We always have more options than we think

This post was originally written for The Startup, a publication for makers. I’m more active on Medium than here, so you can get all my posts by following me there or, paywall-free, by subscribing to my newsletter.

Musee de Montmartre, taken by me December 2018.

For a few months in my late teens, I saw a therapist whose main tactic was to whip out a different esoteric board game in each session for us to play, then attempt to extract a vague insight about me from the experience.

While neither of us seemed to take it particularly seriously and she made no attempt to halt my incessant sarcasm, I somehow found it more useful than any of the other types of therapy I’d attended at that point.

In one session, she produced the game Rush Hour. For the uninitiated, it involves attempting to slide a bunch of plastic cars around a board so a particular one can exit through a gap in the wall. It gets progressively harder as you add more cars.

Once we got a few levels in, I found myself stuck and couldn’t figure out the solution. I refused to stop and spent a good 15 minutes fiddling around, becoming furious at myself. Why was it so hard?

When I finally gave up, she pointed out that, the whole time, there’d been one grey car which I hadn’t touched — and it was the one that, by moving it a little, would let me finish the level.

For once, I wasn’t sceptical about the lesson she drew from this: sometimes we don’t notice all the options available to us. Sometimes our blind spots block us. Sometimes we don’t realise the ways in which we’re restricting or limiting ourselves.

For days afterwards, this nagged at my thoughts. I tried to envision myself hovering above, looking down on my life as a board game, attempting to figure out where the cars were that I was refusing to move, even if that was the answer to my problems. It took something as small and silly as that to show me I had options that weren’t obvious.

***

We always have more options than we think, even if some of us have many more than others, and some of us are restricted in ways we can’t control.

There’s always a perspective we can’t see, an angle we can’t imagine, a workaround we can’t fathom, another way of doing things. There are always more ways to be and to live and to think than we know.

It’s an all too common fallacy that anything different to our current path is inherently wrong. We got stuck on a narrow road, the ones our parents and grandparents and teachers and friends shaped for us, and we stop looking for alternatives.

Maybe we don’t even believe they’re there. We think what we know is the only way.

We don’t see how we’re blocking ourselves. We’re blind to the little grey car we refuse to slide out of the way and free ourselves, so we go round and round in circles. Everyone is ignorant because we don’t see everything that’s around us.

Imagine this: what if you viewed everything you’ve done so far — in your career, your creative projects, your relationships, your lifestyle — as research? What if you looked at all you’ve done as preparation for the next step, instead of sliding further along your well-worn groove? What if you viewed all of your mistakes and successes, failures, triumphs and disasters as lessons?

Taking all that research, what would your next step be? Where would it take you? What have you really learned? When you look at it this way, the options seem to open up.

The next step isn’t necessarily another one along this same path. Sometimes it’s switching to another path, or hacking a new one in the undergrowth, or pausing for a while.

Whenever we feel stuck, confined, trapped, lost, out of options, unable to see another path, we’re wrong. There is almost certainly one, if not many.

***

How do you find those other options?

You can journal. Self-reflect. Make lists of every option you can think of and keep writing more and more down until you find yourself going off into tangents you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise.

You can ask people you trust or whose opinions you admire. Tell them you’re looking for options. Ask for their thoughts. It’s not always helpful to ask what they would do in your situation, because they’re not. Yet they will have ideas you can’t fathom. A conversation with a delightful hippy-type couple I met by a campfire when I was 15 prompted me to go to college instead of staying at school for the last two years, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

When you’re really stuck and if you can, a therapist can help you see outside yourself and find options. A different therapist to the aforementioned one pointed out that nothing positive that happens to me makes me happy because I don’t celebrate it, I immediately jump to thinking about all the problems it creates. Which showed that I do have the option to let myself enjoy my successes, because what’s the point otherwise?

You can expose yourself to ideas outside your normal filter bubble. Go into a second-hand bookstore, find that big box of dirt-cheap tattered old books they always have and pick half a dozen at random. Read blog posts by people who aren’t like you or try to spend time around strangers or anything outside your norm. Go to random talks and workshops. Music festivals are ideal for this.

Heck, you can flip a coin or get a tarot reading or look at your tea leaves or use an Ouija board — not because these things work, because they are essentially random and subjective.

***

The hard part is not finding options. Once you look, they’re everywhere. The hard part is choosing one and sticking to it. It’s finding the conviction to stick to it for long enough.

At the end of The Truman Show, we see Truman stepping through a doorway from his fabricated world into the real one. But before that, we watch as his fake world fractures, as he starts to notice oddities and gaps in the facade, and it gradually dawns on him that reality, as presented to us, is not always all there is.

Up until the moment he gets in his boat and escapes, every instant of his life has been steered for him — quite literally directed from above. He doesn’t have real options. We don’t see what happens after his arrival in the real world. It’s easy to imagine how overwhelming the deluge of new options would be.

We can’t pick a new option if we can’t see it in the first place. When we’re stuck, we can't progress without recognising how we’re blocking ourselves.