? Aren’t all things possible?

You may have this sense that in each moment, you can make any possible decision. But is that really accurate?

Consider a simple decision like what to have for your next meal. On the one hand, it may seem like you could potentially eat any possible food for that meal. This may seem especially true if you live in a big city with lots of accessible restaurants within easy walking or driving distance. You may literally have thousands of different meal options accessible to you.

Now and then you may even feel overwhelmed by all the choices. But somehow you still decide, and you make such decisions every day. Even deciding not to eat anything is a choice.

How on earth do you do that? How do you face such immense possibilities and still decide?

When you actually make such a decision, you don’t consider every possible option. You only consider a small number of possibilities. You collapse the space by giving attention to certain factors that will eliminate most options. You might consider your mood, how much time you have, the cost, the relative distance, your cravings, past memories, and so on. Sometimes you’ll simply think in terms of patterns. Ultimately you may find yourself making the decision pretty quickly. And then you get to experience the result.

Now if you get a bad result, you may avoid making that same choice again in the future. And if you get a good result, you’ll probably be more likely to make a similar choice in the future.

So over time you may develop some internal heuristics to help you make better choices. You can rely upon past experience to guide your future choices.

When you’re new to a situation, you can make a choice semi-randomly or based on simpler factors like convenience. You may also lower your expectations and not worry so much about a bad outcome, knowing that such outcomes are more likely when you lack experience.

But you also have another option, which is to let someone else make the decision for you. For instance, if you go to a new city where you know someone, you could ask that person for a recommendation and then just eat at whichever place they suggest.

Letting other people decide for you is what you probably experienced a lot when you were a child. Someone else decided what to feed you, and you just ate it. And you also had your internal reaction to what you ate, which helped give you a basis for making decisions on your own later in life.

Notice the power of those internal reactions. I think that sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to this.

How did you discover your favorite foods? You probably tried a bunch of foods, and you paid attention to your internal reactions when you ate them. And somewhere along the way, you learned to predict that certain foods would give you favorable internal reactions when you ate them. Of course there are other factors involved too, like the company you’re with or how frequently you eat certain meals, but over time you learned to make predictions from past experience.

So first you had to map the possibility space well enough by choosing semi-randomly or by letting someone else decide for you. And eventually that led to some improvement in clarity about what you liked to eat.

We could say then that the clarity we seek is the ability to predict our internal responses to different events. This predictive ability becomes more accurate as we gain experience. Without experience we cannot make accurate predictions, and hence we cannot expect to have intelligent clarity.

Here’s the counter-intuitive part. We may think that gaining more experience and exposing ourselves to more options and possibilities will lead to massive overwhelm. It’s the paradox of choice, isn’t it? The more options we have, the less clear the correct choice is, and the more overwhelmed we feel, right? But this only applies to unexplored spaces.

Suppose you walk into a wine store, and you’re thinking of buying a bottle of wine. And suppose that you’re a total novice when it comes to buying and drinking wine. You may have a hard time choosing. There are too many options to consider. It’s hard to make a good decision. And even after making the decision, you’re likely to doubt yourself.

But now suppose you’re a master sommelier, and you walk into that same store. Are you likely to feel just as overwhelmed as the novice? It’s more likely that you’ll find it easier to make what you consider a good choice – a choice that gives you a positive internal reaction. You must still confront the same massive stock of wine bottles as the novice, but your greater experience cuts the field of possibilities down to a manageable size. Your superior mental map of the space allows you to rule out entire sections of the store as unlikely to yield the results you seek. And you’ll probably consider fewer options than the novice will, and you’ll be able to make your choice with less stress and greater ease.

Experience compresses reality. As you gain understanding and skill within a pocket of this existence, you also refine your palette. You learn where to go and what to do to achieve worthwhile results that satisfy you. What’s counter-intuitive is that as you expand your circle of experience, your level of clarity will tend to increase as well. As you explore what appears to be a vast space of infinite possibilities, you construct mental models that bring order to the chaos, and this has the effect of simplifying your impressions of the space of possibilities.

Another way to express this idea is by saying that clarity is at least partially a result of the relationship between the explorer and the terrain. A novice explorer in uncharted territory cannot hope to have much clarity. But if the novice simply explores anyway, even if in a bumbling way initially, the explorer will gradually learn the territory, and the explorer’s sense of clarity within that territory will increase.

Now transplant this same explorer to a new territory and repeat the process numerous times. There are surprises to be found in each new area, but every surprise encountered improves the mental maps and models of the explorer. Eventually our explorer becomes less frequently surprised and may even become good at finding the most worthwhile and valuable parts of new expanses of terrain. The experience of clarity stems from the explorer’s increasingly sophisticated mental maps as well as an increasingly sophisticated set of personal preferences. This is because both understanding and desires are refined and polished by experience.

It’s fair to say – and to accept – that there is no clarity to be found outside of experience. Experience is the mother of clarity. And this points us in an actionable direction. If we wish to gain clarity, we must get busy gaining experience. And we’ll generally achieve the greatest gains by courting fresh, new experiences as opposed to repeating previous ones. Thus, if you want to hit the accelerator in terms of clarity gains, make a habit of embracing new and different experiences. Go where you’ve never been. Do what you’ve never done. Try what you’ve never tried. This will have the triple benefit of upgrading your mental models of reality (truth), refining your palette of desires (love), and boosting your ability to blaze a trail to your desires (power).

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Read Making Sense of Infinite Possibilities by Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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