A lawyer once told me to- when faced with a difficult question- to reply “it depends”. His explanation was that everything depends on another factor. Like moon phases affect the ocean tides, context is shaping our reality. A middle-aged man dating a 18 year old might be judged, while the same man going on a date with a 17 year old could end up in front of a judge. When it comes to where we are in life–it also depends. Sociodemographic aspects, outer circumstances, abilities and life decisions will shape each individual’s path in life.
For some being 27 would mean to be settled in a professional position and having a clear idea of where they are headed (at least career wise), others might already have four children and a partner. Back in school, I was convinced I would have a stable career and a husband by the age of 27. It sounded old and far away. Now at 27, I’m convinced I will not have the stable employment I had once envisioned for myself, nor would I want it. The idea of being married scares me. Yet, I question every decision I made up until now.
What do I mean when I say question every life decision? Am I being dramatic? No, I deeply question every turning point up until now. What would have happened if I hadn’t studied in Australia, instead enjoying the support of family and friends in Berlin? What if I had not turned down the internship at that press agency? What if I had gone to film school?
The answer is: I will never know and nobody ever knows what they missed by choosing another option. Yet, the idea of having closed a door has the potential to hurt. From my experience living abroad can lead to an outrageous amount of questions, ranging from “Should I stay, or should I go?” to smaller decisions about when to fly home to visit family and friends. The decision to leave leads to more questions and even more decisions: when should I leave? And where to? What happens to the projects/plans/friends/furniture that I’m leaving behind? And will this be a good decision?
Every time I left a place behind that I had fought to make my home, I questioned whether it was right to leave. Leaving and saying “No” always carried a sense of failure. Not taking a chance was worse than trying and failing. So even well justified decisions such as the decision to not work as a model in a brutal fashion industry as an already insecure young girl, felt–after enough time had passed–like a missed chance. Older generations love to tell us stories on how they almost became astronauts, ballerinas, movie producers or millionaires–if it hadn’t been for that one circumstance that changed everything.
Why do we focus on decisions that felt right at the time and hold them against us for the rest of our lives? Joan Didion wrote taking responsibility for your decisions is to truly respect yourself. Comparing myself with people who are successful, beautiful and/or famous, by the way all of the above are comprised in influencers, is–especially in moments of doubt–the most daunting thing to do. It is easy to forget the different factors responsible for outcomes. If we look back at the parameters that guided the decision, at that point in time, the decision probably will have felt like the best option. Maybe only the consequences revealed it as a bad idea–whether seconds or years later. Bad decisions just as decisions we are proud of, shape who we are.
On a meta level: Fake sense of control: I buy Gucci therefore I am..
Growing complexity is the one mega trend that has been a constant in the last decades. Life no longer follows strict guide lines. People are–to an extent–empowered to choose their own path. Gender roles no longer determine how we are supposed to act, families no longer tell us who to marry and what profession to enter.
Things in the past, seemed simpler. Boy met girl, they married, he worked, and she stayed home with their children. Nowadays, all this has been replaced by choice. Surprisingly, this sparks a romantic notion of the good old days. Somehow the guidance of the glorious past seems to be missed by some. Maybe this serves to explain why populist leaders are currently gaining momentum in the Western World and catch-phrases like “Make America great again” or “Take back Control!” are as successful as they are. In today’s information society some groups might yearn for a strong leader, exactly because of the amount of information available and their heavy load to make sense of it for their decision-making.
Why is decision-making so stressful? There are no longer rigid structures in society that can be blamed for holding us back. We are free to do what we love, everybody has the power to achieve everything they ever wanted–or at least that is how life decisions are sold to us today. The grant idea of the pursuit of happiness has, despite a declining living standard since the middle of the 20th century, not lost its promise.
Decisions can be good, bad and if too many have to be made in a short time: overwhelming. We have more options than ever before, consequently audiences and consumers are becoming more fragmented. We are currently moving past mass media towards tailored media content offered by Netflix & Co. and consumption can give us a sense of self-directness, while distinguishing us from others. It’s surprising how ordering a cup of coffee can provide a feeling of control: “a skinny decaf latte, no sugar” suggests a sense of self.