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Everything Is A Choice

4 min

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Everything is a choice.

This is the very first entry in "Barrett's Code" - a collection of lessons-learned that I consult at the beginning of every single week.

I got this from Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existentialism was built on a foundation of radical freedom. I'll take the liberty of paraphrasing him this way:

Because we are free, everything is a choice;

And because everything is a choice, we are free.

Every time we make a decision, we exert the full force of what is truly human - our ability to choose, to act other than our instincts dictate.

If we act purely along the lines of our instincts, we can't truly be choosing, after all. Choice only exists when alternatives exist. There are many potential paths to take, careers we could pursue, people we could marry or abandon, lives to be lived.

And because alternatives exist, we must face up to the reality that we might make the wrong choice.

If "success" means optimizing our choices and landing on the best of all possible outcomes, than failure is not only possible, it is likely.

There are infinite ways to be wrong, and only one to be "right."

The odds are not good.

The universe conspires against us.


Because it is impossible to truly know the future and thus ensure a positive outcome, we have to let go of outcomes as a way of judging our own behavior.

After all, we could do everything "right":

Balance our portfolios...

Eat five servings of vegetables...

Marry the girl or boy next door...

...and still end up being killed by a stray bullet when the next door neighbor's kid accidentally sets off his Uncle's gun.

Nothing you can do, really. The world is cold and indifferent to your story, specifically; it cares only on the scale of geological time. Humans could all disappear tomorrow and it wouldn't mean anything at all to the larger story of existence; your individual life or death are beyond meaningless.

You can do everything right and it still might not work out.

So we can't look at outcomes - our bank account, our marital success or failure, our health - as a way of judging people or their decisions.

So - how do we judge other people?

How do we judge ourselves?

Because waking up every morning and facing the enormity of our choices -

I don't have to live here, I don't have to stay married to this person, I don't have to work at this job, I don't have to eat this way, I don't have to act like I've always acted, I don't have to wear this, I don't have to believe these things

...can be overwhelming.

Existentialists weren't exactly the cheeriest bunch.


How do we judge?

While we don't control the outcome of our actions, there is one thing we can control, that is immediately available to all people, regardless of age, experience, or socio-economic status:



What is self-respect?

Joan Didion said it best:

"People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent.
it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds."

Anything worth having has its price.

Self-respect comes from the acknowledgement of our predicament:

That everything is a choice...

And we will almost certainly get it wrong.

Do we have the strength to face up to this realization, and all it encompasses? To accept responsibility - full responsibility - for ourselves, even if we are embedded in systems we can neither control or nor full understand?

Can we face, unflinching, the consequences of our actions? Can we act, knowing that the future is profoundly uncertain, and that no amount of research or preparation will make it otherwise?

Can we act despite ourselves? And can we face what life gives us in return, without bitterness, without contempt, without wishing it otherwise, without blaming ourselves?

We are captaining a vessel into uncharted waters. Being human is a unique - truly unique, as far as we know, throughout the entire universe - combination of power and powerlessness, control and helplessness, certainty and uncertainty.

Can we live that reality with our heads held high?

Knowing that we did all that we could?

Knowing that we made the best decisions available to us at the time?

Can we do the work...

And then let go of the outcome?


This week I made a truly momentous decision in my business.

Without going into the details, this was a decision I have known I needed to make for months, if not years.

Day after day, week after week, I put it off. I delayed. I looked for alternatives.

There was always something "more pressing," always something "more important," always something that conveniently allowed me to avoid that decision which loomed in the back of my mind.

I did everything I could to not choose.


Because I was afraid.

Afraid of the pain I would cause.

Afraid what it would mean for the people around me.

Afraid I wouldn't be able to handle the backlash.

Afraid I wasn't up to the task.

I convinced myself it wasn't time, that I was being rash, that I needed to explore all my options.

I did everything I could to not choose.

But not choosing is a choice.

And it is a choice that - slowly but surely - destroys your self respect.

Giving into fear, looking away, ignoring reality...these things disconnect us from reality. We become less-than-real, somehow, mired in what Sartre called "bad faith."

You must choose.

Despite the uncertainty, despite the fear, despite not knowing how it will turn out:

You must choose, because otherwise you will know, deep down, that you no longer respect yourself.

You are no longer living as a full human being, as the animal-that-chooses. You are running. You are hiding. You are cowering.

That too, is a choice.

Anything worth having has its price.

Pay it and live,

Or run from yourself until you die.

You always have a choice.



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