The Choices Not Taken

It is all too easy to think our lives are determined by the choices we make, and of course to a large extent that is true. But it is equally true that our lives are determined by what we actively decide not to do. We know that if we make a positive choice to pursue option A and it turns out badly then we probably made a bad decision. But this may be wrong if the alternative option B – the choice not made – would actually have been even worse. We will never know. Likewise, if everything turns out smelling of roses and one is happy it is unlikely (and unwise) we will consider that things could have been even more brilliant if we’d actually done something else.

But it does no harm to remember, from time to time, that a choice made also implies another choice not made. I was reminded of this way of looking at things when reading a book, slightly removed from my normal diet of reading (it’s another of those random choices, ah choices, made when offered books in lieu of a fee from a publisher). The title ‘How to do things with books in Victorian Britain‘ intrigued me and its blurb tells me the author, Leah Price, ‘asks how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading‘. The text – note that distinction between text and book which turns up throughout Price’s writing – is full of all the other things you can do. One of which is clearly ‘not reading’, particularly common when books and tracts were given to others to improve them. The servants and children in this situation might have had no option but to accept. But like taking a horse to water they could then decide never to open the covers to see what lay inside.

Anyhow I digress, by way of explanation. Price quotes from an unnamed 1893 journalist ‘The difficulty of finding something to read when half the world is engaged in writing books for the other half to read is not of quantity, so that the question “What shall I read?” inevitably suggest the parallel query “What shall I not read?”‘. So, making choices, be it about PhD topic or supervisor, your next move or whether to start a blog should also be framed in terms of what you won’t be doing if you do head off in a particular direction.

Take choosing your PhD topic (or a job of some kind). Maybe you have only one offer on the table. That’s easy, but even so you will know that there were myriad alternatives in principle available to you. If you have more than one offer, what guides you? Is it the financial package? The location? The people you’ll be working with? Or the science? All may play a part, and only you can decide how much each factor plays a critical part. You may not even have all the answers at the time you have to make the decision. Charles Darwin produced a list of pros and cons when it came to getting married, which seems distinctly cold-blooded in the matter of romance, but lists may have a place in any sort of decision-making, even if only to convince you you’re being rational although in your guts you already know what you’re going to do and the list is merely cosmetic and stacked to give you the answer you secretly want.

Other topics perhaps exemplify better what I mean by the choices not taken. There are only a finite number of hours in the day/week/month but you may be asked to do more than you believe you can reasonably fit in in terms of committee work, service to the department or the wider community. If you agree to participate in a grant-giving committee – looks good on the CV but is likely to be very time-consuming because of the necessary preparation before each meeting – how do you weigh that up against being an Athena Swan lead if you passionately believe your department needs to get its act together on the equality front? Utterly different kinds of job, with very different rewards, but doing both might leave you precious little time for research and/or teaching. This is where it’s important to focus not just on what is on offer, but what would be lost if you accepted the offer, however attractive it may look. Things that go on in the background are often the things it’s only too easy to lose sight of and so neglect to factor in when considering the attractiveness of a proposition. (This apparent wisdom has only been acquired by years of not getting this right, not factoring in the things it’s all too easy to take for granted because you assume they’ll just go on ticking away.) So, these choices relate to decisions regarding finite resources, be it of time, energy (or perhaps money).

Considering life in the round is always important. A good rule of thumb my family are keen I keep in mind is that if I intend to accept something I need to work out what it is I am going to give up in its place. It’s also important always to make sure you have all the facts. This past week I was approached about two separate university tasks, both of which were important and neither of which were well time-delineated in the emails asking if I’d take them on. My response to the first was obviously sufficiently cautious, along the lines of ‘to be blunt, how much time is involved if I agree’ that before I’d even had an actual conversation to get an answer to my question they’d decided to find someone whose diary was less frenetic. A good choice (for me, in this case) and one that let me off the hook of having to say ‘sorry but no‘ on this occasion.

So as you lie awake tossing around the good and bad points of some offer, some task, consider what you should be giving up if you accepted. Starting that blog? Brilliant, but not if it comes at the expense of actually writing up your thesis. Chairing a committee? Fine, as long as you’re not already buried in committee paperwork and your lecture notes are in danger of getting lost under the mound of generated paperwork too and not updated in time for the course about to begin. It’s all too easy to see the attractions of the new and lose sight of reality. I say this from hard, and not-yet-fully-learned experience!


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