Over the years, I’ve experienced a direct correlation between the number of options I have in life and my happiness.
The more options I have for my career, the better work I can do. The more options I have for spending my free time, the less I cling to people and activities.
In short, if I can choose what to do with my time at any given moment, I’m happy. It doesn’t necessarily matter what I do. What matters is that I have a choice.
The importance of this concept is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about happiness in the modern age.
I recently read Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston, who was a seasoned psychiatrist. In that book, he talked about why it’s so important to have options:
“Mental health is a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be. Those who are most unwell or discouraged suffer from a sense that their choices have been limited, sometimes by external circumstances or illness, most often by the many ways we restrict ourselves.”
Fewer options restrict us. That gives us a sense of dread. We feel like there’s not much we can do in life. And that makes us unhappy. But you can turn that around by creating options for yourself.
The paradox of risk
The most important thing about career options is that there’s a paradoxical relationship between risk and reward we need to understand first. Before I came to terms with this, I never had many options.
Here’s the issue. As humans, we’re naturally risk-averse. We fear loss more than we desire a potential gain. That force usually keeps us where we are. That’s why most people remain in the same job or industry until they get fired or retire.
The paradox is that most people assume it’s risky to change. But in reality, the reverse is true. The more stagnant you are, the more you’re at risk of loss.
When I pursued a career as a full-time writer, I had to take risks. I left my well-paying corporate job in London, left the city, moved back in with my parents, and took a step back from our family business.
I went from earning about $80K a year to almost nothing. My blog and online courses generated about $5,000 of income in the first year. The risk is wasting your time and the loss of your salary when you make a move like that.
Livingston recognized the importance of getting comfortable with risk as well. He said the following about the relationship between options and risk:
“The primary variable in this regard is tolerance of risk. If we take counsel of our fears, particularly our fear of change, it is hard to choose a life that makes us happy. Is it anxiety or lack of imagination that restricts us?”
This is hard to accept. Unless you get comfortable with your fear of change, you will not have a happy life that consists of many options.
Remember that no matter how dire your circumstances are, you’re never out of options. You can always do something. This is the most important belief in human hope and progress. As long as we’re alive, we have a choice.
How I create career options
Let’s look at how you can create more career options. Since your work takes up the majority of your time, it’s important to get this straight. When you have options and happiness in your career, you automatically become a better person.
How many of your personal problems are related to work? How often do you allow the stress of work to change your mood? And how often does your mood create problems at home?
To say that your career is important is an understatement. Work is not just something you do on set hours. It’s the single biggest factor that determines what your life looks like on a macro level.
So how do you make sure you have a good career? Not by having a great job. This might sound weird to you if you’ve been raised thinking every person needs to have one job.
That’s an old model that no longer works. We don’t need jobs. We need skills that we can apply to multiple jobs and industries.
Here’s how I approach that. I always prioritize learning over short-term goals like money, bonuses, status, or any other benefits that I can get in my career.
The more universal skills I have, the more opportunities I have. For example, if you’re good at persuasion, you can work as a copywriter, account executive, stockbroker, recruiter, or work at a retail store.
If you know how to code, you can work at any company that develops software, in any industry.
Another thing I focus on is building good relationships with experienced people. I’m not a fan of networking with hundreds of people or forming “mastermind” groups with people who are not top-performers. On a social level, it’s wonderful, but professionally, you won’t learn much.
If you do want to network, at least connect with people who are more established in life and don’t have much to prove anymore. Professionals like that can point you in the right direction if you don’t know what to do. They can help you to see options you didn’t see before.
Be willing to pay the price or move on
I was once talking about this concept of career options with someone in their twenties. The person said they also wanted to be in a similar position as I am today.
And I said, “Look, I’ve given up a lot of things when I was your age to be where I am today. I sacrificed relationships and leisure. But I don’t see it as bad because I’ve always been happy to pay that price for happiness. And I still am.”
And the person said, “I don’t think I can do that.”
That’s the end of it. “Then you should accept your life the way it is and that you’re always at the disposal of other people,” I said. If some people are not willing to pay the price, they should just accept whatever is and not complain about being unhappy.
The truth is there are always options. We just can’t expect that they come for free. Everything in life has a price. If you’re willing to pay, you won’t get disappointed.