You Always Have a Choice

Hand in a wheat field

(Image: narciss)

Have you ever looked at an unfavorable life circumstance and thought that you are going through this because you “don’t have a choice”?

I often hear people saying: “I have to do XYZ.” “I need to do that.” “I have no other option.” “I have no choice.” This can apply to anything, from their reactions to a common problem, to being in a dilemma, to being in small fixes. The most common situation is when people are in a job they dislike. They remain in a job they hate because they need a stable income to support their expenses and family.

While people may think that they have “no choice,” I beg to defer. All of us always have choices, and we are exercising them every day, every minute, every second.

You Always Have A Choice

Sure, you may not have any choice or say over what happened in the past.  However, you always have a choice in what you think, say, and do from hereon. To quote Randy Pausch from The Last Lecture, you can’t change the cards you are dealt with, but you can change how you play them.

Say you are in an accounting job that you dislike. You want to pursue your passion in bakery. However, you have financial needs and family responsibilities to fulfill, which makes your source of income from your accounting job important. These are things you can’t change and you don’t have a choice per se.

You do, however, have a choice in how you react.

Some may think: “How can there even be a choice? I have to remain in the company! If I don’t continue working here, I wouldn’t have the finances to support my family and pay my bills. If I can’t do that, not only am I not fulfilling my duties as a filial child, I can’t have a proper livelihood either. Any other options is just not practical.”

Of course you have a choice. You could quit and pursue your passion. However, for the moment, you choose to stay on in your job. You choose to stay on for now because you feel that the benefits of staying on outweigh the benefits of quitting.

You Make Choices All The Time

In life, you are making many different choices every day. It’s just that you may not recognize them due to familiarity blindness. Let’s break down the various choices you make in a regular day.

  • You wake up at 7am to get ready for work. You feel really tired but decide to wake up as you want to be on time. (Choice #1)
  • You go to the bathroom to wash your face and brush your teeth. (Choice #2)
  • You pick out an outfit to wear to work, over other clothes. (Choice #3)
  • You take a train to work, rather than a bus or a cab. (Choice #4)
  • You start off your routine for the day when you reach the workplace. (Choice #5)
  • Your boss gives you extra work to do, even though you already have a lot of work on the plate. You take it on without complaining since he’s the boss. (Choice #6)

Can you see that everything you do is actually a choice? Actions, whether they are benign or life changing, are all choices you make. When you choose a particular path, it is a choice that you make. Let’s look at Choices #1 and #6, since these are probably the scenarios that people experience the most dissonance with.

  • Choice #1 — There are other options here. For example, (a) You could have just slept in till 8am (instead of 7am) and gone to work late. You didn’t because you want to maintain your integrity and you don’t want to create unnecessary issues. Or even, (b) You could have called in sick, but you didn’t want to let the work roll over to the next day. So in light of the less favorable options, you choose to wake up at 7am to go to work.
  • Choice #6 — One possible path is to tell your boss about your current workload and reject the extra work. However, you are uncomfortable about possible repercussions if you push back and get so upfront with your boss about the situation. So you choose to take on the work without complaint.

Everything we do is a choice that we make, from the simplest actions right down to the life-changing ones.

Taking Ownership of Your Action

Sometimes, you may not recognize that you have a choice because the circumstances are daunting. They overpower you to the point where life looks like it is just a series of constraints and you don’t feel that you have any power or choice over what you are facing. Some of my coaching clients reach this stage of helplessness because of overwhelming circumstances from their past.

Maybe your parents are giving you a hard time about what you should pursue as a career. Maybe you are in a job you hate. Maybe your manager is cutting your salary due to recession. Maybe you just got retrenched. Maybe people around you are discouraging you from pursuing your dreams.

You can either (a) react in a helpless manner and continue to suffer in the problem (by the way, it’s a still choice to think that you don’t have a choice, albeit an unconscious one), or you can (b) muster your courage and take action to create the outcome you desire. The first path will lead you to become a bitter, disjointed, and unhappy person who gets a limited view of life. The second path will allow you to live life proactively, making things happen and creating results you want to see. It’s your pick on which outcome you want. From where I stand, the second option definitely looks like the better one.

Every so often, people would complain about how they dislike what they are doing. They complain about the same thing like a broken record, over and over again. Yet if you ask them what they have been doing about it, they would say “nothing,” or they would come up with many reasons to justify why they haven’t been doing anything. It basically sums up to “I don’t have a choice.”

I understand this pain and helplessness. I have felt this way before about certain life situations. Yet if I had adopted this attitude, I would never be able to get my coaching business up and running. I would be complaining about how my life isn’t what I want, how I’m working in a job I feel empty about because I need financial security, how the small coaching industry in Singapore makes it nearly impossible for me to realize my vision, how my parents are disapproving of me starting my business, how people kept discouraging me from leaving a well-paying and promising career especially during a recession, and a zillion other reasons.

However, I realized that whatever I did in the past were all my choices. I was in a job I didn’t love, sure (this was in 2008). But my job helped me in other ways, such as accelerating my personal growth and allowing me to build up my savings. I was in a country with a very limited personal development industry, sure. But I can build my audience online and reach out to people overseas instead.

I accepted responsibility for everything that had happened, whether it was seemingly within my control or not, and took charge to create the life of my dreams. I rose above my constraints to create what I wanted. Because of that, I’m doing what I love today.

If you keep thinking that you have no choice over your situation, that’s exactly how it will remain. You will always stay as the person who is powerless over your life circumstances. But nothing’s going to change unless you take ownership for what’s going on in your life.

When you recognize that your life is your life, and everything you do is inherently a choice that you make, that’s when a shift occurs. Rather than blame the external environment for what you are facing, you take action and become proactive in getting what you want. Rather than feel victimized by your situation, you will gain power over it. Things will start shaping themselves into what you want them to be, because you are actively working on them.

Here are some questions I will leave you with:

  • Is there anything you see yourself doing because “there is no choice?”
  • In these cases, what are the other options you could have taken but didn’t, for one reason or another?
  • Can you see that whatever you are doing, whether it is a status-quo decision or not, is actually a choice that you made?
  • Moving forward, what is your envisioned outcome for this dilemma?
  • What are some immediate steps you can take to move yourself out of this problem?

No matter how things may seem, you always have a choice. Only by accepting responsibility for it, can you finally progress towards what you want.

Also read: How To Start When You Have Nothing