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An Antidote to Optionality


By K. Oskar Schulz and Roman C. Ugarte, Crimson Opinion Writers
Roman C. Ugarte ’24 is an Applied Math in Economics concentrator in Eliot House. K. Oskar Schulz ’22 is currently on leave founding a startup in New York City. Their column, “Under-indexed,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

Your decisions shape your life. Whether you go on to do great things or never quite fulfill your potential comes down to what you chose to do or not to do.

But making decisions is hard, whether it’s between pursuing your passion for film or a prestigious finance gig, or deciding between the grille or the entrée of the day at the dining hall. As a result, many of us are tempted to keep all our doors open and make up our minds later.

This decision-making paralysis has had a spectacular rebrand into a wise-sounding phrase you’ve no doubt heard: “preserving optionality.” This doctrine of keeping doors open promises the ability to press pause on your decisions while moving forward with your life.

But this is a fantasy, albeit one that’s awfully seductive. Tough decisions are not only inevitable but, in many ways, are necessary to unlock the parts of our lives that we cherish the most.

Here are some lessons to keep in mind at your next fork in the road.

Understand the cost of preserving optionality

We like preserving optionality because it feels like there’s no downside. More time to decide? Great! But make no mistake: The time you buy comes at the cost of a shrinking option set.

Oftentimes, the most ambitious paths require the earliest commitments. One of our friends, for example, decided to become a serious tennis player before he hit high school; his peers, who took much longer to decide, never quite caught up.

The lesson here isn’t to commit yourself to a path too early, but instead that there is a real cost to waiting. Many of the most exceptional options are only open to those who commit.

Don’t overestimate your future self

When we face tough decisions, the easy way out is to postpone making them entirely.

We tend to think that the answer will come to us if we give it more time. But often, we end up knowing as much (or little) about our futures as before.

This tendency to overestimate how much wiser our future selves will be is understandable — after all, having lived longer implies that we have more information. And, more information leads to better decisions, right?

Not really. Waiting a year to find yourself may not teach you about the advantages of electrical engineering over the pre-med track. So, don’t overestimate your future self: Odds are that you will be largely the same person, and less wise than you’d hoped you would be. Unless you spend time to…

Do things that collect data

Another danger of preserving optionality is that it prevents you from finding what you actually want to do.

For example, if you’re not sure whether you want to go into the public sector or pursue a career in venture capital, doing something neutral that in theory keeps both options open, like management consulting, won’t actually teach you much about the two options you’re truly considering.

Here, preserving optionality is a little bit like going to a new restaurant and trying to find your go-to meal. There are various options, so why not put them all in a blender and get a little bit of everything? That’s what the optionality compromise often ends up being: somewhat related to all your favored options, but fruitless for the ultimate decision you have to make.

When it comes to your future, leave the blender at home.

Embrace one-way door decisions

Decisions that you can’t cleanly back out of, as opposed to more flexible two-way door decisions, are uncomfortable and scary.

But many of life’s most important and, ultimately, fulfilling decisions — which college to attend, where to spend your early career, or whom to marry — are highly committal. This is what Oliver Burkeman in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals calls the “joy of missing out”: the idea that “the renunciation of alternatives is what makes [your] choice a meaningful one in the first place.”

In a study done by professor Daniel T. Gilbert on photography students at Harvard, participants had a choice between two photographs they’d taken that semester to take home. In one group, they were told the decision is final: The one they choose is the one they get. In the other group, they’d have the ability to swap the print they chose for the other one later if they changed their mind.

Interestingly, the students that made the irreversible decision were substantially more satisfied with their selection than the students able to change their minds. Despite this, students across both groups overwhelmingly preferred to be assigned to the group with the option of switching photos. In other words, although we crave optionality, it might not be what’s best for us.

A crucial asterisk

There’s one big caveat to all of these lessons: They’re meant to be tools for making decisions if you don’t know what you want. But if you do know, start doing that right away.

If you find yourself saying things like “I’m going to do X so that I can get Y and finally do Z,” start looking for ways to do Z today. Be methodical in learning your goals, but convicted in achieving them.

Whatever you do, don’t enroll yourself in the deferred life plan. Make the tough decisions.

Roman C. Ugarte ’24 is an Applied Math in Economics concentrator in Eliot House. K. Oskar Schulz ’22 is currently on leave founding a startup in New York City. Their column, “Under-indexed,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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