Life Lessons from the Library: Choosing is Hard but Rarely Irreversible

If a man wants to read good books, he must make a point of avoiding bad ones; for life is short, and time and energy limited. Schopenhauer

No one would argue with Schopenhauer here. We are all quite aware that life is short. The problem is knowing the difference between the good and the bad. In books and just about everything else.

In the library, we see the difficulty in making choices each day. Students are often afraid to choose a topic for their research paper, worried that once they’ve declared the topic, they will be stuck with few resources or end up with nothing to write. They are also afraid to choose a major: “What if I decide to change from English to engineering and then all those lit credits will go to waste or I’ll have to take another math?”

As someone who has always had a hard time making choices, I am quite sympathetic to students’ frustrations. After all, some of us were brought up with the idea that if we choose wisely the first time, then we won’t be wasting our time or spending time in remorse over bad decisions. The thought of having to start over means failure in our minds.

I still remember the first time someone challenged that idea for me. I was talking with a friend about a decision she was contemplating. I don’t remember now what it was, but I do remember that I thought she was not as scared as she should be. “So what if it doesn’t work out?” I asked, hoping to nudge her into a more logical frame of mind.

She looked at me and shrugged. “Then it doesn’t.”

“But what will you do then?” I asked.

She grinned and listed various options still open, including returning to college.

“But you’ll practically have to start over!” I said.

“So I’ll start over.”

It was then that I realized that I (and my other fearful friends) had made a crucial mistake in our reasoning. We had seen that making the wrong choice could have dire consequences. But we had failed to see that making no choice also had dire consequences and was in itself  a choice. We also failed to see making a bad choice was rarely permanent.

I’m not advocating making life-changing decisions without thought. In fact, I’ve written before about the decision-making process, and I’m a big fan of that process. But being paralyzed by fear into not making choices at all is much more of risk with many more sad consequences attached. After all, life is limited, and I think most of us would prefer to remember things that failed than day after day of sameness with no chances taken.

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