Active Choices

It’s hard to imagine now, but at some point in my life Saturday activities culminated before noon, after a cold, wet, early morning soccer game. These afternoons were the breeding ground for some of the best discoveries of my childhood. I’d spend countless hours unearthing hidden levels in video games while learning that 60 grapes in one sitting is not the best idea. But thinking back it’s hard to forget a particular tick I picked up that stayed with me for years: the refrigerator door.

A six person family requires a well organized, well maintained fridge, and that was never an issue at our house. Eating from the fridge is usually the economic choice, and when that’s the preference it becomes a most satisfying place any time of day. Video games can get old or weekend cartoons lead into the questionable Hey Dude, and quickly the fridge becomes the best escape. The last trip culminated quickly after discovering a freshly cleaned bowl of grapes, without so much as a look around, so the attitude on return is a confident one. Cheeses, meats, breads, and condiments become dots to connect in search for a reprieve from the boredom that only a teen Western sitcom can induce. After moving heaven and earth to build a BBQ chicken sandwich, the letdown of the century happens when Are You Afraid of the Dark is a re-run and boredom sinks to a depth that weekends shouldn’t allow. So once again, it’s back to the fridge. Pulling on the door, planning a new attack, and only the mint jelly and old tub of sherbert seem to offer hope. But most amazing is not the fact that this is the third time the fridge is being inspected that afternoon, but that there will be five more trips before dinner. Constantly landing back in the kitchen, door handle in hand, hoping something may have changed over the course of the last sitcom.

It all feels so vivid yet it’s a place I haven’t been for years. Maybe because I now stock my own refrigerator, knowing during those boring moments that there’s no hope coming from the kitchen. More likely, it’s my lifestyle, spending less time at home and having a budget that allows me to go to the store and have whatever I want. But these habits haven’t been completely eliminated, only moved to a different location.

Looking at that relationship with the refrigerator, I’d guess the trips became far more frequent when it was time for chores. It’s not hard science, but likely something close, that having to empty all the garbages in a house directly leads to an increase in refrigerator inspections. And these days, with far less boredom and far more chores, the door handle seems to have been replaced by ‘Cmd ⌘-T’.

The muscle memory that once navigated me through the house, over obstacles and past distractions, has been transferred over to my fingers. Shortcuts meant to save time during a life spent on the keyboard have turned into the escape hatch when procrastination sets in. As quickly as the new tab opens, I’m heading to Facebook or ESPN, hoping to find an update from a place I visited just minutes before. And while it takes some effort to browse the internet, familiarity with the keys and scary good auto completion have moved these quick detours deep into my unconscious. The loop of websites that allow my mind to escape class or forget about work lacks any true decision making, appearing on my screen without consulting the conscience. It’s these unmotivated, unenergized, passive decisions that replaced the refrigerator opens of my youth. And as time would have it, the world has grown to fill our lives through passive decisions. Results not decided by us, but happening to us.

Passive decision making contains one large, critical upside: expectation. Heading into the fridge, having visited countless times in the past few hours, there’s little downside. Seeing the same contents is expected. While it’s impossibly unlikely that anything worth mentioning will have arrived, the slight possibility gives the trip optimism.

Active decision making, however, specifically lacks that same grasp on expectation. Rather than heading to the fridge to escape boredom, numerous bookshelves provided countless worlds and adventures that surely would have put Dude Ranch in the rearview. Twenty years later, stories read during those years still live in me. From the first pages of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s writing was always devoured with enthusiasm. Most importantly it was always read based on my own choices.

Passively allowing our lives to move from one unmotivated choice to the next makes the world a safer space. Actively popping around certainly opens us up to many things, most importantly failure. Dragging feet through a boring TV show may feel like a waste, but nothing near the downer of dragging feet through a bad book. Checking the news feed during lunch and not optimizing that time can seem useless from afar, but spending the only 30 open minutes of the day struggling through videos from an online course can make the afternoon even more difficult. But that’s the downside. And the greater the downside, usually, the greater the upside. Being 10 and picking up a book might ruin an afternoon, or it might introduce you to the fantasy of being a young kid, chose to run the biggest candy factory in the world. Watching data analysis videos might steal those free minutes during lunch, or open you up to knowledge you’d only heard about, providing entrance to discussions at the workplace that immediately raise your standing and gain respect.

Active choices have upside because they have downside. The possibility of failure keeps others away and makes the benefit less common. Diving into these choices, where failure is so likely, leaves us vulnerable. An emotion that has long been viewed negatively, pictured in my own head as a feeble young antelope, lost from the herd and waiting to be found out. But our rich, comfortable lives mean that vulnerability is usually not a real, physical fear. Our bodies have adapted to react to vulnerability in the same way as the antelope, heightening our senses and increasing attentiveness. But a few hours spent in a bad novel or a wasted weekend at a nature preserve don’t lead to destruction. These vulnerabilities are slight, yet the possibility of wasted time and social embarrassment cause the same feedback that our ancestors faced when fighting off predators.

Knowing that vulnerability leads to outsized reactions may seem like a fault, but to the contrary it provides physiological responses that enhance life. First dates get tattooed into memory, not only for the excitement of the encounter but the openness shown when we’ve met the right person. Entering vulnerable conversations, where true emotions may be questioned, heightens our senses. With so much (seemingly) to lose, it’s in our DNA to protect ourselves.

With that in mind, I find it useful to hack these vulnerabilities. Put myself in a place where the vulnerability is imminent and beyond my control. Forcing several minutes each day to read a dense, unapproachable, otherwise avoidable publication or book. Making plans to travel to uncomfortable, new, out of the ordinary places, whether a quick hike or an Asian adventure. Being in a vulnerable position can lead to unexpected upside, but planning to make those decisions on the spot is like an alcoholic planning to limit himself after a few drinks. Best to separate the decision making and the actions.

Beside, in time, vulnerability can become more than a hurdle to jump over, but a state of comfort as possibilities are illuminated. After a few years of putting my future self into numerous vulnerable positions, most notably moving to California with no job, I found myself alone in a small Chinese hostel in Xi’an last spring. The westerners I drank with provided a weird comfort, people I’d never approach in the States who felt like family in such a distant world. And when a friend invited me to an even more remote area, requiring a solo plane ride and airport meetup, the vulnerability peaked. The entire detour could be a waste, keeping me from seeing the landmark cities on my itinerary. Beyond that, the meetup may not happen, leaving me stuck in Middle-of-Nowhere, China by myself. But having hacked the emotion before, having made plans which made uncertainty a certainty, I could focus on the unlimited upside. With heightened senses, I made the trip, and every moment seems to be nestled firmly in my memory. What’s in the refrigerator or on ESPN right now? I don’t have a clue.