Options, Skills and Possibilities

Pick one.

An option is a thing you could choose to do. It could be a job offer, a trip abroad, a life partner.

A skill is something you choose to develop.

A possibility is something that could or could not happen, as a result of your choices. They’re things like becoming the next Frank Lloyd Wright, or becoming the Prime Minister or President: it could happen. Or owning a 5000-acre ranch, when you’re still living hand-to-mouth. Sure, it’s possible. But it’s not an option yet (and it’s very likely you don’t have the skills yet to make good use of any of those possibilities yet, anyway).

Possibilities are theoretical, and nebulous, and often innumerable. You can imagine them, but you can’t choose between two very easily, or even really count or clearly define them at all. On the other hand, skills and options are much more concrete; one can choose between two (or three, or four) options, and choose to develop (or not) a particular skill.

To a large degree, our choices of the first two – skills and options – and the choices of the generations before us, often dictate what possibilities are available to us. There’s an element of chance, too, but our choices of options and skills to a much larger extent determine our possibilities.

Here’s how it works:

Pick an option, and it may well lead to more skill. You will eliminate some possibilities, but open up others. By picking an option, you choose to do something — it may or may not build skill in some area, may or may not expose you to new people, places, ideas, and experiences — and those aspects are what help to determine the field of possibilities that opens up (or diminishes) because of the option you chose.

Pick a skill – find some aspect of what you are able to do, and develop it – and it will open up both options and possibilities. You will become more capable, and thus have more options, which you are eligible to choose from because you have done the additional work of building that skill. You will have more possibilities, because greater capability enables a wider range of things to come into your realm of what could happen, and what you might be able to do if you continue to develop one way or another.

Building a skill rarely diminishes possibilities. Choosing an option often does. But both are important: we need to build skills – competence and confidence in the collection of things that we are able to do, so as to increase the quality of the options — courses of action — we are able to choose from. And choosing an option, while it diminishes the range of possibilities open to us, enables us to progress along a path of increasing skill, capability, and quality of contribution.

I’m thinking about this because I look at my young daughter trying to fall asleep in the swinging bassinet, and am thinking about the different options I chose along the way to getting here; how I didn’t choose to build a particular skill or set of skills, and instead continually chose options that opened up more possibilities, rather than limited them. That was my modus operandi for a very long time: when in doubt, choose what gives you more possibilities rather than fewer. The problem with that is that possibilities are theoretical — they’re all in your (my) imagination, and may or may not ever become actual options that I can choose from. So I still have an enormous range of possibilities, and each option I chose opened up a whole new blossoming realm of them, but I have fewer options, because I have just a fingernail’s scratch into each skill: things I tried in my late teens or 20s or 30s, but didn’t continually build upon. So I had options when the skill was fresh, that are no longer available unless I refresh my competency in that skill. And at 38 — and with a marriage, an infant, and a stated commitment to eldercare — I need to be particularly discerning about which skills I choose to develop, because the possibilities are visibly decreasing and along with them, the options.

So I look at my life, and I see a couple of broad branches extending out from the base of it: one, in technology, data, analysis, and scientific abstractism. I was pretty good at those, and developed some skill, and haven’t used them in a long time. Yet I continue to be able to garner some recognition and respect based on my past development of those skills, so I still have (some) options to choose from if I want to continue to build on those skill sets, but it’s not in the realm of possibility that I’ll be the next Big Data wunderkind.

The other is in life skills: homesteading, livestock handling, rural living – what I call ‘resilience’ skills. They’re skills I grew up with, developing as second nature, and gave me options that I exercised, like working on a ranch and a couple of farms, being really good at field work and long-term camping, cooking, and so on. But some of those skills I haven’t been able to develop, like my livestock husbandry skills, because for over a decade I was focused on building technological and data skills. So my options there are diminishing: I’m not eligible to be hired as a grazing manager, for instance, because I don’t have those skills. It’s in the realm of possibility, but I’d need to build on that skill a lot before it was a real option that I could choose.

I’ve been thinking there was a dichotomy there, that I had to choose between the two sets of skills. I think the reality is more nuanced, but also, harder: I need to take a clear look at each main branch and decide which subbranches I’m going to prune, and which I’ll allow to develop further and bear fruit. Because I can’t exercise all the options, and I’ll never reach all the possibilities; and trying to keep all the possibilities, has actually meant that any individual option is increasingly less available.

This is what we mean when we say “choose a direction” in life. Choose a skill to develop early on. Choose the options carefully. Don’t look too much to the possibilities, except to choose a few that are of great value and related to what you’re developing already.

Keep it simple, silly.


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