In our brief labor in this world, we can move the rock by, and with the aid of, choice.

We tell stories about choice for many reasons. We want to learn or teach; we want to know others or have them know us; we want to understand how we got from there to here. We take the choices that for some reason or other have lit up like stars across our memory, and we chart our journey by them. This is why I won the race. This is how I survived. This is when everything changed. Through these stories we assert that what we do matters. By speaking choice, we find a way to navigate the strange waters of life, maybe even appreciate their unpredictable movement.

Consider how Camus presents the myth of Sisyphus, whose punishment in the underworld is to repeat the action of rolling a rock up a mountain, watching it roll down, and then rolling it up again. Sisyphus, a man who loved life, seems condemned to spend eternity engaged in a futile task, but when he walks back down after reaching the top, he has time to reflect. His situation is absurd, but “his fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing…. At that subtle moment when man glances back over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by death.” In our brief labor in this world, we can move the rock by, and with the aid of, choice. If, as Camus claims, “[o]ne must imagine Sisyphus happy” because “[t]he struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” we can either sulk at the bottom of the mountain or reach for the heights and for happiness through choice.

In other words, choosing helps us create our lives. We make choices and are in turn made by them. Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art. To gain the most from it, we must embrace uncertainty and contradiction. It does not look the same to all eyes, nor can everyone agree on its purpose. Sometimes choice pulls us to itself, other times it repels us. We use it without exhausting it, and the more we uncover, the more we find still hidden. We cannot take full measure of it. Therein lies its power, its mystery, and its singular beauty. ( Pg.268)


Since the hardcover edition of this book was published, I’ve given a lot of talks and interviews and have heard from quite a few of my readers and listeners. A number of them said that they appreciated the various perspectives on choice that I offered, and they found many of the studies both interesting and illuminating, but they were also a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of choice and the sheer amount of information. Would it be possible, they asked, to come up with a quick guide to the main ideas? Furthermore, did I have more practical tips or exercises to help them better understand these ideas and improve their own choices? This is my attempt to meet some of the requests of the people who have generously given their time and attention to me.

1. Our lives are shaped by a variety of expected and unexpected events. The college degree leads to a good job. Driving while drunk results in an accident. A lottery ticket bought on impulse erases all your debt. A sudden change in weather turns an adventure into a disaster.
We try to build better lives for ourselves and for others, but “the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Sometimes we attribute the trajectory of a life to destiny or chance, forces that exist independently of our individual desires, actions, and motivations. Other times, we say that we are the sum of our choices. Perhaps all three—destiny, chance, and choice—contribute to where and how we end up, but choice alone gives us some measure of control, allows us to actively participate in our own making. Choice provides the opportunity to make the most of whatever destiny and chance send our way. And when things don’t go according to plan, choice enables us to recover, survive, and even thrive.
In the prologue of this book, I told the story of my birth and childhood three times, first focusing on destiny, then chance, then choice. Try this for yourself. Write three versions of the story of your life (or a particular period in your life), looking in turn through the lenses of destiny, chance, and choice. Which of these versions is most motivating for you? Which one encourages you to try harder, push further, reach higher? Which emphasizes that you have the power to go from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow?
For some people, it might be comforting to think that they needn’t be responsible for their lives, that some greater force out there will determine their fate. Many of us, however, find strength in the idea that we can design and construct our lives as we want. Choice allows us to be architects of our future.

2. We all have an innate need for control, and choice is a powerful means of exercising control. This does not mean, however, that we all need or want choice in the same situations or to the same extent. Differences in cultural background and personal experience can lead to differences in perceptions of choice. One person may consider a particular choice important and meaningful, while another person may see the same choice as trivial and inane. We should remember that people appreciate choice and benefit from it only when it enhances their sense of control.
When we don’t understand others’ perceptions and expectations of choice, we risk imposing meaningless choices on them or depriving them of choices that they believe to be essential. We need to be open to learning how others “speak choice” and how they incorporate choice into the narrative of their own lives. If you speak more than one language, think about the word(s) for “choice” in each language. Is “choice” a commonly used word? Does it have many synonyms? Does it have positive connotations, negative ones, or both? A culture’s approach to choice is not necessarily reflected by the main language(s) spoken within it, but comparing actual languages of choice is analogous to comparing metaphorical languages of choice. Just as we speak languages that have common roots but also very different sounds and forms and vocabularies, so we speak choice in a way that is both shared and distinct. Try discussing choice with someone from a very different cultural background. Describe your perceptions of his culture, and ask him to describe his perceptions of your culture. What false assumptions and ideas do you hold about the other’s culture? How do these affect your conception of the role choice plays in that culture? By exposing our own limited perspectives and lack of knowledge, we can work together to develop a better understanding of the many faces and expressions of choice around the world.

3. Modern individuals associate choice with freedom. We think of choosing as the practice of freedom, which includes the freedom to be yourself and “do your thing.” Our choices are not just about what we need or want; they’re about who we are and what we stand for. So when we choose, we often find ourselves asking a pretty difficult question: “What kind of individual am I, and given who I am, what should I want, and given what I should want, what do I choose?”
It may seem odd that in enacting freedom through choice, we end up thinking about what we ought to do. After all, isn’t the whole point to escape the shackles of convention and social expectation? But the fact is that for most of us, choice is not as individual an act as we imagine it to be. We do not choose alone because choice is a form of communication. Like body language, we generate it, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, and it sends messages to others. Much of the time, the message we want to send is: “I’m unique, but relatable. I’m authentic and true to myself, but I do consider the feelings and opinions of other people.” One of the difficulties we face in sending this message is that our choices can be easily misread. What we intend to convey with our choices doesn’t always align with what people perceive. How do we retain the freedom to choose but also increase the chances of being understood by the people around us?
In chapter three I described the 360-degree feedback system used as an employee assessment tool by many organizations. We can benefit from 360-degree feedback in various areas of our lives, and it’s worthwhile to conduct your own version of it with friends and family members. Come up with a list of traits and skills that you consider important, rate yourself on them, and have others rate you too. Ask people questions about some specific choices you’ve made in your life: What do they perceive as your motivations? What messages did those choices send to them? What do they think the impact of your choices has been on your life and on their lives? (Unless you’re able to be very calm and objective when critiqued, it’s best to set this up so that responses can be submitted anonymously.) Do their answers match up with your intentions and expectations, or is there a significant discrepancy? If there is a gap, and if you’re bothered by it, then think about how and why you’re miscommunicating. What adjustments can you make so that you’re more “articulate” when you choose? The 360-degree feedback process is usually surprising and humbling, and it can be a powder keg if you’re not on good terms with your evaluators. But it’s also exciting, revealing, and potentially a great tool for improving yourself and your relationship with others.

4. We make mistakes. We fall to temptation, misread information, and give too much weight to immediate emotion. Over the many years of our lives it’s inevitable that we’ll make some poor choices, but perhaps we don’t have to make them quite so often. By cultivating informed intuition we can take advantage of the respective strengths of both the automatic system and the reflective system, enabling them to work in concert whenever we’re faced with choices. It’s as though we each have an internal Kirk and Spock, one impulsive and the other hyper-logical, and rather than pitting them against each other we should encourage them to work as a team so that our ship runs as smoothly as possible, allowing us to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Building informed intuition requires constant and consistent self-monitoring and feedback, so I recommend that you keep a choice diary. Though you probably won’t be able to keep track of all your choices, do make entries for your most important choices (and every so often, throw in a few trivial ones, too). Write down what your main options were, what you chose, your reasons/motivations for the choice you made, and what your expectations are for the future, i.e. what do you think will be the consequences of this choice?
Your diary will serve as a record of your choices and of your state of mind when you made those choices. Instead of relying on memory, which is selective and often plays tricks, you’ll have a clear window to the past. Now you can accurately assess those choices: what you did right, where you went wrong, and whether or not things worked out as you had hoped they would. After a while you’ll be able to make adjustments in the present based on your thoughts and actions in the past. You’ll become more aware of your biases and rationalizations, and with practice you’ll be able to avoid the same errors when you make your next choice.

5. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. This is the mantra of conspiracy theorists everywhere, and just because they might be crazy, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. It does seem that our choices are constantly being manipulated by people who stand to benefit when we choose a particular product or service or person or ideology over another. Although we can usually give reasons for our choices, we’re influenced by additional factors of which we remain unaware. We can try to monitor the plethora of messages we receive through other people, the media, advertising, etc., but there’s no way to remove all influence (unless we decide to live out the remainder of our lives in a sensory deprivation tank). So the question is: How much effort do we want to expend to avoid making choices that may have been colored by outside influences?
Instead of attempting to evade every possible influence (just as the conspiracy theorist attempts to evade the black suits) and driving ourselves crazy in the process, we can focus on becoming more aware of our hidden biases and preferences, which render us prone to making choices that we ourselves might not approve of if we were conscious of the underlying motivations. One way to do this is through the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which—according to Harvard University’s Project Implicit—“measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report” because they’re hiding those attitudes and beliefs from others or from themselves. You can go to Project Implicit’s website ( to take the IAT for a number of different tasks, each one assessing a different implicit attitude/belief. As you learn more about yourself through these tasks, you can make a conscious effort to counteract the implicit associations that are likely to affect many of your choices. By doing so you can make choices that are more in line with the person you aspire to be rather than the person lurking in the recesses of your mind.

6. When someone says, “I have too many choices,” it’s tempting to reply, “We should all have such problems!” At first glance, the problem of plenitude doesn’t seem like much of a problem at all, but having a large amount of choice can be just as frustrating and dispiriting as having very little. We have mental, emotional, and physical limits to the number of options we can handle, and when we can’t tell one option apart from another, choice becomes a meaningless and/or impossible exercise. We end up putting off decisions, even very important ones, we make poorer choices, and we’re less satisfied with the choices we do make. Instead of pursuing choice for choice’s sake we should focus on building a better choosing experience for ourselves, one that allows us to reap the benefits of choice and avoid the pitfalls. How do we do that in the noisy environment of choice that we face every day?
Here are four quick tips:

Cut your options down to a manageable number. A good general guideline is seven, plus or minus two, but you may want less choice when there are many factors to consider or more choice when you already have experience making similar decisions. Remember, if you can’t tell the difference between the options, you don’t need all of them: Treat them as just one choice.

Cultivate confidence in your choices by taking advantage of expert advice and personalized recommendations. Sometimes it’s not possible or even advisable to cut your options. In those cases, rely on people and systems that know better and can process the information more efficiently.

Categorize the choices available to you, or seek out retailers who do the categorizing for you. This enables you to simulate expertise, to see more clearly how one set of options differs from another and to understand the relevant qualities and components of each choice.

Condition yourself by starting out with fewer, easier choices and building up to greater, more complex choices. Just as you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of a pool if you didn’t know how to swim, you shouldn’t throw yourself into choices that leave you flailing. Start where it’s comfortable, where your feet touch the ground, and gradually increase the challenge by wading farther in. Not only will you feel more confident, you’ll build skill and improve your performance in the long run.

7. Choice gives us permission to imagine a better self, and it holds the promise that we can create that self through our own volition. In so many ways, choice is about possibility. It is the big idea we turn to and the main tool we wield when we come up against limitations. We think that if we play our cards right we can choose our way to happiness. However, while there’s no doubt that choice is a wonderful thing, it’s not the answer to everything. Through personal experience and fifteen years of research on choice I’ve learned that if we are to get the most from our choices we need to acknowledge that we don’t always know how to choose, and that choice has its own limitations.
I can’t tell you exactly what and when you should choose, but I would like to encourage you to be choosy about choosing. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’d like less choice,” or “I’ll have what you’re having,” or even “I choose not to choose.” In fact, sometimes these are the best things to say. We need to rethink the assumption that every opportunity to choose among options is an opportunity to improve our lot, to inch closer to our dreams. We need to learn that choice is not just the activity of picking X over Y but the responsibility of separating the meaningful from the trivial, the disheartening from the uplifting. Choice is a powerful and motivating idea, but choice does not solve all our problems or meet all our needs. Sometimes choice isn’t enough, and sometimes choice is too much.

We want to believe that every choice is important or that we should make all our own choices because this gives us the illusion of freedom and complete control. But all of us have to contend with the limits that we naturally come up against over the course of our lives, and we should be prepared to let go of the choices that don’t serve us well. I didn’t choose blindness, and being blind took many options off the table, among them a career as a pilot, which had been my childhood dream. But this bodily condition that I did not choose led me to make the most of what I could choose. It reminds me every day that I must focus on the choices that matter. Balancing hopes, desires, and an appreciation of the possibilities with a clear-eyed assessment of the limitations: that is the art of choosing. (Pg.277)

“The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

8 responses to “In our brief labor in this world, we can move the rock by, and with the aid of, choice.”

  1. #4… I would really like to do this, i do really find this if great interest…but there’s something inside of me that argues with me about having to see the actuality of reality… Im unsure what that is…😑
    Also, I am choosing to make a goal of reading this whole post. It will take me some time and several times of reading it to read it all but I really am making it all and that is actually even very labored to say coming from my mind to my mouth… Thank you so much for this amazing moment too not only grow but to feel the experience of it.

  2. Ok… Fell asleep reading this last night… Round two tonight 🤗🤗🤗 i appreciate the ability to have more than one opportunity to complete the goals set before me🎯🎯🎯

    • I enjoy your sense of humor. It’s the first thing we lose when things go wrong.
      Best wishes.

  3. Okay like this is really I don’t know how to say it I can almost feel it rerouting my brain 🤷‍♀️ like i almost want to cry ….but in a good way 🤷‍♀️ I’m very much able to identify what number six from today I didn’t quite realize that’s what was happening today but now whatever I’m reading this and I’m able to look back I’m totally see you how the choices the amount of choices I really freaking love stuff like this that I’m finding it challenging not in a bad way just challenging to get through the information and I thank you so very much for this I’m enjoying it yes that’s the word I’m enjoying the challenge of the reroute I’m enjoying seeing learning expanding I’m really really finding this quite fantastic I’m still working through it and I’m glad I’m choosing to continue to work through instead of just giving up because it seemed Dante that’s a word I’ve learned recently that I actually feel or see things as I’m still working on that middle part… But I do like them still doing thank you again so much for this okay okay I got to get back to reading!!! 😏😏😏👉☺️☺️☺️👈

  4. I finished this!!! I also saved it because well I like to read and reread and rereread things at times… Also I did one of those little things that you posted amazing really how often my brain and thumb didn’t want to quite cooperate I will enjoy doing more of those! Thank you so much for taking the time and creating the space for things such as this found it very beneficial not only to myself but to the service I’m able to give other thank you thank you thank you