Three months ago I graduated from business school. Reaching out to receive my diploma from the Dean, my hand was shaking from an overwhelming sense of achievement and gratitude.
From the outset I had the world at my feet. A well-educated woman from the country of Sweden, often mentioned in the international media as one the most equal societies in the world, I could choose exactly how I wanted to spend my life.
Yet, instead of feeling confident, I had nervous butterflies flapping around in my belly. “How on earth am I now going to make the most of this?” and “How am I now going to make sure I become successful?” were the most recurring thoughts spinning in my head.
As long as I felt successful, I would surely regain the feeling of happiness and confidence.
Inside though, I started to contemplate if this way of thinking was really the highway to happiness. If freedom is virtue, why do I feel so insecure?
Sometimes freedom really is a virtue, but sometimes it can be a curse in disguise. Instead of feeling free, I felt paralysed by the fear of making the wrong choices in the eyes of prevalent social expectations.
We live in times when we have more freedom than ever before to create the lives we want for ourselves. Our secularised society has allowed us to look beyond traditional and religious norms in our eternal pursuit of meaning and happiness. We can pretty much do whatever we want, whenever we want. With instant access to unparalleled volumes and sources of information, we can educate ourselves about pretty much anything and become everything we desire.
A few years ago, I joined those early adopters who eagerly signed up for every “latest thing” in social media and press. Expecting to feel smart and educated, I instead found myself struggling to keep up with the latest TED-talks or trending blog articles. The sense of curiosity was soon accompanied by less positive feelings: lack of achievement and confusion. All the loudness, even though inspirational, had deafened my own voice.
Who actually has time to feel happy today? There is so much to do and we judge each other based on how much we accomplish.
Do really all those available choices and life pursuits we are exposed to really mean freedom?
All I hear is noise.
In the midst of the MBA circus, where the inflow of information had exponentially amplified, I had simply forgotten to make time to feel happy because I was so busy wading through the information and to-do-lists.
In order to make sense of my situation, I tried to think about alternative life journeys to contrast.
Where had I seen people embrace happiness?
A little girl living in a township outside Nairobi sprang to mind. With very limited resources at her disposal and an upbringing in a conservative environment, her life will surely follow an already set trajectory. Still, when I met her, she carried the brightest of smiles on her face and was full of energy.
As I walked through her village I picked up on a certain rhythm that went beyond the hardships of poverty. There was no noise. Just simplicity.
Opportunities as we define them, might not exist in this township. Finding happiness here is not about having freedom of choice and always aiming for more, it is rather about feeling grateful for what you do have. There are no alternatives.
What I realised at business school was that in order to capitalise on freedom of choice, we need a filter. Without it, we easily become bottlenecks in our own self-created system.
Making choices to cut the noise can be incredibly difficult. We view vast opportunities as signs of wealth, ambition and success. Where to live, what to do for a living, what language to learn, who to marry. The privilege to choose is ours, but it comes with great responsibility. We better make the right choices; if we fail, we can only blame ourselves.
I recall one moment after my trip to the township in Nairobi, when I walked into a grocery store in Singapore to buy juice. At least 50 different types of orange, carrot, with pulp or without, plastic bottle or paper box, organic, cheap, were all glaring at me from the fridge counter. Amazing.
The problem was that I couldn’t decide. I walked out without having purchased anything. I didn’t know what I wanted and even worse, the opportunity cost of choosing the wrong juice felt too high for me to make a decision. Ridiculous. I was buying juice.
The same principle goes for other, more significant life decisions. Like selecting our future partner. We can now evaluate hundreds of eligible men and women online and in various social settings. We struggle to settle for one because who knows what we might miss out on further down the line? Who is “good enough” and what does that actually mean?
It means having a clear idea of one’s personal preferences, and also the ability to price the opportunity cost of not choosing that option. It means knowing oneself very well.
At business school, I had the freedom to choose. In theory. In reality, I didn’t realise how torn I had become from all the information and options available until I left. One day I wanted to become a consultant and live in New York. The next day I wanted to start my own business and move to Sweden. I experienced the noise first-hand and I didn’t hear how loud it was until afterwards, like when the music in a concert stops.
I had to step out of the bubble in order to find the quietness to really hear what my soul was thinking. To combat feeling hopeless from not knowing how to choose, I had to move myself to a geographically quiet place with no other voices present but my own.
Once there, I forced myself to scrutinise each option and focus on one. Initially it gave me a sense of disappointment and fear. The accelerated and infiltrated pressure from society that better and more equals happiness, I felt like a loser missing out.
I decided to not listen to society and thought about the little girl in Nairobi. She inspired me to seek simplicity.
So I decided to be ruthless and make some hard choices. I decided to choose one country to live in and one job to pursue. This meant giving up on the dream of moving to New York or the dream of becoming rich in monetary terms. I decided to define success in my own way.
Once I had made the choices I also forced myself to stop thinking about the options I had disregarded. I reduced the opportunity cost to zero.
Interestingly enough, with less options left on the table, I felt freer than I had done in a long time.
Today I have focus. I rely on much less material things; I have noticed how they just tie you down. I set equally challenging, but fewer goals for myself and take more joy in achieving them. I focus on spending more time in quieter locations.
Now I can also more actively seek the right information when I know what is actually relevant. I have reduced the level of noise.
Do I feel like I am achieving less living this way? Am I scared that others will judge me for not running around to “have it all”?
Rather the opposite. Making less space for noise has given me fewer reasons to feel dissatisfied with what I am not accomplishing and more time to feel like I live with purpose. I finally have time to invest in the choices I have made and celebrate life with joy.
To me, this is freedom.