The Keeping-One’s-Options-Open mentality

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 30, 1999

There is a very nasty syndrome which parents sometimes inadvertently pass on to their children while trying to help their children have better lives. I call it the Keeping-One’s-Options-Open mentality. Here is one example of what it looks like:

You study hard to ensure that you pass your school exams. In Britain that would be GCSE exams at the age of 16, which you do to keep your options open so that you can do A-level exams at 18 if you want to. Then you do A-levels to keep your options open in case you want to go to university.

Then you go to university to get a good degree (not necessarily one that you will enjoy) so you can get a good job. Then you take the wrong job (a ‘good’ job) and kowtow to your boss so that you can get promotion and thereby security, to keep your options open after retirement.

This is a very common syndrome in which people sacrifice themselves for the next phase of life, which itself consists of nothing but sacrificing themselves for the following phase.

A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Henry, has this syndrome badly. He is so desperate to keep his options open and set himself up financially that life is passing him by. He is living for retirement, and totally forgetting to live now. And as retirement looms, he is increasingly fearing it. In this lifetime of unhappy sacrifice, he has systematically sacrificed his real interests, and has destroyed his capacity to acquire any. When I think of Aristotle’s dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living”, I think of my friend Henry. What has his life been for? It was supposed to have been for him.

And the most frightening thing of all is that in his desperate wish to help his daughter have a good life, he has successfully instilled in her the very same syndrome. She now studies hard whether she enjoys it or not in order not to end up in a dead-end job. Henry’s job, apparently, is not a dead-end job, but it does take all his time from when he gets up to when he goes to sleep, almost every day, and this has been the case for the many years I have known him – and there is no reason to expect that to change.

As Herbert Spencer said in 1867, “A living thing is distinguished from a dead thing by the multiplicity of the changes at any moment taking place in it.” By that criterion, Henry is dead, or nearly.

Keeping one’s options open closes off options.

It is not that doing exams or going to university closes off options in itself. Indeed, doing exams or going to university is just the right thing for some people at some point in their lives. But if you proceed mechanically through predetermined, standardised processes like exams in order to keep your options open, you are not doing what you otherwise would have done – namely, building up the capacity for making your own real choices – so you fail to build up a rich structure of things you enjoy, things you want.

Indeed, any time you do something to keep your options open instead of because you want to do whatever it is, you are falling into the Keeping-One’s-Options-Open mistake.

For any human being who is not actually facing death by starvation or the firing squad, the hardest thing in life is not getting what you want – far from it – it is finding out (or rather, creating) what you want. That is what we deprive children of when we channel them into ‘keeping their options open’. It looks as though they are keeping their options open, but at each stage they are actually presented with only one option – the option where you do the standardized thing: something you can do without being human, by sacrificing the human part of yourself, the individual part.

If you do something you don’t really want to do, how will you ever know if it was a mistake to do that? At least if you do something you do want to do, you will be able to tell later if that choice was a mistake.

A chap I knew many years ago, whom I’ll call Patrick, was reading Medicine at Cambridge, and hated it. He had not chosen that course because he wanted to do medicine. He had chosen it reluctantly, on the advice of his mentor, Lord somebody-or-other, to keep his options open, in case he wanted to become a Member of Parliament.

Because Patrick was not expecting to enjoy Medicine, when, lo and behold, he did not enjoy it, that didn’t give him any information about whether doing Medicine was a mistake or not. So he spent those years miserably getting his degree in Medicine instead of doing something he might have enjoyed. And after all that sacrifice, not only has he not become an MP, he hasn’t even become a doctor. What a complete waste of time!

Contrast that with George Orwell (the author of 1984). Orwell had certain values and aspirations which made him want to go to fight for the government side in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. But he discovered that the situation there wasn’t what he expected, not because of the ghastly conditions, but because the communists were slaughtering the anarchists who were on the same side, instead of the fascists they were all supposed to be fighting. He began to think deeply about why and how.

Because George Orwell (unlike Patrick) was there because he really wanted to be, he learnt an enormous amount as a human being. Making that particular mistake turned out to be what his life was for! It gave him new understanding and in particular, a deep understanding of the roots of totalitarianism. He became a great writer.

Fighting in a war isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was his life and his choice to make, and his to learn from. We need to remember that, don’t we? Our children must make their own choices in life.

Instead of channelling your children into your vision of what they should be or do, help them to pursue their own ends in life. Don’t destroy their creativity by channelling them into the Keeping-One’s-Options-Open Mentality. Ask yourself whether you might be doing or saying anything that might be channelling your children into this unfortunate syndrome and try to stop doing so. Do you ever suggest that your children study for a particular examination or set of examinations in order to keep their options open later? Do you ever suggest that your children ‘learn’ such-and-such in order to keep their options open in case they need it later? Do you advise your children to keep practising an instrument to keep their options open in case they want to pursue it professionally later?

Talk to your children about this syndrome explicitly, so that they may be, to some extent, protected from any inadvertent coercion you may be subjecting them to. Next time you feel the urge to ‘encourage’ them to take the Keeping-One’s-Options-Open route, remember my friend Henry and poor old Patrick.

And remember that this applies to you and your life too. Instead of going through life making yourself miserable by taking the ‘keeping one’s options open’ route, take the route that you prefer – the one you really want. If you want to enjoy life in retirement, make choices you expect to enjoy now, or you’ll be miserable both now and in retirement.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘The Keeping-One’s-Options-Open mentality’, Taking Children Seriously 30, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 4-5,