A Time to Decide
When the choices you make today can set the path for the rest of your life
Posted Apr 17, 2017
Micah sat down on the couch in my office and looked around skeptically, as if he couldn’t remember what he was doing there. “I have nothing to complain about,” was the first thing he said to me. “I’ve got a good job, a good education, and really supportive parents. Why should I be unhappy?” But it wasn’t a rhetorical question. Instead of glancing toward the door or shrugging off the whole idea of therapy, he looked directly into my eyes, as if challenging me to figure out what he needed to talk about.
It took some time to coax out Micah’s* story. He was thirty-one years old, the child of a well-off Midwestern family, and widely regarded as gifted from an early age. After graduating from an elite college, he’d moved to New York with a plan to find work as a software engineer — the first step, he imagined, in a lucrative career. However, at Micah’s first job he felt insignificant and marginalized, so after a short time he quit and found another. This time he rose to become a project manager after only a few months. But the job was chronically stressful, with dozens of tiny decisions to make each day, and although it seemed to line up with his goals, it didn’t inspire him. When he was offered another promotion, he wasn’t sure if he should accept. Micah had begun to suspect that he didn’t much like the real day-to-day work of his planned career.
In the social sphere, Micah’s story struck a similar note. He’d had a longtime girlfriend, but after he move to NYC his relationship became a long-distance one, and the grind of twice-a-month weekend travel left Micah disenchanted. He’d been looking for a new partner with dating apps like OKCupid and Hinge, and admitted he’d been having a lot of sex, but he talked about these assignations with no real enthusiasm. Micah couldn’t understand why he, out of all the people he knew, hadn’t fallen in love yet. He could see on Instagram that most of his college friends were getting married, and whenever he got another wedding invitation, he felt even lonelier and more shallow.
Micah had moved to New York with great expectations, imagining that each step would bring him inevitably closer to his professional and personal goals. Instead, he found himself mired in doubt: he had plenty of options, but none really felt like the right choice. When he compared the reality of his life to the goals he’d set, he saw a yawning, widening chasm—which looked even wider when Micah compared himself to his contemporaries, all of whom seemed to be settling down with careers and romantic partners. Instagram, to Micah, functioned like a personal advertising platform, making his friends’ lives into objects of envy.
After a few sessions, I decided to risk an interpretation. “It’s hard work to cope with all these possibilities,” I said simply. I talked to Micah about his path from certainty to uncertainty, from an idealized, possibility-rich childhood to his current, complicated reality. Micah was facing a time of life when making a commitment to one option — a job, a skill, a partner — also meant not choosing all the others. I imagined a hallway full of doors, each of them ajar. The problem for Micah was that although he wanted to explore what was behind each one, he could only choose a few — and when he did, the others would slowly close. While we talked about this, Micah slowly sank into his chair. He acknowledged that it was difficult to make choices when each one came with so much opportunity cost. With too many appealing options to choose from, he no longer knew how to choose the ones he wanted.
As a psychologist, I’ve worked with many young professionals with problems like Micah’s. They’ve arrived at the time of life when their decisions can’t be easily reversed—unlike a college major, a bad roommate, or a casual relationship. At this age, their choices can lead to long-term consequences. They feel fortunate to have so many advantages, but with technological innovations continually placing new options at their fingertips, this lack of constraints can leave them feeling paralyzed. In therapy, patients like Micah often need to go back to first principles — to talk through why they want what they want, in the first place. Once they get more comfortable with their real goals — even if these goals aren’t what they thought they wanted — they’re better able to move toward achieving them.
Micah surprised me in session one day when he told me he was pretty sure he’d marry his current girlfriend. “I guess I’m in love with her,” he said, shrugging off the sentiment with a smile. He’d struggled for weeks to know whether he was comfortable with all of her quirks, but now, he said, he knew enough about what he wanted to be able to say that she was it. Micha still didn’t much like his job, but he’d been thinking about making a lateral move to a similar company that did a lot more work for charity. That way, Micah reasoned, even if he didn’t end up doing prestigious or exciting work, he could feel good about how he earned his pay. “And that’s something I’ve always wanted, too,” Micah said. “More or less,” he added, with a laugh.
* Micah is a composite patient. All identifying details have been changed for the sake of confidentiality.