Are you a Picker or a Chooser?

Life is nothing if not a series of branches on a “decision tree.” We make thousands of choices in our lifetimes. These decisions can vary in magnitude, ranging from the trivial to the profound. Often, we seem constrained by the options. We wish we could do more, but often find ourselves without a great selection. Or is it that we limit ourselves by how we view the things that life throws at us. We can either “pick” or “choose.”

Being a “picker” has gained notoriety of late. The term has become associated with finding “hidden gems” as they do with cool antiques on “American Pickers.” Intrinsic to this experience is the implication that there are unique or desirable options when one makes a selection.

Yet there are limitations. Picking involves selecting from a limited set of pre-determined choices. The available alternatives are typically constrained and defined by external factors beyond our control. Picking often implies a lack of autonomy because the choices presented are predetermined in some way. This leaves little room for originality or self-expression.

In some respects, this is a reactive approach. Something or someone presents the options. These are inherently finite. For example, one “picks” the most desirable tomatoes from the batch at the store. There may not be a great selection, but you grab the best of a “rotten” bunch because you need them for dinner tonight.

Picking is like a chore, a duty. It’s something we do because we have to, not because we want to. The act of picking tends to narrow down possibilities and limit creativity. It is a form of “satisficing,” accepting that what is present is ultimately “good enough.” After all, it is a bit Quixotic to chase that which is not. Most often this is acceptable behavior. It keeps life on an even keel. It rarely disappoints (so long as you are willing to settle).

On the other hand, “choosing” reflects a more deliberate and introspective process. To “choose” is an active proposition. It does entail a selection, a preference, but it has a subtle difference. It is an act of self-determination, an exercise of free will.

This deliberate act involves a critical examination of “all” possibilities (not just those that are readily apparent) and the consideration of multiple factors. It demands a deeper understanding of oneself and the world. Choosing emboldens one to engage in independent thought, contemplate their values, and embrace the uncertainties that come with deciding.

I realize that this may seem a matter of semantics, that there is really only a trivial distinction between the words. True, the context in which the terms are used matters. And perhaps I have created an artificial distinction (one of my own making). But words do matter, and we should be careful to use them interchangeably. To that end, I believe the conceptual differences are important.

The dichotomy between picking and choosing reveals the true depth of the decision-making process. In its simplest form, picking can be more informal or casual in nature. It is a more straightforward and immediate process. Choosing carries more significance when the judgement has a greater impact on the outcome. It often entails intertemporal trade-offs, sacrifice today for reward tomorrow. This is a uniquely human characteristic.

I have personally experienced the interplay of these forces. When I left the military (and landed in East Tennessee), there was no set of alternatives to pick from. Rather it was a binary choice; each led down its own unique path. My plans for the future (career and family) came to the forefront. I had to weigh the risks and potential rewards. Security versus opportunity. In the end, I chose to make the jump. In doing so, I took a 50% cut in pay and lost all my benefits to get an equity stake in a company. I sometimes wonder where that other road would have taken me, but I do not regret the choice. It opened up a whole new world.

While picking is associated with limited autonomy and predetermined choices, choosing represents the essence of individual self-awareness and ethical responsibility. Embracing the complexities of life and engaging in mindful reflection enables us to transcend the constraints of conformity, opening the door to self-discovery and personal development.

Some decisions involve complex moral dilemmas and conflicting values. “Picking” an ethical stance implies an uncritical acceptance of societal norms, whereas “choosing” necessitates a serious examination of one’s moral compass and the willingness to stand by one’s principles, even in the face of adversity.

This process is exemplified by the universal conundrum: “to do the harder right, rather than the easier wrong.” Perhaps it is in our nature to take the path of expedience. To do otherwise (to choose the “right” course of action), often requires more effort and personal consequence. It demands our “better angel” emerge from its self-protective cocoon. It takes a considered act of will.

Unlike picking, choosing is not confined to pre-established options but instead encourages the exploration of diverse alternatives. To pick is to succumb to a constrained world. To choose can be aspirational. The former requires acceptance of the world as it is and doing the best you (think you) can. The latter lives outside the box. It often takes courage (and perhaps a bit of folly). Steve Jobs saw what others did not. Colleagues called it his “reality distortion field.” Elon Musk transformed the transportation industry and revolutionized space travel. Neither of them “picked” among the conventional options, rather they “chose” to build something new.

My pastor defined “Faith” as living in the present as if the world you want to see already exists. What will you do today?” Exist in the moment or live for the future. Pick or Choose!

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