Have you ever stood in front of the rows of makeup at Ulta, gift card in hand, happily telling yourself you can buy anything you want, only to walk away half an hour later having not bought anything? I can’t even count how many times this has happened to me. I was a victim of the Paradox of Choice. When presented with a huge range of options, sometimes human beings get completely overwhelmed and, out of fear of making a wrong decision, choose nothing instead.
Telling our kids “You can be anything” places them smack in the middle of the Paradox of Choice. Faced with the limitless opportunity to become anything, they can become fearful of making decisions that will close doors forever. “You can be anything” is not empowering; it’s paralyzing.
“You can choose your path.”
We can remove the Paradox of Choice tension if we just reframe the nature of decision making. How is this phrase more empowering? For these reasons:
1.It is realistic.
“You can be anything” has a quixotic quality that fails to acknowledge personal limits. In fact, the individual cannot actually be anything – a knight errant is no longer a profession, just as it wasn’t in Don Quixote’s day. “You can choose your path” recognizes that there are choices available, but not boundless possibility.
2.It takes away the permanence factor.
“You can be anything” makes a child feel as if the thing they choose is the only thing they get, and they can’t change once the choice is made. “You can choose your path” frames life as a series of choices, with opportunities to correct mistakes or change course completely.
3.It separates identity from profession.
“You can be anything” emphasizes a single state of being – it assumes that whatever we’ve become is what we are – who we are. That kind of thinking fuses identity to profession. What happens to that person if they can’t do the work they were trained to do anymore, or if they want to do something else? Their entire identity can be thrown into crisis. When we emphasize instead that life is a series of events and we can choose to participate in different work throughout our lives, we confirm our unique identities outside of the profession we’ve chosen at this particular moment.