The Burden of Choice

Jennifer Chan
5 min readMay 10, 2018

Are we unhappy because we suffer from a lack of choice or because we’re overwhelmed with choice?

Since high school, when I impulsively picked up a book on summaries of major philosophical thought, I’ve always be interested in existentialism. At its essence, it’s the belief that we always have the freedom to make a choice — no matter how terrific or terrible our circumstances are.

For example, prisoners of war still possess choice: submit to rule, negotiate, commit suicide, resist in a non-violent manner, or counter-attack. None of these options are ideal, but no one can force you to choose one over the other.

Fortunately, if you’re reading this then it’s unlikely you’re not in that situation. Instead, for most of us, our choices involve where we spend our money, how we earn our living, who we build a home with, and how we treat our health.

Jean-Paul Sartre believed that we are personally responsible for every choice that we make. The weight of this amazing responsibility, however, scares us rather than empowers us, which leads to a lot of inner anguish.

Overwhelmed with choice, we seek (and create) external moral systems to follow — values, principles, religion, etc. This relieves some of the anxiety that we experience knowing that our life is totally within our hands.

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre describes a concept called, mauvaise foi’ (“bad faith”):

“The habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making that choice.”

We end up stuck in situations that make us unhappy, especially when it comes to our careers. We convince ourselves that we are unable to switch jobs because of something or other. We tell ourselves that we need the false sense of security of an employment contract that says those two magic words: “permanent, full-time.”

Jennifer Chan

Productivity, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of excellence at work. Writing now at jennifertchan.substack.com.