Today, I (a tutor, age 51) spent some time hanging out and chatting with Matt (my son, age 25, also a tutor) and Eva (age 16, one of our home school students).

I was listening to the two of them as they complained about the myriad of overwhelming life choices they faced, and their general level of bewilderment. (ex: How on earth am I supposed to know what I want to be when I grow up? There are so many different kinds of careers and I don’t even know what most of them are, or what the work would be like!)

Here’s what I wound up thinking about:

  • I definitely did not feel such a bewildering array of choices, in every category, when I was their age
  • I have experienced an enormous increase in choice over my lifetime, first from the expansion of TV channels and options (cable, etc), and then from the Internet
  • I often feel overwhelmed by all the options out there
  • I know I can never read, see, do, watch, know about, participate in, even a fraction of all the choices available to me. And that sometimes makes me feel anxious.
  • I worry that whatever choices I make, they are likely to be wrong, or not the best.
  • I often feel forced to make important choices (career, large purchases, health care, parenting decisions, retirement planning, etc) without being sufficiently informed; the information is surely out there but I don’t have time to find it and adequately process it!
  • These factors produce a constant undercurrent of anxiety and stress; I always feel at risk of having been not smart enough or not aware enough.

I know that the human brain can only hold about seven chunks of information in short-term memory, which makes even something “simple,” like selecting a box of cereal (out of the 200+ choices in the average supermarket), a daunting mental feat. Too much choice isn’t satisfying; it’s stressful!

And constant exposure to unlimited options is way more than our nervous systems were ever built to handle.

It then occurred to me that Matt and Eva are young enough to have never experienced a world in which the choice-level was within a reasonable range. They were born into a highly-stressful  environment that their brains and bodies aren’t equipped to cope with, and they’ve never known anything else!

I’m reflecting now on the ramifications of this kind of stress on young people.

Please share your thoughts!

photo from the waiting room at Ellis Island, NYC