How Many Opportunities Are Enough?

Big cities offer more opportunities than smaller ones. It is such a familiar statement that it feels almost empty. Yet, we tend to repeat the things best known to us. That is how habits form and are reinforced – repetition. Patterns of thought. Everyday motions that are second nature to us are born out of repetition. And so we nod in mechanical agreement – yes, big cities offer more opportunities than smaller ones. Why? Well, because they are big. But why does it matter that they offer more opportunities? It’s obvious – more opportunities, more chances of success, happier life. 

Hold on, what are we saying here? Do we really mean that quantitatively more equals qualitatively better? Is more always better? Not always, of course. No one in their right mind would say that more crime ensures better neighbourhoods. So it seems our idea of “opportunities” has an inherent positive quality. Surely, here the rule applies – the more, the better. More good things, more satisfaction. The trouble is, the more there is of those (good) things, the more we face the pressure of choice. Each choice becomes more expensive because it costs all the other missed opportunities. We picked this one path, but we could have gone there, done that, and ended up somewhere else. And so the wheel of anxiety keeps on turning.

Have you ever stood in desperation and dismay at your own inexplicably paralysing inability to pick one pack of crisps (insert your alternative) out of dozens of brands staring at you from what feels like an endless shelf of possibilities? All you wanted was a quick snack. Now you feel all the weight of the “more opportunities is better” principle bearing down on your busy, weary mind. If that is how it feels with shopping, think of this effect in your other, more significant life choices. 

Ah, but you must know what you want in life to get ahead – the critical voice of a high-achiever quickly remarks. Perhaps it even comes from you, a voice in your head that always has all the correct answers quicker than you can formulate the question. Let’s grant this voice its way for a moment. If it’s right, why do we need all those opportunities? What for, if I already (must) know what I want? And if I need the possibility to choose from several options before I could know what I want… then we are back where we started with all those opportunities that we just need to have more of.

So, yes, big cities do indeed offer more opportunities than smaller ones, but that is statistics. If we want to consider the quality of our lives, however, the more interesting question is, how many opportunities are enough for me? That depends on our individual circumstances and the particular situation we are in. Sometimes just one opportunity will be enough. Sometimes we will hunger for more and more and more… intoxicated by the smell of unlimited freedom emanating from the sheer boundlessness of options available to us. 

As long as we remember that intoxication is not good for us, we can rephrase our question – how much freedom is enough for me? It is not a question for ambitious youth or weary age. They have their own life questions to answer. No, this is a question addressed to maturity. The time in life when we recognise, not without pain, that the limitless opportunities of “the more the better” principle are but a dream of youth not yet aware of the costs and responsibilities attached to each decision and the weight of all that we did not choose. The time in life when we start to care more for meaning than for quantity. An insight that helps us make the most of those select opportunities we have chosen to pursue with a very clear (and somewhat sad) understanding of human finitude.

“The experience is experience of human finitude. The truly experienced person is one who has takent his to heart, who knows that he is master neither of time nor the future… In [experience] all dogmatism, which proceeds from the soaring desires of the human heart, reaches an absolute barrier. Experience teaches us to acknowledge the real… Real experience is that wereby man becomes aware of his finiteness… The idea that everything can be reversed, that there is always time for everything and that everything somehow returns, proves to be an illusion.”

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Truth and Method”

keep exploring!

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