Discover more from Integrity Talk
The Paradox of Choice
The evolution of personal goals and their relevance today.
Like many people, I work for a company that operates within a capitalist model wherein hyper-competitiveness is a pervasive threat. In order to stand out in this wilderness, most companies have aligned themselves with financial incentives rather than being aimlessly driven. This trend has led to the emergence of goal-setting methodologies, such as OKRs or KPIs, which provide metrics for measuring performance and have quickly emerged as an imperative for success, resulting in their widespread adoption. Unlike corporate standards, there is no clear answer to what defines success for humans, although, on an individual level, the necessity to achieve goals has always existed and is now prevalent in a variety of ways, such as obtaining an academic degree, getting married, or possessing material goods. Since many of these personal goals are in most cases determined by implicit social requirements rather than an individual agency, they raise questions about their legitimacy in structuring people's lives.
Long before the invention of capitalism – and until aiming for a thousand likes on a butt shot on Instagram became a meaningful marker of interest – personal goals were more tangible, as people had to learn various skills like hunting, maintaining stable relationships, or building shelters to overcome the dangers of nature. Not only were these abilities practical for survival, but they also served as a means of justifying social status, since individuals who failed to contribute to the group would generally result in being ostracized and thus doomed to perish. However, the relationship between goals and survival outcomes became less obvious with the advent of the agricultural revolution, which enabled the accumulation of wealth and fostered the development of specialized skills that later contributed to the creation of market economies and, ultimately, to the flourishing of human civilizations.
Today, technological advancements have eradicated most forms of imminent threat and, as a side effect, rendered many of our ancient competencies useless. This paradigm shift has transformed earlier fears of food or water scarcity into concerns about wealth, while the fear of losing social status is now grounded in anticipating social expectations rather than physical survivability. In modern societies, the extension of the human lifespan combined with the availability of resources has expanded the number of vectors for personal development and made it possible to flourish in an incredible number of ways. Whether you decide to become a pet food tester or pursue a more mainstream profession, in most scenarios you wouldn't be able to incorporate an extended knowledge of every field within your own specialization.
On the other hand, the underlying motives for pursuing goals haven't changed fundamentally over the past 10,000 years. Arguably, individuals' actions have become much more widespread, but they systematically serve a limited set of human needs that haven't increased dramatically over time. Despite a multitude of scientific achievements that have allowed us to live longer, healthier, and with significantly higher intellectual abilities, human capabilities haven't caught up with the ever-increasing possibilities of life choices that we can benefit from. This asymmetry can sometimes create the illusion of having unlimited power to satisfy our desires, regardless of our natural limitations, meshed with primary needs such as eating, sleeping, or the time it takes to build strong relationships, which have basically remained as they were before.
Consequently, the exponential growth of available personal goals that redundantly address similar human needs has become a confounding factor in making meaningful decisions. As human beings, we are not good at dealing with large numbers of choices, and in such situations, we tend to react with avoidance or by aligning our decisions with those of others. At the same time, we are subject to a high degree of conformity that pressures us to adapt to constantly evolving social norms. Not surprisingly, this overabundance of choices has made people more likely to focus their energy on social desirability rather than on things that reflect their value system. Moreover, this phenomenon seems to partially justify why more and more people tend to believe that we are facing a crisis of meaning in Western societies.
For many people, the last pandemic was groundbreaking in allowing time for self-reflection, which eventually led to a reconsideration of genuine personal goals over societal ones. In my experience, I ended up working completely remotely, even though it was something I previously considered unfathomable. Still, I do sometimes ask myself what I want in life, and in doing so, I came up with a thought experiment: Suppose you wake up the next day as the only individual alive on this planet, most of the animals are still alive – including the dangerous ones – but you're not too worried because, as part of your legacy as an NRA partisan, you're equipped with enough ammunition to exterminate every single cat within a 50-mile radius. You can also assume that your comfort level will probably be the same since you've been granted unlimited access to any food reserve at Walmart. Most of the energy is provided by self-managed nuclear power plants that will probably last for centuries, while Starlink has ended up as a viable project – remember, it's fiction – providing you with global coverage of Internet access for the rest of your life. In fact, you will be able to do almost anything you could do in your previous life, so what would you be willing to devote yourself to?