The promise and the curse of opportunity, the two sides, forever tethered together, of having choice. For physicians in the US, and especially for psychiatrists, career opportunities have never been greater. Every opportunity, however, contains within itself a downside, an unavoidable cost that the beneficiary must bear. Today I explore the costs and challenges of being presented with opportunity.

One cost associated with having choices actually is called ‘opportunity cost,’ a well-established business concept that refers to the fact that if a company focuses on one opportunity, it may be unable to pursue a different opportunity. Of course, a company is not limited to a single opportunity at a time. Its management, however, does have limits. Even a corporation with annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars has to limit what products and services it can develop and present to the marketplace. For instance, in recent news we learned that Proctor and Gamble, the company behind brands like Swifter, Cheer, and All, has sold-off some of its smaller brands. Why? So management can focus on their existing larger and more promising brands. Also, General Electric announced the jettisoning of its financial services line. Why sell off an asset worth tens of billions of dollars? It’s done so that management can focus on growing and achieving even greater dominance in its core industrial business lines.

So, if corporations employing tens of thousands of individuals and generating annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars must minimize their areas of focus, then surely we as individuals, with our much more limited resources, must also.

Each of us has only so many hours available in each day with only so many days of life available to pursue our goals. Additionally, we have limits to the mental, physical and emotional energies that we can deploy. So when we spend our time doing one thing, we inevitably end up not doing something else. Of course, one could argue that this always was to case, that throughout human history, spending time on one activity reduced the ability to spend it on another. But opportunity cost only exists if we have a larger range of possible activities from which to choose than the resources to pursue them all. So, if you were a peasant farmer in a place like Poland, as my grandfather was, how many options did you have? The answer for my grandfather and for millions more like him living today and throughout history, the answer is not many.

But for us, the answer is we have many options from which to choose, perhaps too many. Choice places a burden on us. With so many choices, it is harder to shrug your shoulders and say, “I do what I do because this is my station in life.” Choice places the responsibility for how we spend our time squarely on our shoulders.

The solution to this world of choice is to choose wisely. But how does one do that? And what does it even mean to choose wisely?

This is my answer: Choosing wisely means spending one’s time and using up one’s resources on goals that advance our values. Values are the foundation upon which wise choice is built – activities that are congruent with our values are wise choices and those activities not congruent with our values are poor choices.

Here are a few quick examples. If you ask yourself the question, “what’s important to me?” and you answer that family is important, then ensuring your family’s well-being is a value that should drive your choices and activities. So, ask yourself… does it? Does the way you deploy your limited time and other resources reflect your value of family well-being? If not, then you have identified a discrepancy between one of your values and your behavior.

So, as an exercise today, perhaps one to engage in while commuting home, ask yourself, first, “What do I value?” and second, “How well do my activities reflect my values?” Another way of thinking about this that may drive this point home even more forcefully is to imagine what an acquaintance would guess about your values based on what that acquaintance observes of your behavior. The answer may be surprising, uncomfortable and edifying.

There is a second cost associated with choice. When we are confronted with options – as we are whenever a head-hunter calls us with a ‘great career opportunity in a small community nestled in the mountains and only 5 hours from the nearest airport’ – it becomes an opportunity to question our current choice. If you know that you can work pretty much anywhere you want in this country or even this planet, in any kind of practice setting you can imagine, then these always-present opportunities can have a corrosive effect on maintaining your current commitments.

This is an HTML widget

AD OR MARKETING COPY CAN GO HERE. Vivamus bibendum urna a volutpat cursus. Aenean pharetra ullamcorper nisl nec pulvinar. Vivamus laoreet fermentum viverra. Quisque ullamcorper cursus consequat. Aenean sollicitudin finibus cursus.

This second cost of opportunity presents us with a challenge. How do we keep an open-mind and pursue worth-while opportunities while at the same time avoiding a chronic tentativeness about our current choices and commitments?

The answer I came up with for myself is to explicitly remind myself that I always will be confronted with options that I won’t pursue. It gives me peace of mind to just accept this as a fact of my life. And additionally, when I do seriously consider the rare opportunity I compare it to what I value. As I’ve gotten older, now in my fifties, it has become easier to reject money-making opportunities that are nothing more than money-making opportunities. I now ask myself, “What do I want to accomplish, contribute, and be remembered for in the remaining 10 or 15 years – God willing – of working life I have before me?”

Please let me know how you manage the always-present choices you confront daily. Thanks.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

I collect –haphazardly – quotes I find worth remembering. Looking through them I found these to be apropos of my article on opportunity, choice and value. They are listed in no particular order and make not a unified point.

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”– Anais Nin

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”– Epictetus

“Paradise is everywhere and every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it.”– Henry Miller

“…for me, possessing things is not that interesting. Living in a grand environment to show myself and others that I have wealth has zero appeal. Whatever I own is temporary, since we’re only here for a short period of time. It’s what we do and produce; it’s our actions that will last forever. That’s real value.”– Nicolas Berggruen