I see it in my son’s face and I recognize it completely because I know the feeling. It is panic, and it is there because someone has told him (maybe me!) that he gets to be and do anything he wants in his life.
“Anything” is a lot of things. All of them, in fact. How can you pick the right one?
When we are children, it is a common question to have the adults around us ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It seems pretty harmless, and as children we are usually allowed to try different answers to the questions as often as we want. One day we want to be a truck driver, the next day a nuclear physicist. The pressure is not yet on.
All that changed for me when I entered young adulthood… and that is what I recognize in my son’s eyes. Being smart and capable means you could do a lot of different things. So how do you choose the right one? The stakes seem so high!
Reading Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, shed some light on this issue of choice in a whole new way. In part, this book is a discussion of what happens to consumers and their buying habits when the number of choices they have grows. Today, as you no doubt know, the rise of the internet is giving us more choices than we have ever had before. Marketers and salespeople study us consumers like mad, trying to understand how we make those choices so they can influence our purchasing decisions. This is where my “Aha!” came in.
When shoppers are presented with too many choices, it turns out they often don’t buy anything at all. They freeze and go into overwhelm, kind of like me and my son when asked to choose from so many possible lifetime occupations. So, maybe too much choice is a bad thing. Maybe sellers should just limit choices and keep everyone calm. Maybe they should just choose for you.
Except most of us don’t like that either. We know we have the right to run our own lives and we protest lack of choice vigorously. “Don’t tell me what to do! You are not the boss of me!”
Thankfully, there is a way across the minefield. The answer? Offer us helpful ways to make our choice when there are many options. Recommendations, filters, ratings and a variety of ways to categorize options: all of these are techniques to help us choose, and all of them are the specialty of the internet. Looking at a shelf stocked with 1500 different kinds of breakfast cereal can cause us to give up altogether and just decide to stick with pancakes. But give us a lot of ways to sort it all out (gluten-free? lightly-sweetened? best-selling?) and our confidence to make a choice that we will be satisfied with grows.
After reading this information, suddenly I see a new way to understand the reaction my son (and I) feel to that age-old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I now understand the potential impact of guidance counselors, personality inventories, mentors and internship programs. These are all ways to filter the choices, increase our comfort levels and grow that confidence that we can find a good fit for our unique talents.
This is not revolutionary news. Most of us encourage our kids to explore and try a few different life areas because we want them to choose something they are happy with. However, knowing that there is decision-making light at the end of the tunnel, this mom will be encouraging that exploration in a much more conscious way than before.